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The Cats of The Hermitage

The Hermitage Museum is a must-visit for sightseers in Saint Petersburg. It is one of the best ways to delve into the country’s past – that of the Czars – to get an idea of the opulence and splendour they lived in. The figures speak for themselves: the Hermitage has over three million artworks, from both East and West, including paintings, sculptures, archaeological pieces, Greek and Roman antiquities, jewellery and weapons – imagine that! The art gallery rates among the finest in the world, leaving behind other great art museums such as the Louvre and the Prado. What’s more; only about 3% of that huge number of artworks are actually on public display.

That enormous private collection, which became a State Museum in 1917, dates from 1764, when Catherine the Great acquired 225 Dutch and Flemish paintings. It was also during her reign that construction began on the massive architectural complex where the collections are now housed. It is made up of seven buildings: the Winter Palace – the former residence of the Czars – the Hermitage Theatre, Old Hermitage, Small Hermitage, New Hermitage, General Staff Building and the Menshikov Palace, once the residence of the governor of Saint Petersburg.

The Hermitage Cats

What strikes visitors to this magnificent museum – apart from its wealth, splendour, fine execution and antiquity – are the cats that roam about there. In case you think they are there by chance – no, they are there by design, as they are tasked with hunting down rodents to prevent any artworks from deteriorating. Thus far, it might just sound like some quaint story but there is actually a long history behind these feline guardians. In fact, they are the only tenants of the Palace that have survived all the upheavals of the country’s past – the Napoleonic invasion, the Russian Revolution and the German invasion during World War II.

The first cat to appear in the royal palace was brought there by Czar Peter I from the Low Countries. But, it was his daughter, Czarina Elisabeth Petrovna, who in 1774 decreed the use of cats to rid the palace of mice, which she was genuinely terrified of. Cats have lived in the Winter Palace ever since and have witnessed the passage of Czars, courtesans and the Bolsheviks. Nowadays they share the premises with the museum staff and visitors. Only the siege of Leningrad, which lasted nearly 900 days and sowed famine throughout the city, caused them to vanish temporarily.

There are currently over 60 cats of different breeds roaming through the basements, the offices and the area surrounding the Hermitage, although they are not allowed into the exhibition halls. They even have their own caretaker, Irina Popovets. While the museum does not have a budget for their upkeep, funds are raised for this purpose by different means. They are supported through private patronage and the association, “Feline Friends of the Hermitage”. They have even had exhibitions held in their honour.

Whether you like these whiskered creatures or not, we recommend you book a Vueling to Saint Petersburg to discover one of the world’s largest and finest art collections.

 

Text by Los Viajes de ISABELYLUIS

Images by James Byrum, Brent Ozar, Jorge Cancela, RachelH_