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Emperor’s gifts: ahead of the Hermitage’s jubilee, exhibition of diplomatic gifts kicks off

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The exhibition of the Tsar’s gifts has opened at the Hermitage. Luxurious items were gathered at one of the Headquarters’ halls. According to specialists, these gifts shed a lot of light not only on the Emperor’s family, but also how relations with leaders of other countries had been built.

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For instance, a golden book with signatures of French mayors and heads of societies, who back in the days wanted to join Russia. Alexandra Lee found out what and under what circumstances the Tsar’s family received as gifts.

Alexandra Lee, reporter: “Questioned which gifts were not appreciated by the recipients, keepers of the Hermitage give an evasive response – as if Emperors were polite and there have been no records of them turning gifts down. However, this cup – a gift to Peter the Great – lost most of the portraits it was engraved with. Empress Katherine II, known for her passion for jewelry, literally ransacked it. But this, as people would say today, act of vandalism is a clear proof this gift was highly appreciated, even despite it was given to a different person”

These gifts from other people – golden cups, music boxes with diamonds – were either melted or sold in Soviet times. Around 400 gifts have survived miraculously. Jewels, guns, money, writing tools, music instruments and even tusks – these luxurious items had been on display before, but today those were gathered all together at a designated exhibition. 

Tamara Reppe, head of Western European art department of the Hermitage: “I cant say that tastes of recipients were considered, but – on the other hand – a gift had to be liked. That’s why they took their time selecting a gift”.

Dining sets were usually gifted at weddings, some of those had several hundred items. Such sets are represented by only 5-6 items – not to overload exhibition shelves. Museum workers lament that nowadays consuls exchange gifts which could fit in a suitcase.

Alexandra Lee, reporter: “What’s the most peculiar one?”

Tamara Reppe, head of Western European art department of the Hermitage: “For my taste – this table of Lorraine, which was gifted to Alexander III when Russian troops marched into Toulon. Everything has a meaning here – even pictures of tears of Lorraine, which cries over German invasion. And of all, it was the most interested in an alliance with Russia”

Alexandra Lee, reporter: “Those are the tears?” 

Tamara Reppe, head of Western European art department of the Hermitage: “Yes, tears made of glass”

The table with tear-filled pleas for Russian help was merely an addition to a gift. The main part was a 60-kilogram “Golden book of Lorraine”, with a cover of red velvet and silver-gold embossments, singed by French mayors and heads of communities – all those who wanted to join Russia. And this gift from the Turkish Shah – a child’s kaftan – was brought to mark Crimea’s accession to the Russian Empire. Symbolic gifts get a new light in modern-day realities.

Mikhail Piotrovskiy, director of State Hermitage: “Gifts tell of diplomacy’s history. About ties which existed, ties which were broken. About ties which were in their inception and became real during XX century. All this tells of different cultures in the West and the East. And the pinnacles of these cultures too”

Being the “Emperor” of all museums, the Hermitage also receives gifts in its jubilee 250th year. Chandeliers made from the famous Murano glass have appeared at the modern hall ahead of a planned exhibition. And 70 modern art objects too – authored by 40 artists and gathered together by famous collector Helen Drutt English. For the first time in 2 years, the museum is exchanging with the Americans.

Helen Drutt English, gallerist and collector: “Gifts from the USA made their way to St. Petersburg. And these works, we hope, will initiate future exchanges. The initiative dates back to 2012 during a meeting with Dr. Piotrovskiy – that’s when the concept of item selection was born. And now we have 74 items at the exhibition”

The venue is symbolic too. The Headquarters building which used to house Ministry of Foreign Affairs – just the place where art can help creating diplomatic ties. 

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