The State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia is the Eastern European version of the the Louvre. Formerly the winter palace of Russian royalty, this beautiful and grandiose building now houses a huge art collection. What is often said of the Louvre, definitely goes for the Hermitage Museum – you can spend days in it and only see a fraction of the art.
I have personally visited twice and both times were equally impressive. You can find galleries dedicated to almost any time and any place in the world here, and the actual building itself is absolutely spectacular. Many remnants of the Russian czars remain as well, including the Throne Room, which left me awestruck (pictured below).
What I did not know when I had visited is that the Hermitage is also home to over 60 cats! These furry guards were brought into the building in the late 1700s to combat the mice and rat population and have been a fairly permanent fixture ever since. Although not usually allowed in the exhibition halls, these felines are comfortable wandering the grounds and the belly of the building where they are taken care of by a dedicated team of staff. From reading numerous articles about this it seems that the Hermitage has adopted many stray cats over the years, ones either brought in by the staff or left on the grounds by local residents who know the cats will have a good home. Due to this fluctuating number of feline friends, the Hermitage also has an adoption program to find the extra cats good homes. And they even come with a Hermitage certificate! These cats really are royals!
However, no matter the surroundings, even these cats can be silly and rebellious. Here is an example (Tatyana Nikolayevna Danilova is a supervisor at the museum):
However, it’s very difficult to totally deny access for the cats to the exhibition premises. Many times the Hermitage supervisors have found runaway guards strolling amongst the visitors. Last autumn, an alarm bell called Danilova to an exhibition room where the art and culture of ancient Egypt is presented. Entering the room she heard someone yelling terribly. A cat named Chipa was stuck between a showcase and a plinth. Tatyana immediately called the local fire department. Chipa was finally set free from the trap by two strong firemen, who lifted the metallic plinth with the help of a crowbar.
Tatyana also remembers a case when one curious cat climbed from the basement through a ventilation tube up to the second floor of the New Hermitage, where the exhibition room of the famous Dutch artist Anthony Van Dyck is located. The exhibition supervisors tried to lure the cat with the help of food, but all efforts were useless. Finally, the hungry animal surrendered to the staff after spending two exhausting weeks in the museum’s ventilation system. From that day on the cat was called Van Dyck.
Perhaps because of my fondness for cats those stories make me grin from ear to ear.
I am sure I will wind my way back to Hermitage at some point in my life so next time I will keep an eye out for these “guards” and maybe even try to sneak them a little treat.
Some extra reading:
ABC news – St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum Home to Masters…and Cats
Russian Life– Hermitage Cats: The Guards of the Russian Crown Jewelry (a great write up)