One of the world’s largest and most prestigious museums, the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg is home to a collection of over three million pieces. Inside the sprawling palace, you’ll find everything from mummified priests to Leonardo da Vinci to impressionist masterpieces. Empress Catherine the Great founded the museum in 1764 when she acquired an impressive collection of 255 paintings for Berlin – and can still see that original collection today. The museum is part of a wider complex of six historic buildings, which includes the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Old Hermitage, New Hermitage and the Hermitage Theatre – so you’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Baffled about where to begin? Here are some interesting facts about the Hermitage to help you navigate your trip.
Interesting Facts about The Hermitage Museum
1. It served as the royal residence of Russia for over 150 years
You probably already know the story, but for those who don’t here’s a quick re-cap. The Winter Palace, home to the Hermitage Museum, was the official residence for the Romanov Tsars since 1931. There had been a palace there in some form since Peter the Great moved the capital city to Saint Petersburg from Moscow (which he was less than charmed with..). While the Royal Family moved about from palace to palace, the Winter Palace served as its official residence until the Russian Revolution in 1917.
2. It would take you 11 years to see every piece in the collection
If you were really committed to seeing everything in the Hermitage Museum and spent no longer than one minute looking at each painting it would take you 11 years to see it all. That’s based on an eight-hour daily visit too.
3. It’s the legal home of over 70 cats
The Hermitage Cats have a very good deal. Once a half-starved, displaced crew of unloved moggies, they’re now living the high life among the Da Vincis and diamonds. Empress Elizabeth introduced the cats in the 18th century to keep the rodents away. The cats survived the Napoleonic wars, the revolution and World War II. They’ve since retired from rat-catching, since poison does a more effective job, but the Hermitage is happy to keep a home for them.
The cats live in the basement, but often pop up to roam around the embankment and on the square. For years, they were allowed to wander through the galleries too. The cats have a dedicated press officer, with a dedicated kitchen and a small infirmary. The museum also hires three full-time volunteers to look after them.
4. The basement was an air-raid shelter
In June 1941, German troops attacked the Soviet Union and Russia joined the war effort. Hermitage staff and volunteers packed up over a million works of art and sent them by train to a secret location in the Urals. When Leningrad fell to German forces, a skeleton staff fitted out 12 air-raid shelters in the basements of the Museum complex. Until the first evacuations in March 1942, over 12,000 people lived here permanently – including the Museum’s Director, Iosif Orbeli.
5. It’s not all Da Vinci… there are some pretty creepy things to see too
The Hermitage Museum is the world’s largest art gallery, so, unsurprisingly, there are a fair few masterpieces to see. Some of the most prestigious pieces include The Madonna Litta, Leonardo da Vinci; Danae, Rembrandt; The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt; Conestabile Madonna, Raphael; and Place de la Concorde, Degas. Then there’s all the sculpture, silverwork and miscellaneous items to see too, like the celebrated gold peacock clock. But then there are the weirded items, like an Ancient Egyptian mummy and a piece of tattooed human skin. Some say that an unassuming snuffbox was actually the Russian Emperor Pavel I’s favourite murder weapon too.
6. It hasn’t always been that lovely shade of mint green
The Winter Palace has been painted a few times throughout the centuries. Originally, the exterior was a vanilla colour, described by the architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli in 1762 as ” a sandy paint with the finest yellow.” Then, in 1900 it was re-painted a fashionable deep red, which was considered more Russian with Pan-Slavism associations. The State Historical Museum is still painted in that deep red. In the 1920s, the Winter Palace became orange, but that only lasted a couple of decades. In 1946, the Winter Palace got a makeover, which included the iconic mint green or light turquoise facades we’re so familiar with today.
7. It was one of the world’s first public museums
Empress Catherine the Great started The Hermitage collection in the mid-18th century, but you would’ve had to make a private appointment to view the collection – and to get one, you needed to be a big dog (or at least an aristocrat). Catherine called it the Hermitage, which literally means hermit because so few people could see the riches. In one letter, she wrote sadly, “only the mice and I can admire all this.” She also gave the name of the Hermitage to her private theatre, built nearby between 1783 and 1787.
Fast forward a few decades, and Emporer Alexander I is now in power. In 1806 he signed a decree establishing the Armory Chamber, ‘the sanctuary of the glory of our ancestors’, which opened in 1814. That became one of the world’s first public museums, following the Uffizi Gallery (1765) and The Louvre (1793). The New Hermitage Museum opened in 1852.