You’ve seen Hercules wrestle the Nemean lion at the British museum; you’ve strolled past the Emperor Octavian at the Vatican Museums; and you’ve scrutinised the curiosities of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches. Yet, still you’ve not ticked off the best because the grandfather of all museums is far to the north-west in St Petersburg. Known as the State Hermitage Museum, this giant – which includes the Winter Palace and several annexes – houses some of the world’s greatest artworks. Such is their number, however, that to help you navigate its gilded chambers, we’ve compiled a shortlist of the best.
The Treasure Gallery
Comprised of golden and silver bouquets of flowers; saddle cloths studded with 16,000 diamonds; and great mounds of nomadic jewellery, the Treasure Gallery truly lives up to its name.
The Peacock Clock
A large, shiny automaton featuring three life-sized mechanical birds, the Peacock Clock is huge, yet its clock-face is farcically small. Recalling a similar throne that Liutprand of Cremona wrote about in Theophilus’ Byzantine court, this wonder was made by English entrepreneur, James Fox in the 18th century.
The Great Throne Room
One of the largest state rooms in the Winter Palace, the Great Throne Room’s white marble columns, gilded capitals and enormous chandeliers have framed some of the greatest scenes in Russian history – including the opening of the first state Duma (parliament).
According to Greek mythology, Atlas was doomed to hold up the sky for betraying the gods and these mini equivalents must hold up the entrance to the New Hermitage. Finished in 1848, visitors still marvel at the realism – including veins popping out of the group of titans’ feet.
The Raphael Loggias
Catherine II never visited Rome, instead she brought Rome to her. Commissioning a copy of the Papal Palace’s loggias, the frescoes are not direct imitations, however. So, while it is clear the design and inspiration are lifted almost wholesale, the execution is quite different, including the removal of the papal insignia in favour of the double-headed eagle of Byzantium.
The Kolyvan Vase
Called a vase yet more closely resembling a font or a bowl, what is not up for dispute is the fact the Kolyvan Vase is colossal in size. 2.5 metres high, 5 metres long and over 3 metres wide, the monument – made of Altai jasper – weighs 19 tons, took two years to carve and 1,000 men to haul it into place across frozen rivers.
The Jordan Staircase
The theatrical cockpit of the Hermitage, the Jordan Staircase’s combination of gold-leaf and granite was historically used to impress visitors with the Russian state’s beauty and power. But it also had a more practical function, bringing the Romanovs down to bless the waters of the Neva River in celebration of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan.
At 31 halls, the Antiquities Collection at the Hermitage is vast. And while many classicists will find themselves drawn to the Attic vases and Scythian artefacts, most visitors prefer the Roman statuary that lines Jupiter Hall, which is more gorgeous than historically important.
If you’d like to see the treasures of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, why not book a place on the Capitals of the North trip?