Byline: Richard Edmonds
As we all know, it was the custom of great kings and princes to establish treasuries of rare and beautiful things which showed their wealth and power, thus providing evidence for all to see of a huge bank balance, something which underlined the stability of the nation.
The Treasures of Catherine the Great, which is currently on show in London, presents a dazzling mix of jewels, wrought silver, ormolu-mounted hard stones, glittering Tula steel, gold medals, jewelled snuff boxes, Chinese works of art, portrait miniatures and many other things which take your breath away.
Like many collections of this kind, which date far back into history, it provides an intimate picture of the treasures Catherine purchased both for her private pleasure and as presents for the royal children, grandchildren and the many lovers she took into her bed.
The State Hermitage Museum owns the Russian Imperial Collections, brought together over more than three centuries and housed in the former Winter Palace of the tsars in the centre of St Petersburg.
But now we have the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House on The Strand and these are going to be a permanent activity which will provide London with a window on Russian art and history, which to my mind is a great step forward.
The decor of the Hermitage Rooms recreates, in miniature, the imperial splendour of the Winter Palace, and the amount of beautiful things that have been brought to London by the Russian director of the museum is astonishing.
Even better, the collections will be changed over a period of time so that as this one goes out in the autumn a new one will be coming in.
Museums were organised in Europe as long ago as the sixth century, when they served as treasuries for the temples preserving offerings of rare workmanship in gold and silver, brought by the faithful as a token of thanks or by people searching for a cure.
Obviously the ruling princes in ancient times took their cue from the priests and so treasure houses began to be created in Asia Minor and at Alexandria, a city whose fabulous library - itself a museum of rare parchments - was destroyed when the Romans invaded Egypt.
The great archaeological digs in Germany and Switzerland have produced silver plate of the greatest beauty that was once placed on the altars of Roman temples during the hegemony of Ancient Rome, whose borders were boundless.
Great treasures also decorated churches and palaces during the heyday of Byzantium, when crucifixes inlaid with precious stones and chalices made in the same way impressed visitors to churches which carried official favour.
Medieval treasuries stored their beautiful objects safely against changing political fortunes and the invasions of great armies. Many of them still owned Roman plate in gold and silver which had come down from Pagan times. …