Sunday, October 23, 2011


NOTE: This may get confusing, but I'm deviating from my deviation in my travel blogging.  I WAS blogging about our summer trip to Scandinavia, but then we went to New England for our anniversary, and I got into doing that.  I think I'll switch back to Scandinavia and Russia for a little while.  I have a few posts to go until I am done there.

About 2/3 of the way into our cruise, our ship docked in St. Petersburg, Russia.  I didn't really have a good grasp of Russian geography, so it was interesting to me that St. Petersburg is on the Baltic Sea, just like the rest of Scandinavia.  In fact, St. Petersburg and Helsinki, Finland, are only 185 miles apart, about the distance between where I live in Redlands and where one of my sisters lives in Bakersfield, California.
St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great. (Remember his huge statue in the Moskva River in Moscow?) He actually won it from Sweden in war, then used prisoners of the war and Russian serfs to build the new city. Peter the Great moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1712, and over the next three centuries the imperial capital was usually, but not always, located there. In 1914 it was renamed Petrograd, in 1924 it was renamed Leningrad, and in 1991 it became, once again, St. Petersburg.

The first structure Peter had built was the Peter and Paul Fortress, which was later used as a prison and housed such luminaries as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leon Trotsky.
Peter and Paul Fortress
We spent two very full and wonderful days in St. Petersburg. We began by getting an overview of the city by taking a river cruise on the Neva River, which conveniently flows right through the city.
As we floated peacefully along, it felt a bit like being in Venice, and we got a very up-close look at some extremely expensive real estate:
We also got a good view of this Russian ship, which our guide told us was a warship (but how would we know?):
Maybe it's just a private yacht for the rich folk who live in that pretty blue house.

We got off our boat and took a short walk, giving Bob an opportunity to pose with these two guys:

We eventually made our way to The Hermitage.  Honestly, I am embarrassed to say that I knew almost nothing about this place before our trip.  I learned that one of its six buildings, the Winter Palace, was built by Peter the Great and was the home of the Russian czars from 1732 to 1917.  It is Catherine the Great who really deserves credit for it, however.  She remodeled the Winter Palace and added more palaces, which collectively came to be known as The Hermitage. She was an obsessive-compulsive art collector and needed the space to house her rapidly growing collection.

It's hard to know where to begin describing this museum.  We have been to many of the world's great art museums: the Louvre and D'Orsay in Paris, the art collection in the Vatican, the Prado in Madrid,  and the Uffizi in Florence, the Getty in Los Angeles, the Tate and British Museums in London, the Art Institute in Chicago, and the Metropolitan and MOMA in New York City.  I don't know if any of them can really compete with the Hermitage in opulence and variety and size.  The Hermitage houses three MILLION works of art--not all on display, but still, it's the largest collection in the world.  A visitor could spend weeks exploring the four buildings that are open to the public.

Let's start with the building itself.  Here are a few sample interior shots that show why I could live here if I had to:
I would love to wash my face in one basin and brush my teeth in another.

I especially liked this fireplace tile.  It looks like a woman whose husband forgot her birthday.

Double-headed eagle chandelier

Double-headed eagle ceiling decoration

Double-headed eagle throne
If it's too cold for your pet peacock outside, just have a nice gold replica made for inside. This one is actually Catherine the Great's clock. 

Catherine the Great's portrait gallery.  Do you think these were all her suitors?
As beautiful as the building was, the art collection was even more impressive.  I've included a few samples of what we actually saw.  There is a large collection of 20th century art at the Hermitage, but our guide did not take us to it. I know there is an Egyptian collection that we also did not see.  In fact, I'm sure there are almost three million paintings, sculptures, and other works that we did not see.  It's just impossible to see everything in a half a day (or maybe in half a decade). However, what we did see provided a good cross-section of art from primarily the 14th through 19th centuries.  By the way, when I photograph a work of art, I also take a picture of the placard that tells what it is.  I would never know what most of these are otherwise.
Laocoonte by Triscornia, modeled after the original located in the Vatican.
Oops, I forgot to photograph the placard with this one.  Andrew? Lisa? Any guesses? Maybe a Bernini?

