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October 27th 2008 by Tina
The Hermitage

Posted under Russia

On a gray day in Saint Petersburg, we found ourselves walking toward the city’s premier fine arts museum – the Hermitage. Located in Palace Square and partly housed inside the Winter Palace, the Hermitage dominates the impressive skyline along the southeast bank of the Neva River. The green-and-white baroque façade blends seamlessly with the city’s massive baroque and neoclassical architecture, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Since the weather was mild and our legs were fresh, we decided to walk over the bridge to check out the view from both sides of the river. Again we found a frustrating lack of crosswalks over many-laned streets, buzzing with traffic. We ended up taking quite a detour just to cross the street safely and once played Frogger with speeding traffic. The river views were superb. The Neva was wide and industrial with beautiful old buildings lining the banks on both sides.

Back at the Hermitage, we bought our tickets, checked our backpack and coats in the cloakroom (every place has a cloakroom and its usually free), and began to explore. We had a list of recommended highlights and decided to search them all out before concentrating the bulk of our culture-absorbing energy on the European paintings.

The Russian Culture wing of the second floor included some opulent rooms of the Winter Palace and a portrait collection of both the royals and important military men. There were some other Russian paintings, though the country’s most famous collection of Russian art resides at St Petersburg’s Russian Museum. One room – a richly decorated hallway – was an exact replica of a hall, painted by Raphael and his pupils, inside the Vatican Papal Palace.

The Hermitage is remarkable for the sheer size of its collection, the number of well-known paintings, and particularly for the number of works by famous European painters. The collection was mostly amassed by Catherine the Great. Among the famous artists represented are Matisse, Van Gogh, Renoir, Rubens, Cezanne, Monet, Degas, Picasso, Pissarro, Gauguin, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rodin and Michelangelo. In the Hermitage’s collection, you don’t see one or two Picassos or Matisses or Rembrandts but rather entire rooms full of Matisses, Picassos and Rembrandts. The works, themselves, are brilliant, of course, but we were simply gobsmacked by the volume of famous work in the museum. It was impressive.

That said, while the collections of art and artifacts were on par with other world class museums, the Hermitage fell short of the bar in the “user-friendliness-for-foreign-citizens” category. The best example of this is the lack of English-language captions in almost all galleries other than the European paintings. In this age of globalization, in which English is the international language of business, we found it both disappointing and telling that such a prestigious national museum has failed to modernize. The European paintings were the highlight for us – they did have English captions – and Hermitage was still a great experience.

In many ways, Russia is still very raw and that makes it an interesting time to be here. Eventually, travel to Russia will become easier and people will rush to visit – because there are amazing things to see and learn here – but, for now, we are fascinated by the little differences. However frustrating they can be sometimes, they are all part of the adventure.

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