Glimpse at glamorous Romanovs Jewels: Corcoran shows the gems that belonged to Russia's former first family.

February 11, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

It's hard to think of a show that would have more elements of glamour appeal than "Jewels of the Romanovs" at Washington's Corcoran Gallery.

There are the Romanovs themselves for a start, the legendary dynasty that ruled Russia for three centuries, gave the world Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, and finally that devoted but doomed couple Nicholas and Alexandra, deposed and murdered with all their children near the end of World War I.

There is the occasion for the show, the 125th anniversary of the visit to America by Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovitch, son of Emperor Alexander II, in late 1871 and early 1872. Invited by President U.S. Grant in thanks for Russia's support of the Union in the Civil War, the Grand Duke was given a triumphal welcome and feted everywhere north and south. He sent home letters and telegrams that give us a glimpse behind the facade of the official portrait: Loved the ladies. Never seen so many beautiful ones in Europe. Hated the Mississippi. Bor-ing.

And the jewels are accompanied by other trappings that are sumptuous themselves: gowns and uniforms worn by members of the royal family, sometimes huge (but often not very good) royal portraits, not to mention church vestments woven with gold thread and icons encrusted with pearls in the gallery devoted to ecclesiastical objects.

Of course all of this revolves around the jewels themselves, created for the royal family in the 18th and 19th centuries and considered so important that they were never sold after the Revolution.

They remain the property of the Russian State Diamond Fund, originally set up by Peter the Great.

Normally housed in a museum beneath the Kremlin Armory, they have never before traveled to the United States.

They impress you with their dazzle, but also with their history.

There's Caesar's ruby, so-called because it was thought to have belonged to Augustus (no kidding). A rock roughly the size of a walnut, it was once owned by Queen Christina of Sweden, and was given by Gustavus III of Sweden to Catherine the Great as a sort of bribe to get her to marry one of her granddaughters to him.

Catherine kept the jewel and didn't hand over the granddaughter, but Gustavus had the last, posthumous laugh when, after the Russian Revolution, somebody looked at the jewel closely and discovered it wasn't a ruby at all but a red tourmaline -- not quite the same thing.

There's the sash badge of the Order of St. Andrew, created by court jewelers Johan Georg Kasper Eger, Leopold Pfisterer and Joachim Hassel, and fashioned of diamonds, gold, silver, lapis lazuli, quartz and enamel.

It is said to have been purchased (by whom it doesn't say) for 400 rubles.

"In the 1770s," the label continues, "it was possible to buy a team of four matched horses for 12 rubles."

And you wondered why there was a revolution? This stuff makes you wonder why it didn't happen sooner.

There's the Gothic style bracelet with a miniature portrait of Alexander I, presented to his widow by his brother who succeeded him, Nicholas I. Only was she his widow?

"It is now believed that he faked his own death and went into seclusion as a monk known by the name of Feodor Kuzmich."

Smart guy, that Alex.

Oh yes, and the portrait looks like it's under glass, doesn't it? Only that's not glass, that's the world's largest table cut (flat to you) diamond. It weighs 27 carats.

You think 27 is a lot? How about the sapphire that Alexander II gave his wife in the 1860s? It weighs 260.37 carats.

Need I go on? You get the picture, and if you're a fan of jewelry, costumes or royalty, this show mustn't be missed. Never mind that the labels too often read as if they were written in a hurry, and are at times maddeningly inadequate.

Bad portrait after bad portrait of royalty, depicted lavishly bejeweled with orders and other elaborate pieces, and do they bother, in this jewelry show, to identify the pieces? Rarely.

The portrait of Tsarevitch Grand Duke Paul Petrovich, later Emperor Paul I, shows him wearing the Star of the Order of St. Andrew that's in the case in the middle of the room -- the very same piece of jewelry. I was told that by the staff member who kindly gave me a tour of the exhibit, not by the portrait's label.

Ah well, labels aside, we can still bathe ourselves in the assembled magnisplendificence, and heaven knows there's plenty of that.

The Romanov family jewels

What: "Jewels of the Romanovs: Treasures of the Russian Imperial Court"

Where: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. N.W., Washington

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays (to 9 p.m. Thursdays), through April 13

Admission: By timed ticket. At the gallery, in person (not by phone), $9 adults, $5 seniors, students, and children under 18, children under 5 free. Through TicketMaster with a service charge of $2.50 per ticket by phone ([410] 481-SEAT in Baltimore), or $2 per ticket at TicketMaster outlets.

Call: (202) 639-1700

Pub Date: 2/11/97

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