Birch: Hermitage (an introduction)

A mass of first and second hand research contributed to the material that resulted in the manuscript I’ve called Birch. Much of it didn’t make the final cut, and some is present only in small glimpses. I’m hoping to share the details and experiences I encountered in this blog. This first entry features one of the most incredible human-created places in the world: The State Hermitage Museum.

Whenever someone confides in me that they are about to travel to Saint Petersburg, either independently (which is rare, due to the overwhelming bureaucracy of invitations, visas and registrations) or as part of a tour, I am… enthusiastic about my insistence that they visit this place. It is more than a museum or an art gallery or a historical building. It is a palace for beautiful things.

The origin of the word ‘hermitage’ refers to a place for recluses, a refuge. In the city, it became my place for escape.

The Hermitage is seemingly infinite in its scope, with literally millions of items in the collection. The museum map highlights notable pieces in the galleries, such as a Madonna by da Vinci, or Rembrandt’s Danaë (a painting that was notoriously mutilated by a madman). Tourists both native and foreign are drawn to features like the Pavillion Hall with its gold peacock clock. This automaton was acquired by Catherine herself. I saw it in its moving glory only once. These hundreds of years later it operates to an altered schedule due to the fragility of the eighteenth century robotics.

I am awed by works of art in the same way that others might be in the presence of a celebrity. Each time I visit, I have to see Caravaggio’s glorious The Lute Player. It is the original work (there are two others known to exist). The work features a pouty youth, probably a castrato, one of the mysterious young things of Caravaggio’s world. Coming out of, and receding into, a velvet darkness. Every piece has a history worth telling, and the Hermitage is the keeper of these secret histories.

I spent days in this microcosm of Western civilisation, from opening to closing. It occurred to me that the Hermitage is perhaps too beautiful – an exaggerated, romantic imagining of what art and civilisation is. It is easy to forget how hard won these victories of art, how much the other side of the coin of beauty is death and decay. Instead, the visitor is awed by pristine objects d’art. As much as Versailles, perhaps, it is a place of fantasy.

The Hermitage was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and in subsequent years it was the setting for murder, siege and revolution. Staffed by hundreds who oversaw the imperial family’s official residence. The gloriously named Winter Palace, Зимний дворец, faces the palace embankment, the cool aqua-teal of its façade seems to float above the Neva river. I could write about it forever.

To follow only the ‘highlights’ map means bypassing all of the glorious forgotten alleyways of the place. And they are so quiet, so unpopulated. My aim was to visit every room, every gallery of ancestral portraits, every marble staircase. It was always going to be an impossible venture, and I was forced countless times to backtrack when I came across a wing closed for restoration (this was in the time of paper maps – now the website lets you plan your visit ahead of time!). I encountered rooms stacked with crates, lacking the zealous museum attendants that should have shamed me away. There are few areas in the Hermitage where it is possible to be free from the scrutiny of the sharp-eyed docents, (almost exclusively) old women fiercely defensive of their rooms. Actually, in speaking to them, they are adoring of their charges, fondly speaking of the artworks as though they were their grandchildren.

In the lower ground floor, nearly the catacombs, of the Winter Palace, are antiquities of societies I had never heard of before. Prehistoric objects belonging to a people resembling the Amazons of Greek myth. Headdresses for horses to be ridden into battle; the preserved, tattooed skin of a warrior; gold reindeer from ancient Siberian hoards. To preserve the artefacts, heavier curtains hang over the windows, making the area resemble a temple. Each time I return to Petersburg, I always make the same journey down to the ancient parts below, a place to be alone with a distant history.

Further reading:

  • “Explore the Hermitage”

  • “The Return of Rembrandt’s Danaë to Public Viewing after the Restoration Work”

  • “State Hermitage Museum: Southern Siberia/Pazyryk” (Daniel C. Waugh, 2007)

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