The Romanovs, one of the world’s wealthiest – and perhaps bloodiest – royal dynasties, governed Russia for three centuries. The Romanov rule began with the ascension of Czar Michael in 1613 and ended with the execution of Nicholas II and his family, the Czarina Alexandra, and their five children, following the Bolshevik Revolution of l917.
The main achievements of the Romanov dynasty were extending Russia’s borders and transforming the nation from a backward, semi-Asiatic country into a Western European state. The policy of expanding Russian
territory, usually associated with Peter the Great, actually started with his grandfather and was continued by his successors right into the 20th century. It was Peter the Great, though, who founded St. Petersburg and westernized Russia. He also established the State Diamond Fund in 1719 to separate the nation’s from the family’s jewels. (The exhibit includes a miniature ivory portrait of Peter the Great.)
One should never forget the darker side of the dazzling collection. The extravagance of the Romanovs, who often ascended to the throne before puberty, always stood in stark contrast to the poverty and hunger of their people. It’s astounding that the 1917 revolution didn’t occur earlier.
Outsized stones. Among the most remarkable jewels in the exhibit are a unique 260-carat sapphire surrounded by 56 carats of pure white diamonds. The sapphire, the size of a doorknob, was purchased by Alexander II at the Great Exhibition of 1862 in London as a gift for his Empress, Maria Alexandrovna. Another astonishing jewel, “Caesar’s Ruby,” an ornament the size of a pigeon’s egg, is a richly colored rubellite tourmaline carved to resemble a bunch of grapes, with leaves of green enamel and tendrils of gold. It was a gift to Catherine the Great from King Gustav of Sweden during his visit to Russia in 1777.
Perhaps the most extraordinary item is the “Tafelstein” (table stone) bracelet, a Gothic assembly of gold and enamel decorations framing a 27-carat, table-cut diamond set over a miniature, full-body portrait of Alexander I at its center. The diamond is said to have cost 11,500 rubles in 1771, when 12 rubles would buy a team of four matched horses. After the death of Alexander in 1825, the bracelet was redesigned as a memorial for his widow, who barely wore it before she died two months later. Also on view is a child’s rattle and whistle of gold, silver, emeralds, coral and ivory. What it cost would probably have fed a whole village for a year.
Religious objects form a small separate exhibit, including a majestic intricate golden censer, elaborate low-relief gilded covers for the Gospels and a trio of stunning crucifixes. Jewels here glorify a higher ideal, as in a “Panagia” (Greek for “all saintly,” an ecclesiastical pendant) from the late 17th century, intricately carved with an image of the virgin in a ring adorned with diamonds, emeralds and sapphires.
The exhibit shows that Russian artisans excelled at creating covers of prayer books and sacramental objects, decorated with silver-gilt or gold, diamonds, pearls and enamel. Many were cherished and some even worshipped. Religious sculpture was considered inspirational: To pray to an icon was equated with praying to a saint.
Royal portraits. The exhibit also includes several portraits. One is of Catherine the Great, the German-born princess, wearing an elegant gown and crown, circa 1796. She had assumed the throne in 1762 after deposing her ineffectual husband, Peter III. In her 34-year reign, she tried to bring about a change in Russian life with liberal ideas adopted from the French philosophers Montesquieu and Voltaire. She created the Hermitage, which housed the Western art she bought by the trainload, mostly from bankrupt British nobility.
A portrait of Czar Alexander II, known as “the Liberator,” is also on view. He was the ruler who instituted major educational reform and abolished serfdom in 1861, two years before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Of special interest is the portrait of Alexander’s son, the Grand Duke Alexis, who was 21 years old when President Ulysses S. Grant invited him to visit the Union that Russia had supported during the Civil War. The young aristocrat toured 20 American cities, from Washington to New Orleans, in 1871-’72. The exhibit commemorates that royal visit of 126 years ago, with a letter Duke Alexis wrote after visiting Louisville, Ky. He writes of his surprise that a Southern city would invite him since he supported the North during the Civil War.
“I must say, that there is a wonderful difference between America of the North and the South. [In the South] they are much more like Europeans. It is apparent that they are old feudal landowners and, in general, are similar to our own nobility.”
The wife of Paul I, the Empress Maria Feodorovna, one of the most interesting women of her age, wrote the first horticultural encyclopedia of indigenous Russian plants. She owned a tiara of diamonds, designed as oak and laurel leaves, that shines like a starry night. Her portrait shows her in her full-length gown wearing a feathered turban.