The Big Guns

Trip Start Dec 01, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Flag of Australia  , Australian Capital Territory,
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Yesterday was a day for the Hermitage.

There are over three million artworks, so to spend a few seconds on each would take nine years, so you have to do it in a couple of goes, and plan ahead. Yesterday I went chiefly for the Treasure Rooms. Yes, oddly enough, in an enormous Palace that has 3,000,000 artworks, a chunk of which was looted during WWII, from both foreign and domestic owners, they still feel the need to formally delineate two collections as treasure.

There are two treasure rooms, one for gold, and one for diamonds. I tried to see both yesterday, but when I lined up for my tour of the diamond room (only guided tours allowed, no photography of any kind) we were actually taken to the gold room. Then a couple of hours later despite a map with the route hand drawn from the pleasant babushka handing out the audio guides, and then directions from a very lovely young guide who was just wandering around, I still got lost on the way to the Diamond Room.

The Gold Room is simply stunning. Gold artefacts from the 4th Millenium BC (older than the Pyramids and so intricate as to defy belief) through to artefacts from the medieval Church and culminating in the work of the Imperial jewelcrafters and diplomatic gifts. Gold Room is also a slight misnomer as about a quarter of the collection is actually precious gems, including a horse blanket that was a gift from a Turkish Sultan to Peter the Great's daughter that contained over 16,000 diamonds, all of which had 57 facets.

Paintings, generally, don't much inspire me, I'm more for sculpture and architecture, and in that regard, it's the Hermitage itself that is one of the most impressive artworks on display. The amount of wealth that enabled such a place, and such a collection, is staggering. It really brings home the difference between Peter the Great and both previous and subsequent Tsars. Peter poured all his wealth into the city itself, into buildings and roads, the canals, his shipyards and his armies (to conquer the money to continue building his city). The empire, having more or less been won, subsequent Tsars (or Tsarina's when it comes to Catherine the Great, who is responsible for the Hermitage) just tried to show off to the great and good of Europe.

The Hermitage is so big you need a map, or you will get lost. The room wardens (generally elderly babushkas who sit on a stool looking bored all day, but who nevertheless make sure no-one touches, or runs away with, any of the art with a hand of iron) are of no help unless you speak Russian: asking for directions in Russian is easy,understaning the answer, which is potentially full of the complex verbs of motion (different verbs to describe motion in one direction only, a round trip, or meandering, as well as different verbs for the form of tranport). But it's size prompted the thought that you would need a small army to maintain it, and that the Tsar could only be occupying a couple of rooms at a time, making me wonder at the neighbourhoods, and social geography of the Hermitage when it was bustling. What were the politics and the intrigues being hatched in rooms where certain courtiers held sway, and that were remote from the quarters of, or the rooms being occupied by, the imperial family? Did the servants who worked the 2nd floor east wing rear talk to the servants who worked the 2nd floor west wing front? And did they band together to stage coups over the 3rd floor servants? Who won, and did that ever mean the Tsar(ina) had to wait for a cup of tea?

I must have walked about 5 or 6 kms around the Hermitage alone yesterday. I am now so foot sore I have bruises on my bruises.

Rounded the day off with a visit to Spas na Krovii, although I didn't. The Rough Guide said it was open till 8pm, but nothing about the ticket office being closd at 6pm. However, two important discoveries were made: two beers on a more or less empty stomach is enough to make you feel a bit tipsy, espcially when those beers are 500ml each. And it's really hard to take photos with a wide angle lense after two beers. Two additional suspicions were confirmed: St Petersburg is beautiful by night, and now it's getting colder (the beer, it does nothing), the Russians are right, ice cream actually helps with the cold (though obviously not ice cream and beer).

Found the first decent cup of coffee in St Petersburg last night at a Wine Bar / Art Gallery. Note, decent still means slightly worse than In House Cafe. The art gallery was funny, though unintentionally so. I dislike the self-importance of modern art, and this gallery was just a little too stereotypical. As you walk through the front door you're greeted with a huge video display of some guy, three-quarter shot facing the camera, tearing t-shirts of his body and screaming as he does so. The t-shirts were either blank or said things like 'freedom', and 'life', and 'relationships'.

On that happy note, enoy the pics of the Hermitage.
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