Here, in the Italian Hall, can be seen a few of the vases and furniture mentioned on the previous page. This room was always designed as a gallery, as can be seen in the spacious dimentions of the room and the vast quantity of light supplied by the glazed skylight in the vault.
The "Hermitage" as a real museum, housed in its own building, opened in 1852. In 1900 the museum was one of the chief tourist attractions of the city. In spite of its fame as one of the best museums in the world, the halls of the museum were quiet with few visitors (unlike today when the museum is overrun with school and tour groups). In 1900 people considered a visit to the Hermitage an experience to be savoured. People who visited the museum knew much more about the artists whose works were displayed there than people do today; this was because museums of the time were bastions of intellectualism and a visit to a museum was a serious event.
We have no statistics for 1900 to tell us how much time was spent in front of specific works of art. Today we know the average visitor to a museum only 'looks' at about 2% or less of what he or she passes by. Even a serious look at an important piece lasts but a few seconds. In 1900 visitors to the Hermitage were allowed to sit in the chairs and contemplate works of art for as long as they liked. People even 'dressed up" to visit the collection. There were no huge crowds of school kids on mandatory outings blocking the sight lines and the sound level would certainly have been lower!
In 1900 the collection of the Hermitage was still the property of the Emperor and the directors of the museum viewed their responsibility, first and foremost, to be the preservation of the Tsar's treasures. The idea of inviting a group of school kids to the museum would have been out of the question. The Hermitage was run by the Ministry of the Court, which ran all of the Tsar's palaces, the Imperial Ballet, Opera and his other personal responsibilities.
The museum in 1900 did not include the rooms of the Winter Palace, which was still a working Imperial residence.
Americans who visited the Hermitage were very impressed with the museum and its treasures. A visit to the Italian Hall would have required good eyesight and even a pair of binoculars for the paintings were hung in three tiers - all the way to the springing of the vaults. This is the way paintings were displayed in the 18th and 19th centuries. The hanging and grouping of paintings was a virtual art that isn't appreciated much today when American galleries place paintings as far away from each other as possible.
Today modern museums worry about the effects of changing temperature and humidity on their works of art. Great efforts are made to control ultra-violet light and effect of the very presence of the human body in the halls where works of art are displayed. In 1900 things were much less sophisticated. The idea of restoring a piece to its original condition when first painted was not an obsession. Old masters languished under heavy coats of varnish and layers of dirt and grime built up slowly on Rembrandts and Watteaus, thus gaining the patina of age that earlier generations cherished so much on old paintings.
Next photograph: The Tombs of the Romanovs
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To see a large map of the center
of St. Petersburg go here.
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