Taking a break from receptions and concerts, we went to see the State Hermitage Museum, a complex of former imperial buildings that houses a three million piece art collection. The Winter Palace, with its pale green exterior, stands imposingly on the bank of the Neva River, a reminder of long-gone Romanov glory. The museum’s many exhibition halls and corridors are themselves architecturally stunning. Marble columns, gilded walls, and ceiling paintings convey a sense of baroque splendor. Among our favorites sights were the Rastrelli staircase, the large throne room (which contains the original Romanov throne), and Catherine’s automated bird clock.
But the real attraction is the vast and comprehensive art collection. We saw rooms dedicated to Titian, Leonardo, Rembrandt, and a whole slew of medieval handicrafts, furniture, and jewelry. Sculptures, vases (in the deepest and most incredible hues of blue and green), intricately painted wooden floors, tables made of precious stones, mosaics, and thousands of other items adorn the painting galleries. The museum also displays hundreds (perhaps thousands) of portraits of important men in Russian public life. In contrast, paintings of women idealize the female form into studies of pure emotion and gesture. Such a difference is obvious to anyone looking at portraits, but made all the more important by the fact that these museums were built by female rulers. Elizabeth and Catherine the Great were certainly far from anonymous personalities.
As if to continue our encounter with imperial wealth, that night we went to see Placido Domingo sing Nabucco at the old Mariinsky Theater. In contrast, to the openness and sleekness of the new stage, this theater breathes an Old World aesthetic.
We could have almost jumped onto the stage and into Placido’s arms we were so close! Like the halls of the Hermitage, the old Mariinsky is trimmed in gold (and a pale green color on its exterior). For a night, we sat where Imperial Russia’s elite would have sat, just as earlier we had strolled the same corridors they had strolled. Tonight we leave for Moscow.