by Dr. Denise R. Ames
My last day in St. Petersburg. It was a good day to be inside, since a chilly rain misted over the Neva River and penetrated my thin jacket. Once again, I queued in line to board a tourist bus with the requisite guide in tow, and off we went to one of the most famous museums in the world: the Hermitage.
The Hermitage is housed primarily within the Winter Palace, which has a distinct history all of its own. Before getting to the art, the Winter Palace is a worthy topic. The palace was the official residence of the Russian emperors from 1732 to 1917. It was constructed on a monumental scale that was intended to reflect the might and power of Imperial Russia. It succeeded. Additions, renovations, and rebuilding from fires have continuously taken place since 1732. The storming of the palace in November 1917 by the Bolsheviks is an iconic symbol of the Russian Revolution.
After queuing among throngs of tourists, I entered the grand staircase of the Winter Palace. Exquisite indeed. The opulence defies description. I imagined myself as a visiting diplomat to one of the tsars and seeing the staircase for the first time, I would have been humbled by my station and beholden to the tsar. I would not have dared to mention that the wealth inequality between royal family and the lowly peasants could possibly cause disruption and revolution in the future, and to address this problem before this would happen. At least I would not have broached the subject if I knew what was in my best interests.
The Hermitage hosts a collection of over three million works, so vast that it defies description. One of the works of art that seemed to be garnering the most attention was a small one in the middle of the room. Our guide chaperoned us to it and indeed it was dramatic, Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna Litta. I was able to weave my way through the throngs of viewers and snap a picture and get a closer view.
Other works by Rembrandt, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Cezanne swam before my eyes. Actually, viewing the art is such a mind-numbing and visually-demanding task that after a while it overwhelms the senses. Since my eyes were comprised by the swath of color and motion and my hearing was muted by the whispered tones of thousands of visitors milling about, oddly, my smelling sense took over.
In every room and nook and corner I could smell the past. Odors seeped through the walls, rugs, woodwork, through the windows, up the staircases, and down from the ceiling towering above. I could smell the tsars, their families, government officials, and servants bustling to and fro across the hardwood parquet floors performing the busy task of operating an empire. And, perhaps, most important to them, maintaining their elevated station in that empire. I wondered how we are similar to them. Perhaps, in more ways than we imagine.
After several hours of in-your-face crowds, deafening sounds of clicking heels on parquet floors, and the greatest artists of the Western world, I needed a break. I headed for a garden that was accessed through a side door. I stepped outside. Ahhh, quiet. I could hear birds and smell fresh rain on green plants, air that was not filtered through some machine. It was just what I needed.
With the help of nature, I took some time recomposing myself. My eyes readjusted from a blur of colors to seeing a bird hovering over a pink blossom on a tree, I heard the birds chirp away, perhaps knowing that fall was lurking around the corner, and I touched a moisture laden flowering plant that was whisking off fallen water drops. The sounds pouring from the garden were from the present, life was going on here despite knowing the complex and tumultuous life from the past or realizing that the works of the most renowned artists in the world were their neighbors.
It was good to sit in the garden on a simple wooden bench for a few moments and absorb all that I experienced in the last several hours. The history and art of the stupendous Winter Palace were showcased on a grand-scale, and visitors from all over the world paid top money to witness them. But, actually, for me, sitting in that garden at that time, juxtaposed against the man-made splendor around me, was the most welcoming.
About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames
Dr. Denise R. Ames’ varied life experiences—teaching, scholarly research, personal experiences, extensive travels, and thoughtful reflections—have contributed to her balanced views and global perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, professional development, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded Center for Global Awareness, an educational non-profit that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for educators and students grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units.
Along with CGA’s Gather program, Global Awareness Through Engaged Reflection, a study and conversation program for self-organizing groups of lifelong learners and, Global Awareness for Educators, Dr. Ames is developing a new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, & Reflection Network. Turn encourages life-long learners to see with new eyes, learn from the past, understand others, and recognize the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.
Dr. Ames has written 8 books for the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books