Wednesday, March 15, 2017 - Smolnyy Cathedral, The HermitageCraig woke up at around 2 a.m. and noticed that his face was starting to swell. This happens occasionally, and we were not sure what triggers it. It was the same type of angioedema that he has had in the past as a reaction to other medications. We hoped that it wasn't a reaction to his MS medication, which has worked perfectly for him. He got up to take some Benadryl, hoping that the swelling would go down.
When we woke up, the swelling had decreased slightly. Craig was a bit self-conscious about it, but it wasn't really noticeable. It caused him pain as it felt like his skin was stretching and on the verge of ripping. I asked if he felt well enough to go ahead with our plans for the day. "It's the Hermitage! I have to!" was his response. So he soldiered through, and I made sure to carry extra Bendryl with me.
We had another lovely breakfast in the Belmond Grand dining room. We had beef stroganoff, scrambled eggs, hunter's sausage, cheese danish, cheese, ham, home fries, a glazed cinnamon roll, coffee, and cranberry juice. They brought us each a shot of juice made from carrot and cabbage. Neither of us were fans of that combination.
When we were done eating, we were a few minutes early to meet Tamara and Andrey. But the lobby was very warm, so we stepped outside for some fresh air. By now all of the doormen and bellmen know us by name. One of them chatted with us outside, asking where we were from. When we said Boston, he said, "Boston Bruins!" A bystander overheard and started to talk to us about Boston. He mentioned that he heard that they were in the midst of quite a snowstorm (he was right; and we were happy to miss it). He asked us what had brought us to town. It turned out that he is an expat American living in St. Petersburg working in the manufacturing engineering sector. He had lived in Boston for a couple of years, and follows the Patriots even when living abroad. He has visited over 100 countries and has worked in about a dozen.
Tamara and Andrey arrived at 10 o'clock. Our new friend asked us what Tamara's name was. He then said to her (in Russian), "Don't overdo it today with them aty the Hermitage, Tamara." She was totally perplexed, here was a guy speaking Russian with an American accent, who seemed to know us somehow...we explained the encounter to her and she laughed.
Overdoing it is quite easy at the Hermitage. The museum, which spans multiple buildings, contains over 3 million items. Tamara said that if you spent 1 minute looking at each item, it would take you 12 years to see everything! Most itineraries seem to include half a day at the Hermitage, but we would be spending an entire day. It's still not enough time to even scratch the surface, but having a guide to show us around would make sure that our time was well managed so that we could see the highlights.
Our entry time for the Hermitage wasn't for another hour (11 o'clock), so Tamara and Andrey wanted to drive us around the city to see a few sights beforehand. The weather this morning was gray and drizzly, but since we would be spending the entire day indoors at a museum, we couldn't complain. As we drove along the Neva, we noticed the same hovercraft that we had seen yesterday. It was gliding over the surface of the ice, and Tamara mentioned that she had never seen one in action before.
Our first stop was Smolny Cathedral. Smola means tar in Russian, and this was the area where tar was processed for shipbuilding. The area became known as Smolny, or place of tar. It is a beautiful blue and white baroque structure.
The architect was Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, an Italian who also designed the Winter Palace (at the Hermitage) and Catherine Palace (in Pushkin, which we would visit tomorrow). He designed the cathedral as a centerpiece for the surrounding convent, marrying baroque architecture with Russian onion domes. It was turned into a concert hall during Soviet times, but in 2015 it was given back to the Russian Orthodox Church.
We went inside, where a service was going on. The interior was dark, with candlelight flickering in front of the icons. We could hear the choir singing, and it was gorgeous. We each lit a candle in front of a shrine to the Virgin Mary.
We had told Tamara about my matryoshka doll obsession. She had assumed that after visiting Sergiev Posad, I would have been satiated, but we told her about the store we visited last night and the 30 doll set that I drooled over. She said that if I was still interested in looking at more dolls, she had seen a unique, new design in a nearby store. It depicted a Soviet space walk, and sounded like something I had to have. She said that we had some time and she could take us to the store that sold them if we wanted. I very much wanted to, and I ended up buying one. Tamara was very tuned into our interests and added these special touches whenever she could.
