Russia’s Hermitage Museum

Russia’s Hermitage Museum

Six Things You May Not Know About the Hermitage Museum

The state Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. Catherine the Great founded the Hermitage in 1754 and it has been open to the public since 1852. In addition to its stunning architecture and beautiful works of art, the museum has a fascinating history. Here are six secrets of the Hermitage.

Secrets of the Hermitage #1: It’s really big.  Like huge.

It covers 765,567 square feet and contains over 1 million works of art, over 1 million numismatic objects, over 770,000 archaeological artifacts, and nearly 14,000 pieces of arms and armor. There are 2.7 million exhibits and displays in all. I’m thinking it’s probably not the sort of place you want to try and see in just a couple of hours.

Secrets of the Hermitage #2: It isn’t just a building.

The museum is actually a complex of many buildings, including the Winter Palace, which was the main residence of the Russian tsars.

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Interior of the State Hermitage Museum

Catherine expanded the museum beyond the palace to have additional buildings erected, creating the Hermitage Complex. The Russian rulers hosted all kinds of festivities in these buildings, which helped the Hermitage garner a reputation as not only a dwelling place for the Imperial family, but also as an important symbol and memorial to the imperial Russian state.

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Portrait of Catherine the Great by Fyodor Rokotov

Secrets of the Hermitage #3: Its initial pieces were art rejects.

The King of Prussia rejected the initial collection of artwork that started the Hermitage. The first pieces (225 or 317, there are differing accounts as to how many) obtained by Catherine the Great were assembled by an art dealer named Gotzkowsky. He put the collection together for Frederick II, King of Prussia, who was not impressed and did not want them. Frederick’s loss was Catherine’s gain: that collection included 13 works by Rembrandt.

Secrets of the Hermitage #4: Art can be addictive.

Catherine didn’t stop after that initial purchase. In her lifetime, she acquired 4,000 paintings from the old masters, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals, and a natural history collection filling two galleries. Competitive art collecting was popular in European royal court culture at the time of her reign, and Catherine was an enthusiastic collector. Her art collection enabled her to gain European acknowledgment and acceptance, and to portray Russia as an enlightened society.

Secrets of the Hermitage #5: Special precautions were taken in WWII.

Art treasures from the museum were evacuated in World War II. Officials feared that the artwork would be lost in the event of an attack, so items from the collection were taken from the museum to the train station. Two trains then carried art treasures off into the Ural Mountains for safekeeping. It turned out to be the right call: two bombs and a number of shells hit the museum buildings during the siege. Once the war was over, the collections were returned unharmed.

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Protecting the art treasures from the State Hermitage Museum.

Secrets of the Hermitage #6:  Crazy cat … museum?

A population of about 50-60 cats lives in the basement of the Hermitage museum. In 1745, Elizabeth of Russia required cats in the palace in order to keep the mice at bay. In times past, the cats would freely roam through the galleries of the museum.  These days, however, they are only permitted in the basement or on the museum grounds. They have their own press secretary, Instagram account, and three caretakers.  You can even adopt a Hermitage cat!

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The Hermitage should definitely be one of your top five things to see in Russia – where else could you see such a vast collection of art in a lavish setting like a palace? Just be sure to allow plenty of time for your visit.

The address for The Hermitage Museum is 2 Palace Square in St. Petersburg.  You may purchase tickets up to 180 days in advance online in US dollars for $17.95 (one day) or $22.95 (two day). However, admission is free on the first Thursday of every month for all visitors, and it is free daily for students and children. Closed on Mondays, New Year’s Day, and May 9.

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