Catherine the Great began her passionate art collection in the magnificent Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Today, the Hermitage is one of the most important art museums in the world.
The Hermitage in the Russian city of St Petersburg is one of the largest and most important art museums in the world and is on our list of the top 10 sights of Russia. It contains over 60,000 exhibits in 350 halls and almost 3 million more exhibits in the archive. Together with St Petersburg's city centre, the Hermitage was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.
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Hermitage in St. Petersburg
The Hermitage building itself takes visitors' breath away. The huge complex consists of the Small Hermitage, the Old and the New Hermitage, the Hermitage Theatre and the magnificent Winter Palace, where the Russian tsars used to reside. All the buildings date from the 18th and 19th centuries.
The fantastic Winter Palace of the St. Petersburg Hermitage
The first Winter Palace was built in the early 18th century, was twice demolished and destroyed by fire. Today's showpiece of Russian Baroque dates from 1839 and has been renovated several times since then, as it is particularly affected by the dampness of the River Neva and the ground and the rush of visitors.
The rectangular Winter Palace is crowned with statues over 3m high and is striking for its extraordinary façade decoration, which is not the same on any side and also varies from row to row of windows.
Emergence of the Art Museum
Tsarina Catherine the Great was a passionate art collector and housed the first precious paintings in the neoclassical Small Hermitage, built by the French Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe in the 1770s. Over time, the art collection became more and more extensive, with Catherine II collecting paintings, sculptures, coins, drawings and books from all over the world.
In 1787 the Small Hermitage became too small and the rather unadorned Great Hermitage was added by the court architect Georg Friedrich Veldten. In the same year, the private Hermitage Theatre for the Tsar's family was completed, at that time the first theatre in St. Petersburg. The stage and auditorium still exist, but today it is mainly used as an administrative building and cannot be visited.
The last building was the New Hermitage, completed in 1852 by King Ludwig I's court architect Leo van Klenze. It is famous today for the Atlas figures that stand on its façade and for the magnificent corridor, which is a complete replica of Raphael's in the Vatican.
The New and the Great Hermitage were opened as a museum as early as 1852 under Tsar Nicholas I. In 1918, after the end of Tsarist rule, the Winter Palace with its state rooms was also opened to the public.
The Treasures of the Art Museum
The Hermitage in St Petersburg is home to many of the world's greatest masters from a wide range of countries. Leonardo da Vinci, Pablo Picasso, Cezanne, Rembrandt, Rubens, van Gogh, Matisse (the largest collection of his works outside France) and Gaugin are just a few of the resounding names whose masterpieces can be admired in the Hermitage.
In addition to the impressive paintings and the magnificent rooms of the palaces, exhibits from prehistoric to modern times are also on display, including ancient vases, Greek and Roman statues, archaeological finds, cut precious stones, clothing and jewellery of the Russian tsars, throne chairs, weapons, precious watches, fantastic works of gold, silver, porcelain and an extensive coin and medal collection with 900,000 pieces.
Tip: To see all the treasures of the St. Petersburg Hermitage, you would need more than a whole day. You should therefore plan 5-6 hours for a visit, after which there is usually no more room in your mind for further exhibits. The paths through the state rooms are long - be sure to wear comfortable shoes!
Furry residents in the state rooms
Anyone who sees a cat running around in the ceremonial halls of the Hermitage should not be surprised. About 50 of the elegant house cats populate the courtyards and cellars of the St. Petersburg Hermitage and occasionally let themselves be seen on their sneak paths between the exhibits. Incidentally, their presence can also be traced back to a great Russian ruler. As early as 250 years ago, Elisabeth Petrovna, the daughter of Peter the Great, had the first cats brought to the Winter Palace to take care of the unwanted mice and rats.