The Hermitage is one of the largest museums in the world. Its displays are housed in 400 rooms spread across an architectural complex of five buildings which was created over the course of some 100 years, from the second half of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th.
The oldest of these buildings is the Winter Palace erected between 1754 and 1762 by the architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. For a century and a half this majestic edifice in the exuberant Baroque style was an official residence of the Russian sovereigns. The building has retained its original exterior appearance, but the decoration of its rooms and halls was substantially altered in the course of the restoration work carried out by the architects Vasily Stasov and Alexander Briullov after a devastating fire in 1837.
The main staircase of the palace, the Jordan Staircase, was used most notably by the royal family at Epiphany (6 January) when they attended the traditional Russian Orthodox ceremony of the Blessing of the Waters performed on the bank of the Neva. Since the ceremony recalls the baptism of Christ in the Jordan, the name of the great biblical river became attached to the staircase.
Adjoining the Winter Palace is the building of the Small Hermitage constructed to the design of Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe between 1764 and 1767. It consists of a pavilion and two long well-lit galleries running from it on either side of the Hanging Garden which was laid out at the level of the second story. The Hanging Garden communicates directly with the Pavilion Hall, famous for the interior created in 1850-58 by Andrei Stakenschneider. Back in the 18th century the rooms around the Hanging Garden were the first to house Catherine the Great's collection of paintings and sculpture. As the museum grew, the name of the pavilion came to refer to the whole of it.
Alongside the Small Hermitage stands a building which in reality consists of a whole complex of constructions added at different times: the Old, or Large, Hermitage (1775-84, architect Yury Velten), the Raphael Loggias block (1783-87, architect Giacomo Quarenghi) which is a copy of the gallery of the same name in the Vatican Palace in Rome, and the New Hermitage (1839-52, to a design by the architect Leo von Klenze) with splendid interior decor. The architectural ensemble also includes the building of the court theatre (1783-87, architect Giacomo Quarenghi), a remarkable example of 18th century theatrical architecture. All these buildings are connected by covered walkways so that to the visitor they seem part of one huge palace-museum.
At the present time the Hermitage collection comprises more than 2,500,000
works of art, including some 15,000 paintings, over 12,000 sculptures, more
than 600,000 drawings and engravings, and about 1,000,000 coins and medals.
Among the great artists whose works can be found here are Leonardo da Vinci,
Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya, Watteau, Michelangelo, Renoir,
Picasso and Matisse.