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Culture news
The private life of the Romanovs
08.22.2003 11:07

The items include Catherine the Great's saddle, a golden box that once held the baptismal clothes of members of the Romanov family, a silver mirror used by all the tsarinas after Catherine and a watercolor on parchment that hung in Nicholas II's bathroom.

"The exhibitions here will only be temporary, and we will have to change them every six months," said Nina Vernova, deputy director of Peterhof's palace museums and the creator of the new display.

"The artworks from the special collections are either very fragile or are sensitive to direct sunlight or have some other special requirements, and therefore have never been displayed in our permanent collection," she said.

All of the items on display also have strong personal connection with their former owners. Many were diplomatic presents or gifts given by members of the Russian royal family to their relatives.

One of the halls contains several costumes from the wardrobe of Grigory Potyomkin, Catherine the Great's favorite and her alleged lover.

"It was sometimes very difficult for us to find these costumes because, after the revolutions of 1917, they were given to some of the Russian theaters," Peterhof Director Vadim Znamenov said.

"They were used extensively by singers of various sizes, which damaged them enormously," he said.

The costumes have been restored, but are now very sensitive to sunlight and, even though there are sun protectors on the palace's windows, they can not be on display for more than six months.

To find the necessary amount of space for the exhibition, Znamenov moved his office and administration to a less spacious headquarters. The Wing Under the Shield (Korpus Pod Gerbom in Russian), which is linked to Peterhof's Grand Palace, has now become a permanent home for exhibitions from the museum's special collection.

Three rooms out of the eight that make up the exhibition are devoted to Catherine the Great: her cabinet, her bedroom and her dressing room. The wing was mainly used to accommodate guests of the royal family, and Russian rulers didn't usually live there, but Catherine was an exception.

Exactly how the rooms' interiors looked during Catherine's time has not been documented, so the exhibition's curators compiled the display from the tsarina's personal belongings and other items or artworks that she is known to have used. One example is a gorgeous silver samovar with four types of playing cards carved on its bottom.

"Catherine herself was a passionate gambler, and many of her noble contemporaries were quite keen on playing cards," Vernova said. "Virtually every event that happened within these walls during the second half of the eighteenth century, be it a reception or dinner or a foreign ambassador's visit, inevitably ended with a game of cards."

Some playing cards are shown as well, as are jewellery items and multiple snuffboxes, which were a popular present at the time.

The exhibition's curators are particularly proud of the portraits by Catherine the Great's parents that can be seen in the cabinet. Almost no museums have a similar portrait, as they are extremely difficult to find, Vernova said.

The hall before the cabinet contains assorted personal items used by or given to some of Russia's imperial rulers. One of them is a luxurious, richly decorated saddle used by Catherine when she went to St. Petersburg from Peterhof for her coronation. A scene from the coronation is displayed alongside. That watercolor, along with other three depicting various scenes of Catherine's coronation, were known to hang in Nicholas II's bathroom.

"No-one knows the reason for that, but let's hope that he, just like we museum workers, wanted to protect them from sunlight," Vernova said, adding that the paintings are very sensitive to sunlight as they are on parchment.

The guestroom has a special meaning for the palace. It is linked to the Grand Palace, and was where Russian princesses were prepared for their weddings and newborn members of the family were readied for baptism. When everything was prepared, they went through the Grand Palace to the church.

Entrance to the museum costs 100 rubles ($3.30). The exhibition can be viewed by groups of up to 15 people only; individual visitors must wait to join a group. Tours are available in English. For more information, call 420-0073.

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