She wasn’t a blood relative of Peter the Great, as many people unsurprisingly assume. In fact, she wasn’t even Russian. She was born in Germany and moved to Russia for an ill-fated marriage. It just so happened that she was wildly intelligent, became one of the most successful leaders of the 18th Century and one of the most famous women in history.
Reading between the lines that is pretty much how Catherine the Great is introduced to visitors at her exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland. I was about to say her new exhibition, however, it’s apparently been going on since 13th July. Not sure how I missed that, but almost a month and a half after the exhibition started I got around to paying it a visit.
Perhaps it’s because Russia and her history aren’t normally the first things on my mind that Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress totally passed me by, but when I saw an advert last week I thought it might provide me a little more background before I go to what remains of her former empire this week – well, I’ll be in Moscow, not her capital of St Petersburg, but still. Whatever my motivations for going, I was dazzled, educated and amazed – it’s no wonder it is the biggest collection of Russian artefacts ever to be in a single display in the UK.
Following the wonderful Fascinating Mummies I didn’t know quite what to expect from this display – I was slightly concerned it would be all frocks and dinner services – but whilst I may have had slight trepidations they were pretty much instantly dispelled as I walked through the door and instead of finding myself entering a burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings I found myself looking at the silhouette of the Russian imperial crest – the two headed eagle – and entering a room that wouldn’t have looked too out of place in Catherine’s imperial palace.
Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, as she was born, was never meant to become an Empress of such renown, but after a love-less marriage, a lot of reading and the unrelenting desire to follow Peter (the Great)’s plans to better her adopted country there is little doubt that she will never be forgotten.
The exhibition, which coincides with the 250th anniversary of her ascension to the throne, contains over 600 artefacts from the great lady’s collections, telling the spectacular story of her life – both before and during her reign – and of the magnificent opulence of the Russian Court.
From the love-less marriage to Peter III, and having her son taken by Peter’s Aunt, Elizabeth – the then Empress – to having an illegitimate son, and overthrowing her husband in a coup, the first part of the exhibition tells of her life up until she took the throne. With tales of how she read widely, absorbing the knowledge of the Enlightenment in Europe and conversing with some of its luminaries such as Diderot, the character of fierce intellect is established and her motives for the coup are plainly laid out.
Once sitting on the throne Catherine aimed to both modernise and westernise Russia. Extending the palaces, commissioning vast collections and waging monumental wars it is hardly surprising that Catherine is often described as the most successful ruler of the Romanov dynasty and from the wares on display in the exhibition it is impossible not to leave with your jaw trailing along the highly polished floor. Paintings, outfits, elaborate candelabras, ornaments and those gilded dinner services – there is everything here to take you through the stages in her life and the power she wielded. The sheer scale of works she commissioned and collected takes her from being a character in history books and brings her to life, showing her eccentricities, intelligence and love for her grandsons and people.
My favourite item, though, must be the sign that sat outside her private bolthole in St Petersburg – le Petit Hermitage. In a space where she entertained her friends (and much more besides) there were ten rules; written as much in good humour as their slightly more serious nature, they informed her guests to have fun, not to presume rank over anyone else and above all, what happened in le Petit Hermitage, stays in le Petit Hermitage. As much as relevant today as they were over 200 years ago (and I bet with a certain prince wishing the same could be said of Vegas and its hotel rooms), I would quite like a set for outside my own front door – although perhaps not in the original Cyrillic.
This exhibition – created in partnership with the State Hermitage Museum of St Petersburg, one of Catherine’s old palaces – is, of course, very timely for me and my trip to Russia (I leave on Friday!), but more than that it was spectacularly interesting and hugely engrossing. Since they reopened last year, the NMS seem to being going from strength to strength, and here’s hoping they continue to bring these incredible exhibitions to their fine museum.
Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress is on at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, until the 21st October – I would thoroughly endorse it as an informative and fascinating afternoon out.