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“Hermitage Italy” celebrates the 250th anniversary of St Petersburg’s Museum

by Antonio Paolucci

The Hermitage Museum turns 250 years old. In 1764, Catherine II, known as The Great, had a small retreat built next to the Winter Palace, the residence of the Tsars of Russia, where she could seek refuge from the bustle of court life. She named it the Small Hermitage.

Italy is celebrating its anniversary, with the opening in Venice of “Hermitage Italy,” the Italian “branch” of the Russian museum located at the Old Procuratie in Piazza San Marco. The aim is to promote research and cooperation with the Russian museum.

So much of Italy is in St. Petersburg: Leonardo’s Benois Madonna, Raphael’s Conestabile Madonna, Giorgione’s Judith, and the Lute Player by Caravaggio. In addition, a hall in the museum houses the masterpieces of sculptor Antonio Canova (the “Hebe,” the “Three Graces,” and “Cupid and Psyche”), and a reproduction of Raphael’s Lodges, commissioned by Catherine, is also here.

For a moment, visitors might think they are in Rome, at the Vatican, but as a matter of fact they are 5,000 miles from Rome, bathed in the Northern lights of the Gulf of Finland.

More than the Uffizi Gallery in Florence for the Italians, even more than the Louvre for the French, the Hermitage represents the homeland to every Russian. It embodies the identity of a nation that, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, across its nine time zones, is as big as a whole day, stretching from dusk till dawn.

The Hermitage mirrors and symbolizes Russia’s immensity, its being “out of proportion.” And it seems to have become more so after the latest additions, as it is bound to be after those that will be made in the near future.

The Hermitage is a boundless, immense, omnivorous, hyperbolic museum. All or most of Europe’s and the world’s figurative cultures are represented. You could walk for miles through endless galleries and luxurious halls packed with Roman and Renaissance statues, as well as with paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, and Raphael.

The Hermitage also hosts stunning ethnographic collections, immense collections of portraits, weapons, furniture, jewelry, furnishings. And how many soldiers are in the museum’s collections! Horse riding kings, marshals of the Empire, endless rows of portraits of officers who seem to be drawn from the pages of Pushkin, Tolstoj, Gogol and Lermontov.

The Hermitage is memorable because it represents Russia’s near-bulimic voracity toward itself and toward Europe’s and the world’s cultures.