July 17, 2014
The Winter Palace was on the agenda today. Within this massive palace lies the Hermitage built primarily by Catherine the Great. We would spend the bulk of the day exhausting ourselves seeing a small portion of this extravagance.
Peter the Great founded his “Window on the West” in the early 18th Century. Through his will and the lives of tens of thousands of peasant workman, his Venice of the North was created. We will be here three full days. Today we drove through on our way to Hermitage Museum. We will do it in more “depth” later this week.
The Hermitage is an appendage to the original Winter Palace constructed from 1754-62 by Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter. Peter himself chose to live rather humbly in a two story structure no larger than a suburban McMansion. His daughter had some catching up to do in the Era of Louis XIV and built this Russian Baroque structure with the help of Italian architects. Catherine added the Hermitage sections to house her growing art collection and have a private place for her intimate parties. Guests who shared on Facebook were never invited back.
Images of the October Revolution were in mind as we climbed the staircase made so famous by Eisenstein. The Winter Palace was era rely used by the Imperial family after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. The moderate Provisional government used the palace as it’s headquarters until stormed by the Bolsheviks in October 1917. In reality I was more impressed with the architecture and its decorative elements than by the massive art collection. I think this was primarily due to the suffocating crowds of tourists. There were many repeats of the Louvre Mona Lisa experience. Hordes of folks squeezed in to see the Da Vinci and the Rembrandt collection. People walked by Velazquez since it was not on the quick and dirty route used by the tour guides. Speaking of guides, they use a memorized script that must have been drafted in Soviet times. I had never heard of Christ described as “heavy” in Rembrandt’s “Deposition”. The non-Christian interpretations were expected but missed the point. This was also the case withy the incredible Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”. It was difficult to discern any passion in their memorized narration.
We managed to leave the guided tour for a while and reached the 19th and 20th Century collections in the over lit upstairs. The crowds were much better but the mounting and displays were not up to the standards demanded by the art. The reflections off the glass made much of the art un-viewable. The Van Goghs were almost impossible to view. The collections are world class but the presentation wasn’t and the crowds made the experience less than optimal. Nonetheless, the visit was valuable.
We finished last night with a performance of Swan Lake performed in the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory opposite the more famous Kirov or “Mariinskiy” Theatre. I belong in such a place no more than Groucho Marx belongs at the Opera. It was actually interesting although some of the dancing was not too inspired. One trip to the ballet makes me a critic.