By now it was 11 o'clock, so Andrey brought us to the Hermitage. We had seen the Winter Palace from across the river and from the road, but Andrey fropped us in Palace Square, bounded on one side by the elaborate Winter Palace and on the other by the immense General Staff Building, which is joined to the equally immense Guard's Headquarters by a Triumphal Arch. The arch and the Alexander Column in the center of the square celebrate the vistory over Napoleon in 1812.
According to Wikipedia, the Alexander Column
is a single piece of red granite, 25.45 m (83 ft 6 in) long and about 3.5 m (11 ft 5 in) in diameter. The granite monolith was obtained from Virolahti, Finland and in 1832 transported by sea to Saint Petersburg, on a barge specially designed for this purpose, where it underwent further working. Without the aid of modern cranes and engineering machines, the column, weighing 600 tonnes (661 tons) on 30 August 1832 was erected by 3,000 men under the guidance of William Handyside in less than 2 hours. It is set so neatly that no attachment to the base is needed and it is fixed in position by its own weight alone.Whoa, watch out for that thing if there is ever an earthquake.
Catherine the Great started the Hermitage collection during her reign. She was not a fan of the baroque style of the Winter Palace preferred by her predecessor Elizabeth, and commissioned a small building in her preferred classical style in which to house her growing art collection. As it was a retreat for her away from the formality of the palace, it was known as a hermitage.
Today's Hermitage Museum is comprised of many buildings in Palace Square: the Winter Palace, Catherine the Great's Hermitage (the "Small Hermitage"), the Hermitage Theatre, the Old/Large Hermitage, the New Hermitage, and most recently the General Staff Building.
Our tour started in the Winter Palace. This baroque palace was completed in 1762 by Tsarina Elizabeth. The exterior is the same now as it was then. However, a fire gutted the interior in 1837, and the rooms which were rebuilt do not resemble their original predecessors.
The palace is opulent. Tamara suggested that Craig take the elevator up to the galleries. We had a lot of walking in store today (she said that a client with a pedometer had measured five miles in the Hermitage), so there was no need to exert extra energy at the very beginning.
I walked up the Grand Staircase, which was quite opulent. The marble staircase split into two at the first landing, and each side led to a balcony from with Tamara and Craig were smiling down at me. There were windows with rounded tops which let in lots of natural light. Marble statues line the walls, and there is gilded ornamentation on the walls. The entire ceiling was painted as a mural. Gold-topped blue corinthian columns supported archways. It was absolutely gorgeous!
I climbed the rest of the stairs and met up with Tamara and Craig. We went from room to room. The rooms were furnished from various periods in the history of the palace, reflecting the taste of the various monarchs who resided here. The restoration work has been beautifully and painstakingly done, and evoked bygone eras. One room contained something that we had never seen before: a giraffe piano. This was a piano where the strings were exposed, vertically, on the top of the piano. It looked like a spinet piano with a harp on top.
The gothic library of Nicholas II was quite amazing, with dark wood, a staircase to a gallery, and bookshelves behind glass cabinet doors. It is used as the staff library today. It is the kind of quintessential library that I always dreamed of as a child.
The white dining room was decorated in the 1890's in a Rococo style. Eighteenth century tapestries adorn the walls. This room was where the Bolsheviks seized power from the provisional government during the Red October revolution of 1917. In the early hours of October 25, 1917, the Cruiser Aurora fired a blank round to signal the revolutionaries to storm the Winter Palace, where a meeting of the provisional government was running late into the night. It was easy for them to enter the palace, as the gates were unlocked. At 2:10 a.m., the Bolhseviks seized power. A clock in this room is symbolically stopped at 2:10.
The golden drawing room's name said it all. The ceiling and walls were entirely ornately gilded, save for a small bit of bright white trim. Heavy blue draperies framed the doors. This room was part of the chambers of Empress Maria Alexandrovna, the wife of Alexander II. In this room, there was a temporary exhibition of Catherine the Great's cameo collection. These date back to classical times. Some are carved from stones with different colored layers. An Egyptian cameo from 3rd century B.C. made nice use of this natural effect; the hair was dark brown and contrasted nicely with the lighter facial complexion.
