The Louvre Museum, with its spectacular glass pyramid, is an icon of Paris and one of the world’s most-visited cultural sites. Its vast and rich collections encompass all ages: from antiquity (the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory) and the Renaissance (the Mona Lisa, works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Titian) to 19th-century French masterpieces. The Louvre-Lens project, now underway, will see more of the enormous collection out of storage and on display at a second site in north Paris.
The museum was originally the main Royal Palace in Paris, and was built on the site of an earlier royal fortress, whose remains can be seen on the ground floor. Napoleon, who preferred the Palace of Fontainbleau, turned the Louvre into a repository for all the artworks he looted from throughout Europe – and it remains today one the top three museums in the world, alongside the British Museum and the Hermitage.
The Gosudarstvennyj Èrmitaž or Hermitage Museum, that vast collection of Russian and human art and artefacts, has swollen to fill six buildings, the largest and most appropriate being St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace, once home of the Tzars. This magnificent Baroque building and its contents fit well into the collection began in the mid 18th century by Catherine the Great. Starting with an incredible collection of paintings, predominantly from the Old and Dutch Masters, the catalogue grew to engulf the best private collections put up for sale, and expanded from just art into artefacts, relics and gold – including important pieces from Classical cultures from Greece, Rome and Eqypt and a huge collection of ancient gold.
It was Nicholas I who ordered the ordering and opening of the Hermitage to the public. In 1852 the first building was the first purpose built gallery in Eastern Europe. The Revolution nationalised the museum property further and ‘absorbed’ up the personal collections of the Tzars, including work collected by Catherine’s forebear, Peter the Great and other wealthy families long associated with Russian rulers which bolstered up the collection with those of the Catherine and Alexander Palaces, known for their Old Masters and modern works by Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh.
With more than three million items and having expanded over six buildings and in other pockets around the world, the Hermitage Collection is best known for it’s Russian regalia and Faberge collections as well as excellent collections of the works of Gaugin, Monet, Rodin, Renior, da Vinci, Rembrant, Michelangelo and Rubens. It also has collections from pre-history and the east, strong in Siberian and Central Asian Art.
If you’re unable to make the excursion to Russia you can go via proxy by watching the excellent film, Russian Ark. You will get to see 33 of The Hermitage’s rooms and wander the corridors filled with actors reconstructing periods in Russia’s illustrious past.
Incredible world class collection of Chinese, Asian, Aztec and Classical art, with Egyptian Mummies, the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles as highlights. The astonishing thing about the British Museum, too, is that it is free (except for special exhibitions). Founded in 1753 and built on the collection of Sir Hans Sloane and subsequent spoils of Empire, the BM’s 13m objects document the whole range of human history and culture, containing cultural relics from practically every civilisation in the world. If there is only one sight you should visit in London, it’s the British Museum. But give yourself plenty of time – and check for evening openings, as these tend to be far less crowded.
Much of the Uffizi’s collection was once owned by the Medici family, a member of which originally commissioned the building in 1560. The Uffizi houses a stunning collection of Renaissance and medieval painting and sculpture, including priceless works from other periods, and provides a wonderful overview of Italy’s artistic heritage – the thousands of works of art encompass Greek and Roman sculptures, Renaissance and Baroque paintings, including iconic works such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Titian’s Venus of Urbino.
However it is not, relatively speaking, a large museum, so gets incredibly crowded in high season. Queues can line up around the block and back. If you do find yourself here between May and September, it is imperative that you pre-book a ticket, preferably for first thing in the morning, and that you allow yourself plenty of time to get around, as you will be dodging tour groups. Also try to prepare, so you know what you are going to see.
A large collection of European art from the 13th to the 18th centuries, housed in 7,000 square metres of exhibition space. It’s strong in 13th to 16th century Italian painting and 15th and 16th century Dutch painting – and there are 16 works by Rembrandt that hang together in a single space – but the collection contains European masterpieces from almost every age.
Moscow’s finest arts museum, with a huge collection of Western art. It has excellent displays of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, with French Impressionists particularly well represented. A small annexe museum next door, the Musey Chastnykh Kollektsiy (Museum of Private Collections), shows highlights of the collection.
The Vatican Museums show world-renowned collections of ancient sculpture, medieval and Renaissance art. They include the Sistine Chapel, the Galleria dei Candelabri (Gallery of Candelabras), the Galleria degli Arazzi (featuring an outstanding collection of tapestries) and the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche (the Hall of Maps; a superb collection of 40 frescoed 16th century wall maps.)
Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado has one of Europe’s most important collections of paintings and other art. The core of the collection came from Spanish royalty, the Habsburgs and the Bourbons. Its collection of work by the Spanish Masters – Velazquez, Goya, Murilla and particularly El Greco – is unrivalled. Sculpture, drawings, prints, coins and other decorative objects are also on show.
Some paintings are so familiar, used in pop art or advertising or on postcards, that people may think that there’s no need to make the effort to see the real thing. But they’re just plain wrong. Knowing what a painting looks like isn’t the same thing as having stood in front of a painting.
The National Galley in London is home to a number of these familiar paintings, Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, George Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asnieres’, Velazquez’s creamy ‘Rokeby Venus’, and Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’, and here against the dark red or green walls and shining wood floors they glow with light and depth and colour in a way they just don’t seem to be able to replicate on a postcard yet.
The old adage of ‘I don’t know a lot about art but I know what I like’ can be a bit overwhelming here. I like the Impressionists with their soft, muted colours and Turner with his churning seas and all the flesh pinks of the religious and portrait galleries. And I like the faces, caught in timeless expressions from all the way along the scale of human experience, and the abstract works, well some of them anyway. That’s the thing with a gallery like this one – because it’s free you can easily find yourself popping in to have a look around and each time you’ll find something new to stand in front of in awe.
If you’re planning a grand tour you can be just as floored by a single painting so you’ll have to plan your route or else accept that you’re a bit of a leaf in the wind at the mercy of your taste and the gallery layout. Some galleries are busier than others and people still seem to be drawn to the paintings they recognise, but there are lots of quiet corners where you can be alone with your finds.