The Hermitage: The Biography of a Great Museum

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9780880641906: The Hermitage: The Biography of a Great Museum

Possibly the greatest museum in the world, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, began as a showcase for the legendary art treasures of the czars. This exciting history tells how imperial romance and marriage, murder, war, revolution, and international politics shaped the fabled collection over the centuries, until it filled the Winter Palace and three riverside pavilions with priceless art from antiquity to the modern day. 25 color photos. b&w photos.

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Review:

Geraldine Norman, the English cultural reporter and author, has written a scholarly page-turner about the political intrigue, murders, royal indiscretions, property seizures, heroic preservation efforts, wartime crises, obscenely prodigal spending, and equally obscene fiscal cutbacks that have shaped the long history of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. It puts our millennial excesses in perspective to learn that the Russian empress Catherine the Great bought Old Master paintings at the rate of one every other day from 1762 to 1772, tapering down to one or two a week for the next couple of decades. Catherine dubbed her royal digs the "hermitage," or retreat, "where she could forget her rank and relax," writes Norman. (One of Catherine's rules: Visitors "shall be joyful but shall not try to damage, break, or gnaw at anything.") The empress was "gluttonous"--her own word--in her acquisition of art, buying 4,000 paintings, massive amounts of classical sculptures, porcelains and other decorative arts, the stray Michelangelo marble or two, and a national treasury's worth of engraved gems. Plus 38,000 books, not to mention four roomfulls of prints. And that's just part of the collection. Reading Norman's well-crafted tale of the great museum, a reader absorbs vast amounts of history and fiscal detail, while turning pages through machine-gun fire, lovers' trysts, clandestine international negotiations, and other thrills. --Peggy Moorman

From Publishers Weekly:

The controlled and focused style that served Norman in her previous books, such as Biedermeier Paintings, works well in her compact history of the great St. Petersburg museum. From its origin as the fashionable pavilion where Catherine the Great hung her paintings, the Hermitage grew through the 19th century until it was nationalized by the state after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Norman, who is a former art market correspondent for the Independent, does not divorce the institution from the political culture around it. Nor could she, when Stalin, desperate for foreign currency, would sell several thousand items from the Hermitage in the late 1920s. Norman is suitably aghast that this has aroused more complaint than the dictator's execution or imprisonment of at least 50 staff members a few years later. To these situations and others?such as the siege of Leningrad during WWII, when the staff living in the Hermitage ate furniture glue to survive?this book proves itself an effective and articulate guide. Although Norman explains how the Soviet Union used the museum's archeological activities to bolster its Marxist ideology, she is less clear on the museum's future in Russia's current free market. Still, this study is an achievement because it remains so readable, despite the encyclopedic march of facts. Its nearly 60 illustrations reproduce works from the collection as well as photographs of the staff and the museum; an appendix contains brief biographies of the employees who were prosecuted in the Stalinist purges.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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