Another impressive room from Maria Alexandrovna's chambers was her boudoir. It was decorated in the "second Rococo" style for her in 1853. It is quite stunning, with luxurious red silk panels and metallic thread accents on the white walls. There is gilding everywhere, and mirrors on the ceiling and walls reflect the light from the golden chandelier.
There were many exhibits which paid homage to the city's namesake, Peter the Great. Son of Tsar Alexei, there was controversy over whether he or his half-brother Ivan would inherit the throne. Their father died when Peter was 10 years old. Both boys were crowned co-Tsars, but in reality their elder sister Sophia acted as regent until they were old enough to rule themselves. Ivan V died, and Peter was the sole Tsar starting in his early 20's (mid-1690's). Peter wanted Russia to have an unrestricted passage to the Baltic Sea. After defeating Sweden, he founded a settlement in present-day St. Petersburg in 1703. By 1712, it was the capital of his empire.
Peter was always interested in practical pursuits. He studied medicine, dentistry, carpentry, printing, and blacksmithing. He traveled to Western Europe to study shipbuilding, and built up the Russian navy. He wanted Russia to be more European, and he advocated for members of the Russian royal family to marry European nobility.
At 6 foot 7 inches tall, he was a very striking figure, and could sew his clothing and perform leatherwork. His military uniform was on display, and there was also a wax bust of his head made from a mask of his actual face, its head crowned by clippings of his own black hair. It was a bit creepily life-like for something made in the early 18th century.
Peter the Great's own tools were on display in his study. These included tools he used for woodworking, engraving, and printing, as well as medical instruments, brass navigational instruments, and a large globe.
He sent his first wife to a convent in Sergiev Posad, and got remarried to Catherine I, a maid in his household. After Peter and Catherine's deaths, their daughter Elizabeth seized power from her relatives who had inherited the throne. She made and kept a vow to never execute anyone during her reign.
She hand-picked her successor, her nephew Peter III, and arranged his marriage to a German princess. This princess Sophie converted to Russian Orthodoxy and took the name Catherine. She deposed her husband, and following his assassination, she was crowned Catherine II, and would become known as the beloved Catherine the Great.
After looking at all of Peter the Great's tools, Tamara asked how Craig was feeling. She said that there was an interesting Siberian anthropological exhibit that she thought we would enjoy in the basement, but there was no lift to take us there. We appreciated the fact that she was sensitive to Craig's mobility issues, and that she offered alternatives if he wasn't feeling up to something. But Craig assured her that he was fine taking the stairs, and that we definitely wanted to see the exhibit.
When we got to the bottom of the stairs, we found ourselves standing in front of what appeared to be an immensely long dugout canoe. This exhibit is entitled "Early Nomads of the Altaic Region". The artifacts from the Altai mountains included the contents of a burial mound from Pazyryk from the 6th - 4th centuries B.C.
It was fascinating! Grave robbers had excavated a burial mound and found a log structure containing two large coffins dating back 2500 years. The fact that they dug it up meant that water seeped in and froze, thereby preserving it. The log structure was rebuilt here, and the two coffins were inside. This would be the way a chief, elder, or priest would be buried with his wife or concubine(s). Bodies buried in this way would have been embalmed as well, to purposefully mummify them. Like the Egyptians, the mummies were entombed along with both precious and practical objects.
Looters took much of the precious contents of these burial mounds (gold, etc.) but other works of art which normally wouldn't have stood the test of time were preserved by the ice. There were dolls shaped like swans which were made of felt, and a felt applique carpet. We saw the world's oldest known pile carpet, which is made of wool thread with over 900 knots per square inch. The entire carpet contains over 1.25 million knots! The colors are still vibrant (deep reds and greens) and geometric and animal motifs are visible. The workmasnship is unbelievable, and it is difficult to wrap your head around the fact that this is 2500 years old!
After viewing a large wooden funerary chariot with 4-foot-diameter wheels, we saw the mummy which was buried at Burial Mound No. 2 at Pazyryk. He is believed to have been a chief. He was incredibly well-preserved. Although they were not visible to the eye, his body was covered with tattoos. His skin is brown and they only discovered the tattoos when they scanned the mummy in an MRI machine.
