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Peter and Catherine were Great, but their taste in art was greater

Sunday, October 26, 2003

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Professor William Rosenberg's lecture on St. Petersburg, Russia, was so intense that when I stepped out of the University of Michigan's Alumni Center and onto the street, I thought for a second that I was in Russia again.

Returning recently from my fourth visit there and certain that it was my last, I now think I need to go back. There is no place like it for thrills.

We were lured to Ann Arbor by a Russian exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, its only stop in the United States. "The Romanovs Collect: European Art from the Hermitage" is in place until Nov. 23. It features 140 works from the collections of eight czars..

What we found after a five-hour drive from Pittsburgh were two large rooms of the museum dedicated to mostly master paintings with some decorative arts and sculpture. What we most admired was what you would have most expected from a university. Each piece of art was accompanied by a label that gave the lineage of the piece, information about the czar who acquired it and often what distinguished his or her reign. It was a history lesson with pictures.

Because at museums in Russia we couldn't read the Cyrillic, even on the rare occasion when a label was in place, we were grateful for this assistance. The information was so thorough that I was constantly writing in my notebook until a guide came up and asked me to put my pen away. He provided me with a pencil, suggesting that it would be safer if, by accident, I fell against an artwork.

With the pencil, I copied out the following quote from a letter that Catherine the Great (1762-96) wrote to her agent and that is reprinted in the hardcover catalog accompanying the show. "My museum in the Hermitage contains 38,000 books; there are four rooms filled with books and prints, 10,000 engraved gems (and another 34,000 casts and pastes), roughly 10,000 drawings and a natural history collection that fills two large galleries."

She chooses not to mention paintings, sculptures, furniture, tapestries, porcelains and antiquities. Catherine ultimately acquired tens of thousands of objects, 600, 800, 4,000 pieces at a time.

She bought the most and, on the occasion of this exhibition, she is given the most space. Czar Peter begins the show. Though he set the pace for collecting and is credited with acquiring Russia's first Rembrandt, he is represented here by only five pieces: a painting of ships, three 17th-century Roman sculptures and a Marten Heemskerk album of allegorical prints.

Peter and Catherine, the "Greats," initiated what eventually became the greatest collection of fine and decorative arts that the world has ever known. They were titans wielding unlimited power.

The czars all appear as monumental figures,with their virtually unlimited control over the serfs representing as many as 95 percent of the Russian people. And when the last czar was murdered, Russia, the country occupying the world's largest land mass, continued its struggle. Yet, all this turmoil appears only to have strengthened the Russian will.

In his lecture, Rosenberg closed by reporting that on his recent visit to St. Petersburg, he had never seen the city looking so good. The audience broke into sustained applause. It was meant to show respect for a valiant people and gratitude for the professor's insights.

And then it was time to eat.

For the two days we spent in Ann Arbor, we gave all our business -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- to one restaurant, and when it was time to leave Ann Arbor, we packed the car with purchases from its bakery/cafe.

The place was Zingerman's.

Much of my professional life, I've been ordering from their catalog and waiting for their deliveries, and now I had an opportunity to visit in person. We had no problem finding it. The first person we asked gave us directions, and we walked over to the corner deli for two sandwiches from the more than 80 choices on the menu. Because we didn't know the routine (you buy in the deli and cross over to eat lunch in the bakery), Zingerman's rewarded us with a generous sample of their incredible chocolate cake.

For dinner, we went to Zingerman's Roadhouse, opened just a month ago, where the chef is Alex Young, who, five years before, opened The Fish Market in what is now the Westin Pittsburgh Convention Center. I got so caught up in the smokehouse ethos that I ordered wrong and was served a plate piled high with Niman Ranch beef brisket and wild mushroom gravy, mashed Yukon gold potatoes and sauteed greens. I was defeated by the massive servings before I even raised my fork.

Next day for breakfast, we were back at Zingerman's Cafe for blintzes. We loved not only the food but also the smiles that greeted us, especially from Julia, whom I promised never to forget for the care she took in packing up the rugelachs, mandelbrots and palm-iers that we took home with us.

University of Michigan Museum of Art, 525 S. State St. "The Romanovs Collect: European Art from the Hermitage" is a ticketed event, $8 for adults. For tickets, 1-800-585-3737. For more information:

Zingerman's Deli, 422 Detroit St.; 1-734-663-3354.

Zingerman's Roadhouse, 2501 Jackson Road; 1-734-663-3663.

Zingerman's Parmigiano-Reggiano with Honey and Walnuts

  • 3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

  • 1 tablespoon chestnut honey or other full-flavored honey
  • 2 tablespoons walnut halves, toasted

Break the cheese into bite-sized pieces. (Odd shapes and sizes are what you want.) Arrange the pieces on a serving dish. Drizzle with honey, sprinkle on the walnut halves, and serve as dessert to 4 to 8.

Marilyn McDevitt Rubin can be reached at or 412-263-1749.

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