The Amber Room
Since the times immemorial, amber was considered to be the “stone of the kings”. This material was expensive and used for making of the diplomatic gifts. Amber is found on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. One of the top centers of amber craft in 1600s -1700s was Prussia.
History of the Amber Room
Peter the Great visited Prussia in 1716 during his second European voyage. The Prussian King Frederick William I and the Russian Tsar exchanged diplomatic gifts. Peter received the exclusive amber panels, which were supposed to form the interior of the Amber Room. This happened to be the gift which fascinated Peter the Great: he has long desired to get the Amber gallery. Another gift was the yacht. The king must have known Peter’s tastes very well: the Russian ruler loved all kinds of curious artifacts, crafted from unusual materials, and yachting was his passion. In return Peter presented 55 tallest guardsmen and the goblet of ivory that was turned by his own hands.
The panels of amber survived the perilous journey and arrived to Russia dismantled, packed into 18 crates. Alexander Menshikov, the best friend of Peter the Great, sent a note to the sovereign stating that all panels arrived in good shape. There is no further historical record in which palace Peter made the Amber Room to be arranged. Most likely in his lifetime it was not installed.
Amber Room under Elisabeth I
Peter’s daughter Empress Elisabeth I ordered the decoration of one out of the long succession of her winter palaces with Prussian amber panels. For a while it was used as the gala reception room. Since the palace soon had to be reconstructed, the panels were taken down. Elisabeth ordered them to be relocated into Tsarskoye Selo, where decoration works were going on in full swing. The gorgeous newly built summer residence was to be embellished with the Baltic amber in 1755, making it into the eighth wonder of the world.
The panels were carried inside the crates from St Petersburg to Tsarskoye Selo by the specially selected detachment of soldiers. The panels were so fragile men carried them by the hands with great precaution.
Architect Rastrelli was given the task to design the new Amber Room here in the countryside. The amber panels were smaller than the room chosen. Architect Rastrelli had to put all panels in symmetrical pattern on the walls surface, separating them with mirrored pilasters and bedecked the hall with gilded carved ornaments. The blank spaces without any amber left were upholstered with canvas imitating amber mosaic by the painter Ivan Belsky.
The Amber Room under Catherine the Great
In 1763 the new decoration details were added to the interior. Catherine the Great wanted entire space of the walls to be filled up with amber. Genuine amber was supposed to be put instead of the painting. The entire lower tier of the chamber was adorned with the freshly crafted amber panels. Altogether there were 8 new panels done. Basements and surbasements of the pilasters, carved ornaments above the doors turned out to be decorated with amber too. It has taken 450 kilograms of amber, not forgetting the seven years of work. The Amber Chamber under Catherine the Great has got its present-day style.
The Amber Room interior
Amber panels are decorating three walls: the fourth has two large windows and there was not enough space. There are 8 large vertical panels hanging on the walls. Base of the panels is thick wood and upper thin layer is polished amber pieces attached together, glued to the panels by the natural glue. Smaller-size rectangular-shaped amber panels are beneath them. In between the panels we can see the mirrored pilasters embellished with gilded linden carving. There are also four Florentine mosaics dating back to the middle of the 1700s. These bright multicolored semi-precious stones compositions are allegories of Sight, Hearing, Taste, Smell and touch. They look like everyday life scenes set against the lovely Italian lanscape. In the corner of the interior there is a console wooden table with fancy baroque leg. In the19th century this hall was used as the gala chamber, here were intricate amber jewelry boxes and marqueterie chests showcasing precious porcelain pieces.
Due to amber being a very fragile material towards temperature and humidity changes, the Amber Room had to be restored several times in 1800s. After the revolution Catherine Palace became the state museum. People were lining up to see the Amber Room. The thorough scientific restoration of Amber Room which was much-needed, happened to be scheduled for 1941.
Search history and restoration of the Amber Room
In the summer 1941 the Nazis were advancing with the terrible speed towards Leningrad. (Our city was named after Vladimir Lenin in the Soviet times). Pushkin town was on their way, the danger was horrible, since Hitler’s plan was to destroy Leningrad completely. Evacuation plan was drawn up for all of the state museums, but there was no time left to take all artifacts away from danger. Moreover, most men from the museum staff went to the battlefields, only women were left to pack the crates and remove all of these heavy fragile objects. Amber panels were in such bad shapes by that time it was not possible to remove them safely. There was nothing left to do but live them in Catherine Palace, covering up with wood panels and paper. This conservation was done days before the Nazis have occupied Pushkin town.
The palace was taken by the Nazi officers, looted and burned down. Alas, they have discovered the hidden panels. The art plundering squad delivered the amber panels to Königsberg. There they were received by the museum; there is a record about it. Exhibition containing other stolen artifacts was presented there. The last records about the Amber Room were done in 1944. What happened to them after that time is a mystery. Königsberg museum director who possibly knew the answer, was found killed. The Russian “monument man” - Anatoly Kuchumov, was charged with the mission to find it. He was tracing the plundered artworks all over, finding hundreds of things from Tsarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk, but he found absolutely no information about Amber Chamber. They kept on searching during 40 years. Finally in 1979 the soviet government decided to put this quest to an end and reproduce the amber panels.
In 1983 the draft project was completed after 4 years of tireless archive research. The works went on until 2003. Today we admire the superb work of our restorers and scientists, who have done this miracle from the genuine Baltic amber.