It was especially warm in the basement where these artifacts were displayed. I was starting to drag a bit, and suggested resting for a while and getting a bite to eat to refuel. Tamara brought us to ground level, where we found seats in the cafe. They had reasonably priced food and drink. Craig and I each got a half club sandwich and a Fanta. We enjoyed resting our legs for a while, and we had a nice chat with Tamara.
Refreshed, we continued our exploration of the massive and eclectic museum. We passed through the expansive and grand gilded Armorial hall on our way to the Great Church. The way a family of more modest means might have an altar or shrine in their home, the Russian monarchs needed a place to worship in their home as well. When standing in the room, you don't get the feeling that you are in a room in a house...it feels like a church, with skylights in the central onion dome letting in light. Large gilded corinthian columns stretch from the intricate wooden parquet floor to the gilded cathedral ceiling. An iconostasis hides the altar from view. There were frescoes on the ceiling.
The uniform in which Alexander II was assassinated was on display. A television crew was filming in here, interviewing a woman. When we exited the church into the hallway, Tamara discreetly pointed out Mikhail Piotrovsky, the Director of the Hermitage.
Next we went to the Gallery of 1812 (Military Gallery). On the walls of this corridor hang 332 portraits of generals who served in the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon. We saw two throne rooms: St. George Hall and the so-called small throne room.
Here we first encountered a contemporary art exhibit by Belgian artist Jan Fabre. Knight of Despair / Warrior of Beauty consists of over 200 art pieces peppered in among the permanent collection of the Hermitage. A sign stating "16+" was set up next to one of Fabre's pieces, titled "I Drain Myself (Dwarf) (I)." A statue of a man stands with arms at his side and his forehead pressed against a painting, and there are bloodstains on the wall and at his feet.
We found a couple of things interesting about this. First of all, if the exhibit isn't suitable for kids under 16, this isn't really a very good way of shielding them from it. By the time you've noticed the sign, you've seen the art. By contrast, there were some very sexually explicit paintings in the museum's permanent collection which did not get any kind of warning at all. This is yet another example of the difference in attitudes between the USA and Europe. Europe sees violence as potentially damaging to children, whereas the USA sees sexuality that way. We think we can safely assume that in the United States, the painting would get a warning and Fabre's artwork would not.
Next we entered the Small Hermitage, Catherine the Great's retreat. Along one corridor lined with windows, we admired beautiful stained glass and religious artifacts. One particularly striking piece is called "Lamentaton," and dates back to the 16th century. This is an incredibly intricate and vibrant depiction of Jesus' body being taken down from the cross. The detail is so fine that droplets of blood are distinguishable on Jesus' forehead!
Then we entered the grand Pavilion Hall. It is a light-filled lavish room with gilded balconies, chandeliers, and a beautifually intricate mosaic floor. The highlight here is the golden mechanical peacock clock given to Catherine the Great in 1781. It was made my London jeweler James Cox. Life-sized golden figures of an owl, peacock, and rooster perform elaborate movements, and the rooster crows. It is still in working order 237 years later, but the museum only runs it on special occasions. You can see it in action on Youtube; it's really amazing!
We then passed into the Old / Large Hermitage, where Italian art is on display. This building was commissioned by Catherine the Great when her collections outgrew the Small Hermitage. Much of the Hermitage's European art contains religious themes, not surprisingly, given the pervasiveness of Orthodoxy. There are two religious works by Leonardo Da Vinci on display here: The Madonna with a Flower (Benois Madonna) painted in 1478, and Madonna Litta, painted circa 1490. We had never seen a Da Vinci painting in person before, and it was quite humbling. We saw paintings by Titian and a collection of delicate murano glass pieces.
We then passed into the New Hermitage via the Raphael Loggias, a replica of the Gallery in the Papal Palace in Vatican City. This was commissioned by Catherine the Great as an extension to the Old / Large Hermitage. The New Hermitage was built behind it by Nicholas I.
We were delighted to see a Michelangelo sculpture: "Crouching Boy," which dates back to the 1530's. I remember doing a research report on Michelangelo when I was in the 4th grade, and it was exciting to see some of his work in person!
There was an exhibit of Italian majolica dating back to the 16th century.