Giovanni, Mother and Child
Raphael, Madonna and Child

Raphael, Madonna with Beardless Joseph (Gotta love that title)

Leonardo DaVinci, Madonna and Child

Michelangelo, Crouching Boy (Russia's ONLY work by Michelangelo)

Raphael Loggia, copy of the Loggia in the Vatican by Bramante and Raphael

Bertold Thorvaldsen (sculptor of The Christus), Shepherd Boy with Dog

Tadolini, Hermes

Detail from Hermes

Karl Hoffmann, Christ as the Shepherd

Detail from Christ as the Shepherd

Antonio Canova, Mary Magdalene (You may know Canova for this depiction of Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, found in The Louvre)

Alonso Cano, The Crucifixion

El Greco, Peter and Paul

El Greco, The Poet Alonso Ercilla y Zuniga

Rembrandt, Denae
Rembrandt, Old Man in Red

Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal Son

Peter Paul Rubens, Adoration of the Shepherds
This is a typical display room.  There was one after another of these rooms, so many that it would be hard to count them and easy to get lost in them.  It made me think of one of my favorite books, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the story of two children who run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and live there for a few weeks.  Oh my, wouldn't it be divine to do that at the Hermitage?

Good preparation or follow-up for a trip to St. Petersburg is Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie, a Pulitzer prize-winning author who has written extensively on the Russian royalty. Catherine, a German princess, certainly did not seem the likely choice for the ruler of Russia, and yet she reigned for thirty-four years and transformed Russia into a modern state during those years. Almost 700 pages long, it may seem like a daunting task, but it's well worth the time for what you will learn about the history of Russia, about Europe and Russia during the 18th century, and, most of all, about a fascinating woman who was undaunted by any task, any obstacle, or any person.

If you love Rembrandt's painting The Return of the Prodigal Son as much as I do, you'll love Henri J. M. Nouwen's book by the same name. Nouwen was  Dutch Catholic priest who eventually settled in Canada. A chance encounter with a reproduction of Rembrandt's painting led him on a life-long quest to better understand both the painting and the parable. He carefully examines each character in the painting in a way that has changed the way I look at the work. A beautiful, compassionate, tender book.

I have never read anything about World War II from the Russian perspective, so Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson was a brand new perspective for me. I read this book five years after having visited St. Petersburg, but it mentions many of the things we saw in the city, and many of our experiences there came flooding back to me. Anderson focuses on the life of the great Russian composer in the context of first Lenin's rule, followed by life under Stalin, and then by the three-year-long siege of Shostakovich's home city by Nazi armies. We so often neglect parts of war that the United States is not directly involved in, and this is one of those parts. Wow, what a horrific time for the Russians, and how meaningful Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, which he composed during the war, became for them. I loved learning about the context of one of the world's great musical compositions.


  1. I believe this is my favorite museum in your posts to date. I love the beautiful blue color of the building and inner walls. What an amazing collection of art, especially the religiously themed works--interesting in a country that spurned religion for so long.

    If you ever want to hide out there a la Mixed-up Files, I'm your cohort!

  2. Being lost in the Hermitage for days sounds like my version of hell. I enjoy it for a short period of time and then need a break. I enjoyed the paintings and sculpture, but I think more than anything, I liked the building itself and the fancy, ornate walls, with gilding, and wild colors and marble stairways.

  3. Okay, Bob, you and Stan can go eat goose liver pate and caviar, and Chris and I will hide out in the Hermitage. It sounds like a fair trade.

  4. Wow--lots and lots and lots of art. I love looking at these ornate galleries and seeing how beautiful the buildings are that house the "art." Thanks for the tour--I guess I can cross this off my list! (Kidding.)


  5. Yeah, I know it was overkill on the art, but I wanted to show the range. Pretty amazing.

  6. Goose liver pate and caviar actually sounds like a nice alternative. Throw in some blinis and I'm in.


  8. Judy, you may be the best travel blogger on the planet. I hope you're getting paid. Your blog is probably the closest I'll ever get to some of these places...

  9. Paid? Ha ha ha ha! I hardly get paid for teaching!

  10. Susan, thanks for the nice words anyway. :)