Wednesday 4 November 2020

The Tsarina's Lost Treasure

It's an absolute pleasure to welcome Gerald Easter and Mara Vorhees to the salon today. Gerald and Mara are the authors of the wonderful new book, The Tsarina's Lost Treasure, all about the search for the ship Vrouw Maria, which was lost in 1771. When the ship went down, it took with it Catherine the Great's priceless collection of art. Two and a half centuries later, the Vrouw Maria and her cargo have been found deep beneath the waves. This gripping book tells the full - sometimes mindboggling - tale.

Read more about the book and its remarkable story by clicking here.



An Excerpt from

The Tsarina’s Lost Treasure 

Catherine the Great A Golden Age Masterpiece, and a Legendary Shipwreck


Gerald Easter and Mara Vorhees


In the 18th century, Catherine the Great set out to make the Imperial Russian court in Saint Petersburg a great cultural power of Europe, and in so doing, became one of the continent’s most voracious art collectors. The 1771 auction of the Braamcamp estate in Amsterdam was the art event of the era, attracting aristocrats and art lovers from far and wide to vie for the European masterpieces in the celebrated collection. Catherine’s agents outbid and outspent all of her competitors, snapping up Braamcamp’s most desirable Dutch paintings for her own growing collection (which would become the foundation of the Hermitage Museum). 


Catherine scored a dozen invaluable paintings, which were loaded onto the merchant ship Vrouw Maria for transport to Saint Petersburg. In a late autumn squall, the ship crashed off the stormy Finnish coast, taking the historic cargo to the depths of the Baltic Sea. The Tsarina’s Lost Treasure recounts the fascinating tale of the Vrouw Maria – her loss and discovery – delving into the history and fate of Catherine’s precious cultural treasure. 




In ancient Rome, Minerva was goddess of wisdom and culture. The daughter of Jupiter, she inspired and defended those dedicated to knowledge and creation. For Catherine, myth became muse. The empress viewed herself as the “Russian Minerva, Patroness and Protectress of the Arts.” She encouraged the likeness. Images of Catherine wearing Minerva’s high-crested winged helmet were cast into commemorative coins, carved in ivory cameos, and painted onto fine porcelain plates. She even commissioned Flemish sculptor Jean-Pierre Tassaert to carve a life-sized marble figure of herself and Italian painter Gregorio Guglielmi to paint a ceiling fresco of herself in the guise of her favorite goddess. But the empress lacked a proper venue in which to play Minerva.


When the ship arrived with Catherine’s first major purchase, two-hundred-plus paintings from the Gotzkowsky collection, the empress fretted: she had no suitable space to display her spoils. Frederick the Great of Prussia had his Sanssouci; Catherine would have her Hermitage. The more she heard about Frederick’s Potsdam retreat, the more she coveted her own stylish sanctuary: a place removed from state affairs and court intrigues; a place reserved for stimulating conversation, soothing music, and exquisite artwork; part salon, part stage, part trophy room. 


Just twenty miles outside the capital were the gilded gardens of Tsarskoe Selo, where Empress Elizabeth had her favorite builder Bartolomo Rastrelli fashion a swanky rotunda for entertaining purposes. The inside was a modern marvel, with each dining table fitted with mechanical dumbwaiters. Following aristocratic fashion, Elizabeth gave her garden rotunda a French nickname, l’Ermitage. Catherine considered this site for her art collection, but it was both too far away and too flamboyant. Catherine wanted to keep her stash close by. So she decided to

build her own “Little Hermitage” along the Neva Embankment next to the Winter Palace, where she lived and worked.


Like Elizabeth, Catherine loved to build. She confessed to Grimm: “We have a mania for building. It is a fiendish thing and consumes so much money, but the more I build, the more I want to build. It is as addictive as alcohol.” Unlike Elizabeth, Catherine loathed ostentation in her buildings. For her new Hermitage, the tsarina passed over Rastrelli, whose rococo creations were like whipped cream, she said. Instead, she gave the commission to Yury Velten, Rastrelli’s longtime assistant. 


