The Hermitage Museum: From London to St. Petersburg to Amsterdam

Dec 7, 2014 by

hermitage[Note: The Hermitage Museum, which will soon celebrate its 250th anniversary, has recently found itself in the center of a controversy surrounding the so-called Elgin Marbles, the much-disputed British Museum collection of Parthenon sculptures brought to England in the early 19th century by Lord Elgin, then a British ambassador in Greece. It is the first time that the Elgin Marbles leave Britain and go on display in a foreign country, which naturally threw oil into the flames of an old controversy. The Greek government has long refused to acknowledge Britain’s ownership of the sculptures, asserting that they were unlawfully removed. The dispute was revived in 2009, when a new Acropolis museum opened in Athens. The loan of one of the Elgin Marbles, a headless statue of the Greek river god Ilissos, to State Hermitage Museum also comes in the wake of the state-of-the-nation address by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which he spoke about the West’s attempts to undermine and isolate his country. Besides the unique exhibit including one of the Elgin sculptures, the festivities celebrating the 250th anniversary of Hermitage will include a dazzling 3-D light show (see image on the left).

The post below was originally published in November 2012.]

The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. Founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, it has been open to the public since 1852. Its collections comprise nearly three million items, including imperial porcelain, superb Rembrandts, ancient cameos, Madonnas by Da Vinci, marble sculptures by Canova, colorful paintings by Matisse, and a large numismatic collection. Although the exhibits occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along Palace Embankment—including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian emperors—only a small fraction of its outstanding collection can be displayed at any given time. To make these art works available to as wide a public as possible, the Hermitage has opened several branches abroad, the oldest and largest of which is Hermitage Amsterdam. First opened in a temporary location in 2004, the museum reopened in June 2009 in a renovated building formerly occupied by a retirement home.

Currently, two temporary exhibitions are on display at Hermitage Amsterdam: one dedicated to impressionist art (until January 2013) and the other to Vincent Van Gogh (until April 2013). Earlier exhibits focused on a wide range of topics, including the last royal family of Russia, the Romanovs; 18th century Venetian paintings; Alexander the Great; Rubens; Siberia; Persian art and culture; Art Nouveau; Russian Orthodox art; German Romantic landscape paintings; and pioneers of modern art from Matisse to Malevich. Upcoming exhibits will likewise cover a variety of subjects: Oriental art (September 2013 to March to 2014), Russia before Peter the Great (March to September 2014), and Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon (March to September 2015).

But perhaps the most fitting exhibit (from March to September 2013) will be dedicated to the Russian Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725), who brought Russia into the modern age. It was Peter the Great who initiated state-led art collecting in Russia; on a secret diplomatic mission to Western Europe in 1697, he gave instructions to buy paintings and commissioned artists to come and work in Russia. During his incognito visit in the Netherlands, Peter learned much about life in Western Europe. There he designed a plan for modernizing Russia, reorganizing its army, and developing its maritime power. He studied shipbuilding in Zaandam and Amsterdam and applied his newly acquired skills at the Dutch East India Company shipyard for four months. But most importantly he made connections that would become instrumental in the years to come: Nicolaas Witsen, mayor of Amsterdam, cartographer, maritime writer, and an authority on shipbuilding; Cornelis Cruys, who was to become the Vice Admiral of the Imperial Russian Navy and the first commander of the Russian Baltic Fleet; Frederik Ruysch, a Dutch botanist and anatomist, known for his work in anatomical preservation and the creation of dioramas; Ludolf Bakhuysen, a painter of seascapes; and Jan van der Heyden, the inventor of the fire hose.


Amsterdam and St. Petersburg are intimately connected in yet another way: it was Amsterdam’s canal ring that inspired Peter the Great to design one of the oldest districts of St. Petersburg—Vasilyevsky Island—according to a rectangular grid, unusual for Russian cities. The plan was developed in 1716-1720 by a Swiss-Italian-born architect Domenico Trezzini: three lengthwise thoroughfares called prospects—Bolshoi (Big), Sredniy (Middle), and Maly (Small)—run roughly from east to west, and 30 crosswise “lines” form 15 peculiarly numbered streets going perpendicularly from south to north. These “lines” are not streets themselves, but sides of streets. The two sides of the same street bear different names (or, in most cases, ordinal numbers): for example, the easternmost “lined” street is has two sides called Kadetskaya liniya (Cadets’ line) on the east and Pervaya liniya (First line) on the west. This peculiar designation of street sides derives from the fact that originally these “lined” streets had canals in the middle, separating the two sides.

Also worthy of note are the two Rostral Columns at the tip (spit) of the Vasilyevsky Island, decorated with pairs of bronze ship prows (rostra) and seated marble figures at the base representing the four major rivers of Russia: Volga and Dnieper at the base of the southern column, Volkhov and the nearby Neva River at the base of the northern column.




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