The rise and fall of the Romanovs remembered

by Victoria James

First of two parts At its height, in the middle of the 19th century, the Russian Empire ruled by the Romanovs covered more than one-sixth of the surface of the globe. It was a glorious era for a dynasty that had sprung from obscure beginnings, when in 1613, in a bid to end years of civil unrest at home and conflict abroad, a young prince named Mikhail Feodorovich Romanov was hastily crowned Tsar and Autocrat of All Russia amid the ruins of the Kremlin Palace in Moscow.

The Romanov imperial line ran like a glittering thread through Russian history for the next 300 years. Its monarchs alternated between despotism and liberalism; their courts dazzled the world even as their subjects starved. The Romanovs brought Russia into the modern era, but were finally destroyed by the irresistible forces of the very modernity they had fostered. The universities thrown wide open by Alexander III in the 1850s proved breeding grounds for radical dissent that, one night in July 1918, spilled over in an act of regicide. In a dark cellar in Ekaterinberg, Tsar Nicholas II and his family were shot to death by Bolshevik soldiers — and the thread of Romanov rule was snapped.

The rise and fall of the Romanovs is one of the most tumultuous stories of modern history, and it is brought vividly to life in an exhibition now showing at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum.

Like a movie in reverse, “Treasures of the Romanovs and Russia” begins with a cast of characters — a series of portraits that builds up a patchy pictorial family tree. First is the founder of the Romanov fortunes, Tsar Mikhail, painted in a faux-historical style in the 18th century. The dark, bearded figure is clad in jewel-encrusted garments that appear more ecclesiastical than imperial, but in later pictures, military uniform is de rigeur for reigning emperors. It is fascinating to trace family resemblances down the generations.

Even more revealing are the items of clothing displayed further on in the exhibition that breathe life into these formal, best-face-forward royal portraits. There is a handsome blue and gold-braided Horse Guards’ uniform that belonged to Peter III. A sickly and dissolute man, Peter ruled for less than a year (1861-1862) before he was deposed in a court conspiracy and assassinated a few days after signing away his throne. The almost childlike proportions of this small and slender coat speak of his weakness better than any official portrait could.

Next to Peter’s regimental coat is the same uniform adapted for a woman, his wife — and his successor. Catherine II, better known as Catherine the Great (reigned 1762-96), was perhaps the mastermind behind her husband’s violent removal.

This despotic woman was the last — and proved herself the most brilliant — of the five Romanov women who ruled Russia for most of the 18th century. Catherine introduced Enlightenment thinking to Russia, was notorious for her carnal appetite — and stood little more than 1.5 meters tall, to judge from the braided coat shown here.

The shift from Mikhail’s ecclesiastical wear to military outfits for monarchs of both sexes finds a correspondence in the artistic output of the court. One half of this exhibition (to be reviewed on page 11 of The Japan Times, May 28 [May 29 in some areas]) is devoted to items produced for the Orthodox Church: icons, church fittings and heavy, bejeweled pectoral images. These pieces date mostly from the 15th-17th centuries.

With the consolidation of Romanov power, however, and the spread of intellectual progressivism for which Russia became famous, imperial patronage of craftsmen took an increasingly secular turn. There are stunning, heavy gold- and silverware pieces here, dating from the 18th century. The 19th century saw a vogue for bright enamel ornamentation, and the ateliers of Moscow and St. Petersburg turned out luxurious items intended for everyday use, such a lapiz-colored ink-stand and a rooster-shaped decanter with eggshell-shape goblets standing on golden legs.

The Romanovs weren’t the only ones flaunting their power through patronage. A centerpiece exhibit here is the Egyptian dinner-service presented by Napoleon to Tsar Alexander I in 1806. Produced by the renowned Sevres Imperial Porcelain Factory, the ancient Egyptian motifs, in gold overlay on a midnight-blue background, trumpeted the French conquest of Egypt in 1798. This was the first total defeat of a Muslim power by a Christian nation, and an event that unlocked for European scholars (and looters) the cultural, intellectual and material riches of Ancient Egypt.

Alexander might have done well to heed the vaunting ambition expressed in this extravagant gift — in 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia. The French Army, experienced and superior in numbers, easily drove back the Russian defenders, but Alexander adopted a scorched earth policy, destroying his own country in the wake of his army’s retreat. Once the French troops reached Moscow, they had overextended themselves. Out of reach of their supply lines and surrounded by nothing but wasteland, the soldiers were finally defeated by the harsh Russian winter. Russia was not another Egypt, Alexander’s successors might have reflected with satisfaction, while using the French emperor’s exquisite but overweening gift.

The Romanovs’ time came too, of course, that night in Ekaterinberg, and in 1923 the Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag was hoisted over Russia. It gives a retrospective irony to one of the most attractive jewelry items in this exhibition, the treasure of a Romanov princess: a pair of earrings studded with diamonds — in the shape of the Soviet sickle.