In a restrained Baroque style, Velten produced a two-story South Pavilion, bordering

Palace Square. At this time, construction was also underway on a new gallery for the Academy of Arts on Vasilievsky Island. Catherine viewed its progress from her palace windows. She was so taken by this building’s elegant simple lines that she commissioned its Classical Revivalist architect, Villain de la Mothe of France, to design the next phase of her Hermitage. Mothe crafted a three-story neoclassical North Pavilion, along the riverfront. He then connected the two facing pavilions with long open galleries, surrounding a hanging garden courtyard. This structural ensemble became Catherine’s salon, the Little Hermitage.

The Small Hermitage, built by Catherine the Great to display her art collection, now part of the State Hermitage Museum.
The Small Hermitage, built by Catherine the Great to display her art collection, now part of the State Hermitage Museum.

The empress paced the halls of her new playhouse in solitude. She contemplated the plaster walls, an empty canvas to be filled. She envisaged various arrangements for her artworks. Catherine alone decided which of her favorites would be displayed, and how. The Flemish masters Rubens, Bruegel, and van Dyck adorned one gallery wall; the Italian masters Tintoretto and Veronese the opposite side; while Dutch masters Hals, Rembrandt, and Steen were placed where everyone who entered would see them. The smaller scale Dous were grouped together and hung low, so visitors could admire the lifelike detail of the Leiden fijnschilder. When new

acquisitions arrived, the empress took care and pleasure to find their right place among her treasures.


The empress’s days were full of formality—counsels, ceremony, correspondence; but the evenings were given to informality—conversation, games, entertainment. Intimate parties of a dozen or so select guests gathered at night in the Little Hermitage. To assure the proper atmosphere, Catherine composed a list of ten rules For the Behavior of All Those Entering These Doors:

1) All ranks, swords and hats shall be left at the door;

2) Haughtiness in all forms shall be left at the door;

3) Act merry, but do not upset or break anything;

4) Sit, stand or walk as you please, regardless of others;

5) Do not talk loud, or give others an earache or headache;

6) Do not argue too passionately or angrily;

7) Do not sigh, yawn or anything that fatigues and bores others;

8) Agree to participate in any innocent games suggested by others;

9) Eat and drink as you please, but always leave on your own legs;

10) All that is said and done here must stay here after you leave.


As punishment for those who violated the rules one through nine, the empress made them guzzle a glass of ice water and recite passages of poetry. Those who trespassed against the tenth rule, however, were forever banned from the premises.

Portrait of Empress Catherine the Great, née Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, Fyodor Rokotov (?), 1780s, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Portrait of Empress Catherine the Great, née Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, Fyodor Rokotov (?), 1780s, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.

“My pictures are beautiful,” the empress told Falconet. “When can you come see them?” Catherine was most comfortable in this combined setting of high culture and casual socializing. Philosophers discussed, musicians played, poets recited, and actors performed. While Frederick composed his flute sonatas at Sanssouci, Catherine tried her hand as a playwright, using the Hermitage theatre to stage her comedies. Invited guests played whist and bridge and other gambling games. Catherine was always eager to make a wager, even though she most often lost. Silver serving trays of food were laid out, alongside brimming crystal decanters of wine and vodka. Inevitably, at some point in the evening, the empress escorted guests to the galleries to view her most recent Old Master triumph. Here in the Little Hermitage, Catherine was indeed the Russian Minerva.

The Tent-Roofed Hall in the New Hermitage, now part of the State Hermitage Museum, displays 17th century Dutch paintings.
The Tent-Roofed Hall in the New Hermitage, now part of the State Hermitage Museum, displays 17th century Dutch paintings.

In mid-March 1771, the empress sat down with her vice chancellor for the morning

briefing. Through the tall palace windows, she could see the Neva River was finally stirring, as late winter ice crackled and churned. Alexander Golitsyn read to Her Majesty a letter just arrived from cousin Dmitry in The Hague: An extraordinary opportunity, the Amsterdam merchant Braamcamp is dead. His famous Temple of Arts, filled with rare and precious Old Masters, soon will go to auction.



No comments: