Author's note: I first went to Russia back in the early 2000's - I wrote a series of emails about it to my friends and family, with tons of pictures too. Alas, my laptop died with all of my thousands of photos and hundreds of emails. I did however manage to save a few of them. This is one.
Aloha All, Le Hermitage: French - meaning the hermit's dwelling. Not quite the meaning it had in 18th Century Russia and France -then what it meant; was a small cottage on the palace grounds, usually located in the Garden. Somewhere where a busy Tsar, or King, or Emperor, or any member of the Royal Family could sit back and relax.
So, sit back, relax, as I take you on our tour of the Hermitage.
The Hermitage - as we know it today - consists of five buildings: The Winter Palace, the Little Hermitage, the Old Hermitage, and two other buildings that I have forgotten already. The architecture itself is Art.
In Tsarist days - only about 300 guests a year could roam at will through the meandering halls - each wall, arch and ceiling a treasure - and that is without anything else in the room! Now, more than five million make the trek to see the Hermitage. According to our perfect English speaking guide - if you spent just a minute viewing each piece of Art - it would take you nine years to see the whole place. We did it in ninety minutes.
Picture a fairy tale palace, pastel colors, ornate columns, parquet floors with intricate designs made of exotic woods like Mahogany, Teak, Rosewood, Cherry etc.... place soaring roofs with gilded arches of real gold; on them, hang chandeliers weighing tons; but looking like surreal ice-scapes glittering light cascading in every direction, or redirected by Gold ornamentation - fragile in image, but stout in place. Their huge shapes blending into the painted ceilings as if willed there by perfection. No loss of proportion, nor of beauty. Simply where they should be, and when they should be.
How would you fill such a fairy palace? The stairways greet you with colored marble, carved angles, and golden winged creatures, imploring you to "come hither, explore me." Indeed you want to succumb to that call.
Ceilings - rivaling the best Italy has to offer - as, of course, most were painted by the best Italy did have to offer. Vases standing ten feet tall, bird baths made of a single piece of jasper, measuring over ten feet in length, and over six feet high. Statues from every Corner of the Classical world: Greek, Roman, Egyptian; even some from China and the Far East. None overpowering, all stunning as an individual work of art, together, an Army of beauty and history invading your senses, leaving them reeling in frustration from the inability to access it all with just one mind, one set of eyes and a single brain.
Oh, Did we forget the Pictures? The Da Vinci's? The Titian's? The Ruben's? The Rembrandt's? No we did not. There they hang. Not a single replication or duplication - each and every piece an original. From a fat and scared "Bacchus" to; a dark to light Crucifixion. Ordinary people made extraordinary by the light touch of a Master.
Myths, maidens, angels and daemons - range from the sublime and sensual, to the down right sexual - some with little or no clothing left to the imagination, or rather with some imagination, the picture completes the story in your head. Color is used like music to underscore the Master's feelings about the subject at hand- mayhap even a sense of humor, as the head daintily being crushed by Daphne, turns out to be a smiling self-portrait of the Master himself, amused at the thought of being dispatched by such a beautiful woman.
There are not just subtle blues, there are raging erotic blues, not just quiet blues, but startling electric blues, there are acquiescent blues, that rest the eye, forcing you to ponder a bit, before moving on to another part of the portrait, picture or scene. And that is just the blues.
These were not just masters of one color - these were the Masters of Color. Even just the contrast of light, can be used to expose an idea. Those who Christ touched in life, light up in his death. Those that ignored or chose not to be touched by Christ, lie, almost indiscernible from the dark and ponderous browns and blacks used in the background.
Some paintings are as huge and bold as the deeds they portray. Some, like the table top mosaics; done with beads of glass so small, that you need a jeweler's glass to see, are painstaking in their creation. The beads are too small for the naked eye to see, and live on as a testimony to the Artists vision and patience.
All of this made it to this one place, whether by purchase or perchance - yet, they all made it to the Hermitage - they did. There to survive: Two World Wars, Two Revolutions, One Uprising, and finally; One Fall.
Le Hermitage, where one can stand alone, while surrounded by thousands. As do the many pieces of art who have surrendered to their surroundings. To stand carelessly, alone amongst many, waiting for an appreciative audience to gather - whether it is the Hermit, or just a man standing apart from the others - the Name says it all: Le Hermitage - to dwell alone within oneself.
Wait! There is more! Our tour did not just end with us leaving the buildings in a state of mental overload, or infinite over exposure to so much Human Genius -NO!
For at the end, we were served fruit juices and Champagne in crystal goblets (Did I also forget to mention the incredible goblets, and glasses on display, made by the Masters in Florence to show how they could create with ornate silver and colored glass, objects too pretty to serve the function they were designed for? Shame on me.).
As our palates were treated to an array of fresh fruit juices, delicately sipped while standing in a Marble archway surrounded by the haunting echoes of past party goers - perhaps Catherine the Great herself stood on that very spot. Deciding whether or not to dispatch her husband and declare herself "Empress". Indeed she did just that. Could the plot have been hatched where we were standing? Highly likely, because the next room was the concert hall. Catherine wrote many plays that were performed in that room, she also listened to many concerts. While we did not see one of her plays, we did get a concert.
Thirty strings, ten horns, two oboes, one bassoon, two flutes; gave our eyes a rest, and our ears a treat. Concert level players from the Conservatory played for over half an hour- music that poured from the centuries into their instruments. I was forced to close my eyes, so that every drop of golden notes entered my ears, like cups running over with streaming water - the music soared, plunged, then rose again, crescendo over crescendo, calling out, then up, then up, until my ears became as sensitive and tender as my eyes had been just moments earlier - finally, a rest. I held Kathy's hand with both of mine. Grateful of my senses, or to be more precise, aware of my senses- grateful to have them all. I used all my senses, except touch. on this miracle of a White Nights Russia. I used touch only a little, but the evening touched the most difficult part of a human to touch - the soul.
So many had to suffer so much, to create such beauty, that I did not even try to enter the realm of those dark thoughts. Instead, as the Russians do, I just accepted the White Nights for what they are - a light unto the darkness.