The Romanov Jewels


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The Romanovs—a magic name. Every New York waiter who folded a white towel over his arm in the 1920s and ’30s claimed to be an exiled Romanov. The last of the Romanovs—Nicholas II and Alexandra—met a violent end, as did the family counselor, the mad monk Rasputin, who was poisoned, shot and drowned in the river by enemies who wanted to make triply sure of his disappearance from this earth.

But for 300 years the Romanov family ruled Russia.

Ivan the Terrible became the first crowned czar of Russia (the word czar is drawn from the Latin caesar) in 1547. And at age 16, Michael Romanov became the first of the ruling Romanovs in 1613. At a critical juncture in royal succession, Michael was chosen by an assembly of aristocrats and church officials. Young and inexperienced, he was not perceived as a threat to this cadre of nobles. However, the Romanov dynasty that he founded was to rule Russia for the next three centuries—until 1917 and the Russian Revolution.

Peter the Great (who reigned 1682-1725) was the first of the Romanov rulers to travel outside his homeland. After observing European cultures, he brought back many new ideas. He created a navy, freed women from cloistered areas and promoted education. He also moved the religious artisans of Yaroslavl—since the 1500s the center for gold- and silversmiths—to his new court at St. Petersburg to create secular jewelry for the noble families of Russia.

In a culture that beatified jewelry, every state occasion called for fabulous ornamentation. This was true not only in Russia but in all the capitals of Europe. Heads of state presented elaborate gifts to each other, as when the king of Prussia gave the legendary Amber Room to Peter the Great. (The entire room was dismantled and carted off by Nazi soldiers during World War II and has never been found. Recently, however, what are believed to be two panels from the room have resurfaced.)

In Russia, a distinction was drawn in Peter’s time between personal jewelry and state property. He created the Diamond Chamber, a treasury to be owned by the state, to which he donated the coronation regalia—crowns, scepters and orbs. He encouraged other nobles to do the same. Once donated, no item could be reclaimed. Each subsequent ruler added gems and jewels to the Diamond Chamber, today known as the State Diamond Fund.

Objects could be borrowed back, of course, for state occasions. And royalty continued to order elaborate jewelry for their own personal use. (When the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra and their five children, were taken prisoner, the daughters were found to have sewn jewels into their garments, hoping to save them for a better day.)

Under Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1741 to 1762, the tradition of extravagant ornamentation continued. This westernized empress ruled in an opulent style, hiring Italian architects to create the St. Petersburg that may be seen today. Two major Romanov palaces, the Winter Palace (residence of the royal family) and the Catherine Palace, were built by her edict.

Then along came Catherine the Great, wife of Peter III, who lost his power during a coup organized by Catherine’s supporters. (Catherine was so resented by her son, Paul, that when he in turn came to power, he banned women from inheriting the throne.) She introduced French to the court and built the Hermitage as a guest house for Voltaire—with whom she corresponded—should he visit Russia, which he never did. During Catherine’s 34-year rule, from 1762 to 1796, she expanded the empire by two-thirds and used jewels as signs of her power. Artisans flocked to St. Petersburg to satisfy Catherine’s thirst for jewels.

But what did all these glorious embellishments mean to a 20th-century czarina with an ailing child and a husband not up to the pressures of an impending revolution? Pity the poor Czarina Alexandra, worried about her hemophiliac son, whose bleeding spells could be halted only by the mesmerism of the mad monk Rasputin. Driven by ignorance and loneliness (empresses suffer from those maladies, too), Alexandra came to depend so heavily on Rasputin that watchful courtiers worried about his political influence ... and plotted his death.

And in the end, what did all this extravagance come to? A pitiful cluster of bullet-riddled royal bodies, children included, in a hidden room.

This month the San Diego Museum of Art presents "Jewels of the Romanovs: Treasures
of the Russian Imperial Court." This exhibit of approximately 300 items marks the first time such an extensive assemblage of the state jewels has left Russia, having appeared in Washington, D.C., and Houston on the first lap of its tour. Twenty thousand tickets have already been sold in San Diego. Local interest in viewing these jewels, royal portraits, court gowns, military uniforms and ecclesiastical objects is high.

As we file past this exorbitant collection and reflect on its history—treasures amassed when millions suffered poverty and even serfdom—what do we actually think about these fabulous jewels? That they are exquisite, judged on admiration for craftsmanship. Amazing, considering the historic milieu in which these jewels were commissioned. Breathtaking, when you tally up their monetary value.

And tantalizing, when you wonder about the 300 years of European history during which this collection grew.

"Jewels of the Romanovs" is here from August 16 to October 26—a 10-week run before it departs for Memphis, its final stop. It’s a grand coup for the San Diego Museum of Art as the only museum on the West Coast to be awarded the exhibit. (Even at that, we almost didn’t get it. After its initial appearance and again after Houston, the Soviet government wanted the collection returned. Last-minute negotiations saved the day.)

Tickets, from $5 to $12.50, are available at the museum (232-7931) and through Ticketmaster outlets (220-TIXS).

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