The Hermitage Museum was at the very top of my must-do list in St. Petersburg. Being one of the biggest museums in the world, it not only holds one of the best collections of European art, but the palace has also witnessed some of the most important events in history.
Follow me while I discover the highlights of European art in my visit to the Hermitage!
How to visit
The Hermitage Museum opens Tuesday to Sunday, from 10:30am to 6pm, although they offer extended opening hours on Wednesday and Friday until 9pm.
For those wanting to visit on their own, tickets have a price of 600 rubles (approx. €8) when bought directly at the museum. You can also buy them online from the hermitagemuseum.org website. This will save you some waiting time at the ticket office, but note that if bought through the English website, tickets are considerably more expensive: $17.95 for a one-day entrance ticket, or $22.95 for a two-day entrance ticket; almost twice as much as buying them at the museum or through the Russian version of the site.
With over 300 rooms to visit and more than three million items on display, it's easy to spend hours or even days wandering around this incredible museum. Before arriving in St. Petersburg, we decided to book a private tour so we could cover the main highlights in half a day. For me, this was the wisest option to fully enjoy one of the most fascinating museums in the world.
After quite a lot of research, for our first visit to the Hermitage we opted for a private tour with spb-travel.com, a local tour operator specialised on individual tours in the St. Petersburg area.
During our visit, we had Galina as our guide, who showed us the main masterpieces of this museum in around 3 hours; a wonderful journey through history and the best of art in the European continent. She was incredibly knowledgeable and our first visit to such an especial place wouldn't have been the same without her.
Winter Palace & State Rooms
Today's collection is held in what used to be the Winter Palace of the tsars until the 1917 Revolution. The collection was started by Catherine the Great and was originally held in one of the rooms of the palace. She used to say that this room was like her hermitage, a place of retreat outside of the public life of the palace with, as she wrote, "few visitors to the galleries - only me and the mice". This is where the name of the museum comes from.
With the years, her collection grew so big that they had to construct an adjunct building specifically for it, connected with the original palace by two corridors. However, the biggest increase in the collection took place after the revolution. When the tsarist system was overthrown in 1917 and the Bolsheviks took power, all items were confiscated and the former Winter Palace was open to the public, including items from private collections that were seized from their owners. During World War II, even though St. Petersburg never fell to the Nazis, the majority of the collection had to be sent to Siberia in order to save it from destruction.
The palace, easily recognisable by its green, white and gold colours, was designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli in 1754, and later remodelled in a classical style by Catherine the Great and her successors. The interior was made to impress. The first room upon entering is the Jordan Gallery, located on the ground floor and also constructed by Rastrelli.
This used to be the ambassadors' entrance, where guests would arrive during the times of the tsars. The staircase is beautifully decorated with gleaming gold and mirrors, creating an effect of depth.
The Field's Marshals' Room is the first state room in the Winter Palace. The room was built to honour Imperial Russia's military leaders, and the portraits on the walls from Russian field marshals give the name to this room. The chandeliers on the ceiling, weighing several tonnes, are decorated with military trophies and laurel wreaths, painted in gold. It's hard to understand how the ceiling can support such an immense structure!
The palace possesses two different throne rooms. The first one is the Peter the Great Small Throne Room, dedicated to the memory of the tsar Peter the Great. The throne is placed in a niche with a painting of Peter I and Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom.
The second throne room is located at the St. George Hall. This impressive columned hall, constructed using Carrara marble and ormolu, a gold-coloured metal used in decoration, contains the principal throne of the tsars of Russia. The imperial throne was built in London using the finest wood available at the time, and it includes a representation of St. George slaying the dragon. You will also spot the double-headed eagle, a symbol brought from Byzantium and spread across Russia by the Grand Duchy of Moscow after the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire. It has now become one of the emblems of Russia.