Jan Fabre's macabre works were scattered into the exhibits, sometimes thematically. Fabre's grandfather, Jean-Henri Fabre, was a renowned entomologist. As a tribute to his grandfather, Fabre incorporates jewel beetle wing casings into his art, which give it at once a luxurious, shimmering jewel tone with macabre overtones.
One piece was a gown made from beetle wings. The arms are extended out to the side. The title of the piece is "Angel with open arms." You can't tell that this is an angel; she doesn't have wings, well...unless you count the thousands of beetle wings.
Paintings in the permanent collection having to do with hunting and the selling of game meat were flanked by two beetle-wing encrusted skulls. One had a paintbrush in its mouth, and the other's teeth were clenched around the nape of the neck of a taxidermied rabbit. Another statue had a taxidermied peacock perched atop a beetle-bedazzled human abdominal skeleton. Heavy stuff!
We also saw many more religious-themed paintings by Flemish and Dutch painters. Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son" is particularly well-renowned.
We saw an enormous kolyvan vase hewn out of a single 19-tonne block of green jasper. Siberian craftsmen worked on it for 14 years, and it took 160 horses to transport it to St. Petersburg. Standing next to it, Craig was dwarfed.
We still had one other building to visit, and time was running low. We passed through the Egyptian Gallery on our way out without looking around. They had a large, impressive collection, including sarcophagi, a mummy, and canopic jars. We love Egyptian exhibits, but having seen them at the Museum of Science and MFA in Boston, as well as at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, it was an appropriate thing to skip in Russia.
We went in to the gift shop to buy a guide book, and then retrieved our coats from the coat room.
We then walked across the courtyard to the General Staff Building, built in the 1820's. Although it was no longer raining as it had been when we had entered, Palace Square was a wind tunnel, and the wind was brisk. The General Staff Building is large and sprawling. It houses a collection of 19th and 20th century European art, including Renoir, Degas, Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh, Kandisky, and Gauguin.
However, to get to it, you had to walk through an even more bizarre Jan Fabre exhibit. We walked through a room with wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, and walking canes hanging from the ceiling (each item was covered in iridescent beetle wings) with white ghostly figures below. There was a life-sized statue sitting at a desk. It is entitled "Me, dreaming". The statue and desk are covered with golden sequins held in place by sharp nails. A similar figure dangled from a noose from an upper balcony. There was a huge piece of canvas filled with nothing but scribbles from a blue Bic ball point pen.
Then came the most controversial exhibits of the Fabre installation. We walked through a large hall. To our left, brightly colored iridescent prty streamers hung from the ceiling, and matching confetti lay on the floor. Squinting between the streamers, you could see taxidermied dogs posed in various positions, with party hats on their heads. They looked like they were sleeping off a big party (a Dog Party, perhaps?) This was called "The Carnival of the Dead Streetdogs." To our right, the setup was the same, but the streamers and confetti were pearly white. There were taxidermied cats arranged in various positions. No party hats here. This was "The Protestation of the Dead Alleycats."
According to the Hermitage Exhibit Guide,
Fabre felt himself called upon to "resurrect" dogs killed on the roads by including them in a macabre carnival in the traditions of mediaeval alchemy, the aim of which was always the transformation of animate or inanimate objects.Ok, so this was recycling of roadkill in an absurdist manner. Needless to say, this whole Fabre exhibit was rated 16+.
Next we viewed the permanent collection of the museum. We started out with Impressionists. We went into a room specially designed to preserve charcoal and pastel work. I really enjoyed seeing some Degas ballerinas in pastels. We then saw paintings by Renoir (whose work I am familiar with through an exhibition that my parents took me to see at the MFA in Boston as a child) and Monet.
We enjoyed Gauguin's Tahitian post-Impressionist work. The depictions of Tahitian natives seem like love letters to a place which captivated him and in which he would reside for over 5 years.
I'm not very educated about art history, but the signatire styles of many of these artists were immediately obvious even to me. It was humbling to see works by Van Gogh and Picasso in person. In addition to Picasso's paintings, his porcelain work was also on display. Two lithographs featured symbols of peace: doves and olive branches.
Kandinsky is one of the few Russian artists whose work we saw displayed in the Hermitage. I enjoyed the colorful exuberance of the three Kandinsky paintings on display.
The museum has an extensive Matisse collection, ranging from nudes to still lifes to portraits. Craig had seen Matisse's Dance in New York City many years ago, and now they were both together in the same gallery once again, halfway around the world! It was joyous and larger than life, along with its companion piece Music.
We saw some royal uniforms and robes, including the uniform of the 6'7" Peter the Great.
An exhibit celebrating Carl Faberge expanded on what we had seen yesterday at the Faberge Museum. We saw the beautiful non-Imperial Rothschild Faberge Egg. This is a pink/gold guilloche enamel egg clock with a rooster that pops out of the top, created in 1902. Miniatures of the Russian crown jewels from 1900 sparkled in the light.
Perhaps even more interesting, though, was the exhibit of Faberge's World War I era creations. During the war, it was difficult to obtain the materials to manufacture luxury items. So Faberge got into the business of supplying the military with mess kits, tools, cooking pots, etc. It was iteresting to contrast these ulititarian items with the elaborate eggs and the painstaking miniature crown jewels which they created! Yet these utilitarian items were quite clever and make the utmost use of space, as only a jeweler can.
Our guided tour was now at its end. We had been exploring the Hermitage for seven hours. Tamara said that since it was Wednesday, the museum would be open in the evening as well. She said that we were welcome to stay if we wanted to. Although we hadn't even scratched the surface of the museum's massive collection, we had to surrender. It had been a long day on our feet. My feet were killing me, so I can only imagine how Craig felt. His right knee has been sore for the past few days. But he is always such a trouper!
We went to the basement to retrieve our coats from the coat-check. In the hallway, we saw crates of artwork packaged up to go to traveling exhibitions. What was inside? It called to mind the final scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," where the Ark of the Covenant is packaged up in a wooden crate and stored in a warehouse with thousands of other identical crates.
Andrey and Tamara brought us back to the hotel. On the way, we stopped in front of the Church on Spilled Blood (Resurrection Church of Our Saviour) so that I could take a photo. The church was built in memory of Alexander II, who was assassinated on this spot on March 13, 1881. It is a picturesque church with colorful, textured onion domes, inspired by St. Basil's.
We decided to eat at Khinkalnaya on the Neva again tonight for several reasons. It is close to the hotel, and neither of us wanted to walk any further today. THe food was delicious, and we had seen other items on the menu that we wanted to try. And last but not least, it was affordable. We can branch out tomorrow and Friday. Tonight we wanted something nearby and quick so that we could get some much-needed rest.
We decided to try dumplings as an appetizer. The coat check tickets are shaped like dumplings, so they must be popular! So we got the khinkali Tblisi style (pan fried dumplings with beef and pork with fresh herbs). I was looking at a lamb in white wine dish, but the server recommended chanakhy with lamb (lamb with potatoes, eggplant, paprika, and tomato served in a pot), so I took his advice. Craig got kharcho megrelian style (stewed veal dressed with tomato sauce with Georgian Spices and crushed walnuts).
For some reason, this being our 3rd day in St. Petersburg, we had 3 vodka shots each tonight. The first two were Russian Standard, and the third one was Georgian vodka recommended by our server. Craig has a Georgian beer, and I had mors. The meal hit the spot, and we were ready for well-deserved sleep!
Palace Square (The Hermitage)
Palace Square: Winter Palace
Craig and Tamara atop the Grand Staircase in the Winter Palace
Nicholas II's gothic library
Golden Drawing Room, Winter Palace
2500 year old Siberian mummy
Lamentaton, 16th century stained glass
Golden mechanical peacock clock belonging to Catherine the Great
Jan Fabre: Angel with open arms, 1993
Raphael Loggias: a replica of the Gallery in the Papal Palace in Vatican City
commissioned by Catherine the Great
Michelangelo's Crouching Boy, 1530's
19 tonne Kolyvan vase, carved from a single block of green jasper
Palace Square: General Staff Building, Triumphal Arch, Guard's Headquarters, Alexander Column
Kandinsky: Landscape, 1913
Church of the Spilled Blood which was built on the site on which Alexander II was fatally wounded in 1881
Georgian dinner at Khinkalnaya on the Neva