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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Four days in St. Petersburg

After a few days in Moscow, we took the high-speed train to St. Petersburg.  [Note:  Click here to see the Moscow photos.]  St. Petersburg was the capital of Russia from the early 1700's until the communist revolution in 1918.  Peter the Great and Catherine the Great both wanted Russia to be more like Europe, and they directed the architecture of the city accordingly.  The buildings in the old part of town are typically six stories high, and look like they could be from Vienna or Paris.  St. Petersburg is built on both sides of the huge Neva River so it could serve as a naval base, and has quite a few canals.

One morning, we took a long, windy, rainy walk across the Neva to the Peter and Paul Fortress, which contains the church where the Romanovs are entombed.  The Romanovs were designated as the "Royal family" of Tsars after a violent period of confusion over succession. This sort of fake royal family provided a series of Tsars until the revolution, when the entire family was murdered to ensure that there would be no successor.  Below, a picture apropos of nothing, except it's a chandelier in the aforementioned church and it looks cool. :)


For most people, Saint Petersburg's top attraction is The Hermitage, a huge palace, and one of the largest  museums on Earth.  It has numerous works of art by Van Gogh, Raphael, Leonardo di Vinci, Picasso, Matisse, Magritte, Rousseau, Gauguin, Rembrandt, and Monet, to name only a few.  There's a huge room full of nothing but irresistibly beautiful Rembrandts.  One morning I went out to take a look around and found a big military band practicing on the plaza in front of the Hermitage .





Some of the paintings in the Hermitage were kept as reparations from Germany for the loss of over 20 million Russian lives during WWII.  Twenty million lives is a number so far beyond the American experience as to be incomprehensible to us.  In WWII, America lost about 500,000 lives, so Russia lost about 40 times as many people as America.  Some of the paintings' labels specifically say they were in a German museum until the late 1940's.

Even if there were no art in the building, the interior of the Hermitage itself is spectacular, in a baroque, over-the-top way.  Here's a photo of one of the more ornate rooms.



Once, Catherine traveled to Italy and saw the halls of the Vatican.  She liked them so much she came home and ordered a complete copy of one of the most beautiful halls of the Vatican.  This must have taken hundreds of artisans years to complete.


While in St. Petersburg, we also went out to Catherine the Great's Palace.  The history of the palace is more interesting than the palace itself.  Catherine had lots of lovers here, and its huge size, priceless art, and absurd amounts of gilt decoration were used to impress visiting dignitaries.  During WWII, St. Petersburg was under seige by the Nazis for 900 days, during which time some of those twenty million mentioned earlier died fighting, or starved, or froze.  During the siege, the palace was outside the front line, so was badly damaged.  Fortunately, the curators anticipated this and moved many of art works away, or even buried some in secret locations nearby, leading to legends about forgotten priceless works of art buried in the area.  Some works were stolen by the Nazis, and never recovered.  One piece taken from a famous room in Catherine's palace was found on sale in Germany in 1997 (see link).

The fate of valuable art in war

Art from Catherine's Palace Returned by Germany

A couple of photos from St. Isaac's church, a short walk from the Hermitage.  The top of the dome rises over 300 feet.  In other words, it's huge and imposing.  It was preserved as a museum during the communist era.


They had some beautiful mosaics taken down and sitting where we could walk right up to them.



One of the most exotic, impressive, and beautiful places we visited was the Church of the Spilled Blood.


The entire interior is covered in brilliant mosaics.  Mosaics in all directions.  A skin of mosaics.  Just stunning, and very reminiscent of St. Mark's in Venice. To see the similarities for yourself, take a look at my post on St. Mark's.  The resemblance is not at all coincidental, as both churches are of Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine architectural style, despite the fact that St. Mark's is a Catholic church.



As I kept repeating in my Saint Mark's Cathedral post, there is NO PAINT in these photos - only stone (and gold leaf)!






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