One of the largest rooms in the Winter Palace is the Armorial Hall. This room was intended for grand receptions for the ambassadors and guests of the tsars, which is reflected by its grandeur. The entrances are flanked by sculptures representing Russian warriors, followed by impressive columns decorated with ornaments in a combination of white and gold colours. If you look up, you'll be able to see the coat of arms and emblems of all the provinces of Russia attached to the chandeliers.
But for me, the room that impressed me the most was the Pavilion Hall. The interior is just spectacular, a mixture of Classical, Renaissance and Arabic style, combining columns and walls of marble decorated with gold and ceilings with beautiful crystal glass chandeliers.
Here you will find the Peacock Clock, built by the British jeweller and goldsmith James Cox in the 18th century. This unique clock is adorned with golden mechanical birds: an owl, a peacock and a rooster; which move and sing when giving the time. The internal mechanism still works today, 200 years after it was built. However, due to its age, the clock is winded in very rare occasions, but in the museum you can see a video of how it functions, giving you an idea of its incredible mechanism. There aren't enough words that would do justice to this clock, you have to see it yourself.
Italian Renaissance collection
The Hermitage possesses one of the best Italian collections outside of Italy, with works by three of the greatest Italian artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo.
As we entered this section of the museum, one of the most peculiar rooms was the Raphael Loggias, commissioned by Catherine II as an exact copy of the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican City.
All paintings followed Raphael's sketches, and they represent scenes from the Bible, just like the original. The main difference is that while the Raphael Loggias in the Vatican City were painted following the technique of fresco, this reproduction was painted on canvasses, and then mounted on the walls and ceilings. Nevertheless, the result is spectacular and you can feel that you're in the Vatican Museums for a few minutes!
We then continued to the Majolica Rooms, decorated with Renaissance motifs and with two works by Raphael: the Conestabile Madonna, and the Holy Family. The latter was a great novelty in the 15th Century as contrary to the norm up until then, Joseph was depicted as a beardless man.
In the Leonardo da Vinci Room we could enjoy two different paintings by this master of the Renaissance, something very uncommon in a museum outside of Italy, as paintings by da Vinci are rather scarce.
The first one is the Benois Madonna, also known as Madonna and Child with Flowers, a representation of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus on her lap, and a bunch of flowers in her left hand. The first name of this work comes from the Benois family, who used to own the painting.
The second work by da Vinci is the Madonna Litta, depicting Virgin Mary breastfeeding baby Jesus.
The Hermitage also has a sculpture by Michelangelo, the Crouching Boy. This small 54 cm tall sculpture shows a naked boy turned in on himself. Even though it's not completed, the detail is still amazing; if you look up close, you can even see the tension in his muscles.
In addition to the paintings and sculptures, all the rooms have an astonishing decoration, standing out the impressive green vases made of malachite.
Of course, the Italian collection is huge, so you can spend hours in there if you're into Italian art. During our visit, we were also able to enjoy works by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese or Giambattista Pittoni, just to name a few.
Dutch collection and Flemish Baroque
The Hermitage is also well known for its wonderful Dutch and Flemish collection, with works from van Dyck, Rubens or Rembrandt.
During our visit, we especially focused on Rembrandt's masterpieces. In his painting Danaë, the artist depicted the character from the Greek mythology of the same name and mother of Perseus. She's welcoming Zeus, who will impregnate her in the form of a golden rain.
The painting is sadly known for the attack it suffered in 1985 when a Soviet visitor threw sulfuric acid on the canvas before cutting it twice with a knife. The painting was left seriously damaged, and it took over 12 years to restore. Although the restoration works are impressive, you can still see a blur around the feet that was impossible to fix.
Rembrandt's collection also has some of the latter works by the artist, mainly portraits. Rembrandt's life was rather tragic: he lost his wife and all his children, and after a decay on his popularity, he was unable to keep selling his paintings. Having lost all his fame and respect, he had to move to one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Amsterdam. During this time, in order to preserve his art, he continued painting portraits of his own neighbours.
Spanish fine art
Compared to the others displays, the Spanish collection in the Hermitage is rather small, but still one of the best outside of Spain as it contains works from the best Spanish painters, such as El Greco, Velazquez or Goya.
