by Roderick Conway Morris

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Hermitage, St Petersburg
Diana and Callisto by Pietro Liberi, 1634

Catherine of Russia: The Empress and the Arts

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 11 July 1998


Catherine the Great's grandiose plans to build in St. Petersburg a gallery to rival the best in Europe were initially met with undisguised skepticism by her friend and adviser Diderot. Only with the additional aid of prints of major works, suggested the French philosopher and Encyclopedist, could the Russians hope to cover the full gamut of Western painting, 'since those who do not possess the original of a book are obliged to read it in translation.'

But Catherine, who once described herself as not so much a lover of art as 'a glutton' for it, was not to be diverted from this ambition any more than from the other multiple schemes this German-born princess brought to fruition during her 17 years as grand duchess and empress in waiting, and 34 years as the absolute ruler of her adopted homeland.

The upshot was the Hermitage, which by the time of Catherine's death in 1796 had well over 2,500 canvases, many of superlative quality, and tens of thousands of other works, from sculptures, tapestries, coins and medals to cameos, enamels, silver and porcelain.

To do justice to the immensity of this collection, which has been further enriched by continual additions over the following two centuries, would, of course, be impossible in a loan exhibition.

But the nearly 250 pieces on display at 'Catherine of Russia: The Empress and the Arts' (which continues at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence until Aug. 9) give a taste of the voracity and breadth of her collecting fervor. They include some personal items, such as dresses in regimental colors that Catherine wore when, as colonel in chief, she doled out vodka to her fellow officers, manuscripts in her hand, and a magnificent carved and gilded sleigh representing St. George killing the dragon.

Though the show is rather short on explanation, visitors can enjoy an imposing line-up of portraits of Catherine and the other protagonists of her long and remarkable career.

Catherine came to power as the result of a coup in 1762 staged by army regiments. Her deposed husband, Peter III, who had treated her badly and threatened to divorce her, was afterward strangled by her army supporters during a dinner. They were led by the Orlov brothers, one of whom was her lover. Peter and a good number of Catherine's ministers, generals and advisers, many of whom shared her bed at one time or another, appear among the portraits.

Catherine secured a phenomenal range of old masters - only modestly represented in this exhibition by half a dozen or so canvases by Titian, Veronese, Palma il Vecchio, Rubens, Jordaens and Poussin - thanks to her agents' success in obtaining large existing collections, notably those of Frederick II (who had run into financial difficulties), Heinrich von Bruehl ('the Saxon Richlieu'), the French banker Pierre Crozat and the English prime minister Sir Robert Walpole.

This was often in the face of local opposition in the countries from which the works were to be exported, which Catherine overcame with that same unwavering determination, shrewd choice of advisers (Diderot's intervention, for example, was decisive in the removal of the Crozat collection from France), and lavish expenditure that allowed her to expand Russia's borders considerably during her reign.

Peter the Great, one of Catherine's forerunner and founder of St. Petersburg, passed through Venice in the summer of 1698. Although he personally showed more interest in acquiring Dutch and Flemish pictures, this visit marked the beginning of a flourishing artistic relationship between the two countries that brought many Venetian artists, architects and craftsmen to the new Russian capital in the decades that followed.

The special interest the Russian court and aristocracy took in Venetian art is witnessed in 'Hidden Masterpieces from the Hermitage: 17th- and 18th-Century Paintings from St. Petersburg' at the Castello in Udine (until Sept. 6), a show of 40 well-chosen canvases. Some are from the Russian museum's deposits, so they are not normally on view, and many have been spared the overaggressive cleaning that has damaged works in the West.

The Udine exhibition both complements and modifies the image projected by the Florence show. It emphasizes the role of Peter and of his daughter Elizabeth in introducing Western art to Russia before Catherine's accession, not to mention the importance of other collectors whose acquisitions did not enter the Hermitage until the present century.

Venetian view painters had a great influence on those in Russia and the style of St. Petersburg's presentation, and there are some excellent Canalettos, Guardis and an attractive work by the lesser-known Michele Marieschi here (all originally from Russian private collections).

These are accompanied by a trio of large, first-class canvases painted in and around Dresden by Bernardo Bellotto, Canaletto's nephew, which were among the 600 paintings obtained by Catherine from Bruehl in 1768.

There are also interesting works by Carlevaris (Canaletto's precursor and a native of Udine), Tiepolo, Longhi, Ricci, Pittoni, Zuccarelli, Molinari, Padovanino and others; a delicious rococo rendering by Jacopo Amigoni of the story from Ovid's 'Metamorphosis' in which Zeus takes on the form of Diana - in this case more portly prima donna than athletic huntress - in order to seduce the nymph Callisto; and a delightfully warm and sensual scene of Diana and her band of nymphs bathing, by Pietro Liberi.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024