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The Amber Room

From the Portrait Hall you can reach the Amber Room, the gem of the Catherine Palace and a sight that has been justifiably called one of the wonders of the world.

When Peter the Great met Frederick William I (1688–1740) in November 1716 to mark the conclusion of an alliance between Russia and Prussia, the King gave the Emperor gifts that included the Amber Study. Peter wrote at the time to Empress Catherine: “The King has made me the elegant present of a yacht which was finely decorated in Potsdam and the amber study which I have long desired.” Two years later the Russian Emperor responded with his own present to Frederick William – 55 grenadiers of gigantic stature and an ivory goblet that he had turned himself on the lathe.

According to the surviving records, the dismantled Amber Study was delivered to St Petersburg by way of Memel and Riga in eighteen large and small crates that as well as the finished panels contained a large amount of unused fragments. Since there is no evidence about where Peter ordered the panels to be installed, or whether he did so at all, all speculation about their use in his Winter Palace is unfounded. There is documentary proof that soon after her accession his daughter, Empress Elizabeth, found a use for the precious gift from Berlin in the new residence that was being built for her – the third Winter Palace, where she ordered the amber panels to be installed in 1743. The Amber Room assembled in 1746 began to serve as the setting for official receptions, although the ongoing reconstruction of the Winter Palace led to it being moved from place to place more than once.

In July 1755 Elizabeth ordered Rastrelli to create a new Amber Room in the Great Palace at Tsarskoye Selo (the Catherine Palace). A special detachment of men was sent from Tsarskoye Selo and they carried the crates by hand from the capital to the suburban residence. That is how the new, almost two-century glory years of the “eighth wonder of the world” began in its second homeland, Russia.

The hall allotted to the Amber Room in the Great Palace had a floor area of 96 square metres, considerably larger than its previous dimensions. Rastrelli placed the panels symmetrically on the middle level of the walls, separating them with pilasters containing mirrors and embellishing the room with gilded woodcarving services were again enlisted to install the panels on the walls. Where there was not enough amber, areas of the walls were covered with canvas and painted in imitation of the stone by the artist Ivan Belsky.

In 1763 Empress Catherine II gave orders that the painted canvas on the lower part of the wall be replaced with newly-made amber panels. The craftsmen produced eight flat panels for the lower tier with a mosaic pattern, eight pedestals for the pilasters and also a dessus-de-porte for the middle door and carved elements for the cornice that included some old pieces that had been made in Berlin. In four years 450 kilogrammes of amber were used in this work and by 1770 the creation of the Amber Room was complete. The hall had acquired its final appearance.

The amber décor was arranged in two tiers on three walls. The main, middle tier consisted of eight large upright panels. Four of these contained compositions made in Florence in the 1750s from coloured stones using the Florentine mosaic technique. They were allegorical depictions of the senses designed by Giuseppe Zocchi: Sight, Taste, Hearing and (together) Touch and Smell. The gaps between the panels were filled with tall mirror pilasters. Rectangular amber panels were placed in the lower tier of the walls. In the south-west corner stood a small amber console table with an elegantly curving leg.

The room was further adorned by marquetry chests of drawers made in Russia and Chinese porcelain. Here too, in glazed display cases, was one of the most significant European collections of amber articles made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by German, Polish and Russian craftsmen.

Since abrupt changes in temperature, the use of heating stoves and draughts badly affected the amber, the room was refurbished three times in the nineteenth century alone: in 1833, 1865 and 1893–97. Later, in 1933–35, minor renovation work was carried out by the sculptor I.V. Krestovsky. A major restoration was scheduled for 1941.

In the first days after the Nazi invasion in June 1941, the evacuation of museum treasures from the Catherine Palace began. Due to the fragility of the amber panels it was decided not to dismount them, but to conserve them in situ: paper was pasted over the panels, then gauze, after which they were covered with cotton wool and wooden boards.

When German units reached the town of Pushkin they were followed by specialists of the Nazi team engaged in plundering works of art. The amber panels were removed and dispatched to Königsberg. The Gift Book of the Königsberg museum recorded arrival the Amber Room as item 200, a present from the Third Reich’s administration of palaces and gardens.

The plundered amber panels were exhibited together with the carved and gilded doors were exhibited in one of the halls of Königsberg Castle, which contained a museum of amber. Its director, Alfred Rohde, wrote in 1942 that the Amber Room, returned to its homeland, was Königsberg’s finest adornment. This was the last place where the unique creation was displayed. In 1944, as the Germans retreated, the panels were again dismounted and dispatched to an unknown destination. From that moment the trail of the Amber Room is lost. All searches up to now have been fruitless.

In July 1979 the Council of Ministers of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic took the decision that the amber panels should be recreated. Work on them began in 1983 to a project drawn up by the architect Alexander Kedrinsky. A year later the Amber Room already had a ceiling painting, the upper tier of the walls, painted in imitation of amber, and a patterned parquet floor. The locations of the amber panels were temporarily covered with cloth.

In 1994 the first of the lower amber panels and the corner table, recreated by the restorers of the Tsarskoye Selo amber workshop, were installed. Two years later the craftsmen completed work on the first Florentine mosaic: Sight. In April 2000, the late eighteenth-century Russian-made marquetry chest-of-drawers and the Florentine mosaic Touch and Smell, elements of the original room that had been found in Germany, were returned to the museum preserve.

Work on the recreation of the “eighth wonder of the world” lasted twenty-four years and on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the foundation of St Petersburg the restored legendary Amber Room received its first visitors.

The magic of this masterpiece of Prussian art, the focus of a host of legends, led to the production of the “ninth wonder of the world” – the recreated Amber Room that we gratefully received from the hands of Russian craftsmen.

The Amber Room
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