Spanish art arrived quite late compared to other European countries, and started be get prolific only after the 17th century. It's worth remembering that most part of Spain was conquered by the Muslims for over 600 years, and because Islam is an aniconic religion, it was prohibited to represent the natural or the supernatural in paintings.
Velazquez collection includes The Lunch, an early painting by the artist portraying a table with three people attending lunch. It represents three different generations: an aged man on the left, a young man on the right, and a boy in the middle. In the background the artist included a jacket hanging on the wall, playing with the shadows to create the impression that a fourth person is in the room.
El Greco, although natural from Greece, was one of the most popular artists in Spain during the 16th and 17th century. Based in Toledo for the majority of his life, he used this city as inspiration, and all his main works are still exhibited there. Known for the use of black colours and very long faces, the Hermitage exhibition includes the canvas The Apostles Peter and Paul.
Goya's Portrait of Doña Antonia Zárate is the only painting of the Spanish artist in a Russian collection, although its authenticity is disputed by some. It was painted in the early 19th Century and it represents the actress Antonia Zárate.
Rooms of French Art
Continuing our journey through European art, we reached the French Rooms. The Hermitage has on display a vast collection; from paintings and sculptures to decorative and applied art from the 17th and 18th centuries.
One of the highlights are an 18th-century depiction of Cupid, very typical of the Rococo style. The copy on exhibit was produced for Count Stroganov, and it became so popular, that multiple smaller copies were made from all types of materials to be sold everywhere as souvenirs, a tradition that has been kept up until our days.
The statue of Voltaire seated in an armchair is another of the masterpieces of this collection. Sculpted by Jean-Antoine Houdon, it was commissioned by Catherine II. It depicts Voltaire with clothing from the Classical times, making him look as an ancient philosopher, a reminder that his thoughts were a continuation of the ancient philosophical ideas.
After enjoying the best of European art that the Hermitage had to offer, we went down to the ground floor, where the museum houses some of the treasures of Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and Persia, as well as a vast collection from western Asia.
This exhibition is connected to the first floor of the Winter Palace by a splendid staircase with dark columns. All the rooms on the ground floor were built specifically to hold the Hermitage art collection by a German architect specialised in museum design. The staircase was constructed after the revolution as the main entrance to the museum, and its purpose was to impress visitors. The architect clearly achieved his goal, as the beauty of the staircase and the rooms on the ground floor is absolutely astonishing.
After a bit of art overload, this section of the Hermitage was one of my big surprises. The rooms, while less ornate than the state rooms upstairs, still have an exquisite, more modern design.
In the ancient collection we could see the Venus Tauride, a 1.67m high sculpture of Aphrodite that, when brought to Russia in the 18th century, was the first classical sculpture to ever arrive in the country. The statue was unearthed near Rome and given to Peter the Great by Pope Clement XI in exchange for the holy relics of St. Brigitta.
For me, the highlight of the ancient collection was the Statue of Zeus.
This is a Roman copy of the statue created by Phidias for the Temple of Zeus in Olympia in the 1st century, and it's one of the best preserved and most beautiful statues that I've ever seen from the Roman period. Made of marble, wood and stucco, it still preserves the golden colour in Zeus' tunic, baton and eagle.
The Hermitage is one of the best museums that I've ever visited, not only because of the magnificent collection that it holds, but also because of the beautiful decoration in each room. During my visit, I covered the main highlights, but the museum still had so much more to offer, that I could've easily spent there the whole day and even return for a second visit.
Navigating through hundreds of rooms on your own can be quite overwhelming, and the Winter Palace has so much history between its walls, that following a guided visit was the best choice I could make.
If you're looking for a reliable company, I'll be happy to recommend spb-travel.com and especially our guide Galina. Our visit to the Hermitage was easily the highlight of our trip, and our guide made a big difference in this whole experience. A big, big спасибо for such a fantastic tour!
All opinions are my own