Adventures on a Rainy Day in St. Petersburg, Russia

by Fran Megarry, Docent, Minneapolis Institute of Art; Midwest Regional Director, NDSC (August 2018)

Some people may think that rain coupled with avid soccer fans from all around the world gathering in Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup would cause fewer visitors at the State Hermitage Museum. It is heartening that neither of those conditions deterred crowds from packing in to see this world famous art collection. Although truth be known this visitor would have enjoyed a closer and longer view of the two magnificent da Vinci pieces: The Madonna with a Flower, 1478, and The Madonna Litta, 1490. 


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          Volunteers Helping with the FIFA World Cup in Russia (All photos by Fran Megarry)


The opulence of the historic parts of the Hermitage building, also known as the Romanov’s Winter Palace, is eye dazzling.  The exterior Baroque-style is replicated within the museum in its impressive mirrored halls, painted ceilings, gilded ballrooms with parquet floor, and stunning galleries with bronzed chandeliers.  One can only imagine what it would have been like to see candles instead of electric bulbs in those chandeliers back in the day.  It makes one speculate on the cause of that fire that devastated the interiors in 1837.

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                   Brilliant Lights

Docents who have visited this art collection, gathered by Catherine the Great, have always been quick to mention that they were shocked to see doors and windows wide open in the galleries. Perhaps due to the driving rain on this visit most windows remained closed. A Hermitage docent told us that there are about 50 cats employed in The Hermitage Museum. Their main role is to protect the three million works of art from rats and mice. The Hermitage Museum has 1,057 rooms making it the largest art gallery in Russia. One docent suggested that one would need to walk 14 miles to see all parts of the Hermitage.

Besides the architecture, sculptures and paintings in the Hermitage the decorative arts cause one to ask, “What do we see? What calls for our attention?” One of the rooms called the Pavilion Hall houses an 18th century Peacock Clock. No, the clock is not sitting quietly on a small gilded table; it fills the entire hall, floor to ceiling. The glorious light from the wall of windows with the glittery rain running down the window pane bringing the hazy light of the day to rest on the gold of the clock presents a magical, fantastical vision. The huge gold cage holds a host of delicate golden vegetation as well as a rooster, owl, squirrel and a ring of tiny bells. It must be marvelous to hear and see this object in action, for after all, it is a clock. At the center of this celestial setting our attention is drawn to the peacock. Many of us have purchased an object and then had to figure out how to put the piece together.  Yes, that is in fact what happened when this Peacock Clock in 1780 arrived in Russia and someone had to be found to reassemble all the intricate parts.

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                            Peacock Clock

The message of the day is this:  don’t let the rain or crowds stop you from a most memorable experience.

For more information about Catherine the Great and this collection two books come to mind: The Empress of Art by Susan Jaques and Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie.