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Dishes of Drama

Romanov treasures at Sonoma County Museum

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The historic dilemma of Russia—to look east or west—is reflected in Sonoma County Museum's exhibit "The Tsars' Cabinet."

The show collects porcelain, enamel and glassware that belonged primarily to the Romanovs, who ruled in the 18th, 19th and very early 20th centuries. Through its delicate finery, the exhibit illustrates that before the Cold War, before work camps, before Khrushchev and his insatiable love of corn, the headscratching giant that Winston Churchill called "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" had identity problems, and on a chilly October day in 1917, that place would irreversibly shake the world.

It's perhaps difficult to see drama in plates and soup tureens, but shifting ideas of nationalism and cultural identity make themselves known in the pieces' devilishly-fine details. Take the rounded, repetitive loops of green and gold painted on a dinner set belonging to Nicholas I. According to curator Jennifer Bethke, these Byzantine and medieval Russian style patterns were commissioned in the tumultuous, post-Napoleon 1800s when militarism and conservative nationalism were on the rise.

Conversely, only a short time after, Alexander II commissioned a set of plates decorated with Grecian figures that occupied the Vatican; a clear turn to the more romantic, Westernized side of Russian national identity, when the threat of Catholic countries—and short, ex-Catholic megalomaniacs—had somewhat decreased.

The exhibit is timed to the 200th Anniversary of Sonoma County's Fort Ross, according to Executive Director Diane Evans. The Romanov treasures will be on display from February 26 through May 27.

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