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Russia: Rebuilt Amber Room Bears Witness To History In Intricately Carved Panels

  • Jeremy Bransten

History came full circle this month in St. Petersburg, with the reopening of the legendary Amber Room. Originally presented to Russia's Tsar Peter the Great as a gift from Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I, this marvel of design graced the tsars' ornate summer palace outside the city for close to two centuries until its mysterious disappearance during World War II. For decades, art historians and detectives searched for it, to no avail. And so, it was ordered rebuilt. After 25 years of labor, the doors to the new Amber Room were finally opened this month.

Tsarskoe Selo, Russia; 13 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "Before our eyes, we have a room -- 100 square meters in its floor dimension -- the height of the [amber] panels is 6.5 meters. In this room, there are two portals, on the north and south walls, created according to plans by [architect Francesco] Rastrelli. Rastrelli installed mirrored pilasters, framed in bronze, in the shape of parrots, with the aim of expanding the room. Additional sections of wall were added and below them, more pilasters. And in this way, the small room given by [Prussian King] Friedrich Wilhelm was expanded from 17 square meters up to 100."

That was how Vladimir Domrachev, senior restorer at Catherine's summer palace on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, described some design highlights during a tour of the building's newly reopened Amber Room. It's not an easy task, as the room has, above all, an overwhelming visual impact, with its sculpted walls of multihued amber mosaic topped by bronze rococo statues and a frescoed ceiling.

But as with all legendary creations, the Amber Room owes its fame in equal measure to its unique history, as well as its artistry.

Boris Igdalov is head of the workshop charged with restoring the chamber, which completed its work just two weeks ago. He said the Amber Room reflects the history of Russian-German relations almost in their entirety.

Russian Tsar Peter the Great, on one of his trips to Europe in 1716, found a soul mate in the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm I, who shared his passion for the military and reform. As a token of appreciation, the Prussian monarch gave Peter a set of massive decorative panels, covered in amber mosaics of every known hue -- a masterpiece of Prussian craftsmanship known at the time in Berlin as the Amber Study Room.

In exchange, Peter presented Friedrich Wilhelm with 50 of the tallest Russian soldiers he could find, for the king's personal regiment, which consisted of the tallest men in Europe. Each monarch was now in possession of a unique gift, and the friendship was sealed.

For several years, the amber panels sat in storage in St. Petersburg, until Peter's daughter Elizabeth had them installed in the newly built Catherine Palace -- named after Peter's wife, the Empress Catherine -- at Tsarskoe Selo, on the Russian capital's outskirts.

The Italian architect Francesco Rastrelli, who designed the palace along with many of St. Petersburg's great buildings, gave his creativity full rein. He expanded what had been conceived as a 17-square-meter curio into a dazzling 100-square-meter room of unrivaled rococo ornateness, with the amber panels as its jeweled centerpiece.

The Amber Room was born.

As Igdalov explained, the room was unique -- nothing of such massive proportions had ever been created out of amber. But it stood among a series of rooms designed to be unequalled anywhere in Europe.

"The Amber Room is located in the 'golden enfilade' of Catherine's Palace. It is a showpiece room. Catherine's Palace was built as a palace of interiors. The gem of this palace, of course, was the Amber Room. But there were many other interesting interiors here -- the Chinese Guest Room; the Leontskii Hall, where the parquet floor was inlaid with mother-of-pearl, tortoise shell, and metals; other rooms with Asian motifs; the magnificent main hall of Catherine's Palace, which was the largest of its kind in Europe, richly decorated with Baroque sculptures, mirrors, painted ceiling, a unique parquet floor, etc.... So, the Amber Room stood among this set of unique interiors," Igdalov said.

For 200 years, visitors to the palace -- first, guests of the imperial family and later, after the Bolshevik revolution, tour groups -- marveled at the Amber Room. When World War II broke out, much of the palace's treasures were moved east for safekeeping. But the Soviets feared that dismantling the fragile amber panels could cause them permanent damage, so they left them in place. The occupying Nazis did the job instead, packing up the panels for transport back to East Prussia.

There, in Koenigsberg, the Amber Room remained -- in Nazi eyes, a "recovered" Prussian treasure. When Soviet forces rolled into Koenigsberg, renaming it Kaliningrad, the Amber Room was gone.

The curator of the local museum, under Soviet interrogation, claimed the room had been destroyed by fire during the closing days of the war. Suspecting a ruse, Soviet authorities ordered teams of soldiers, police, and art historians to scour the region, looking for traces of the Amber Room. The search came up empty.

In the years following the war, an amateur club of Amber Room detectives was created across Europe, with particular attention focused on possible hiding sites in Germany. Abandoned mines, tunnels, bunkers, mansions, and churches were combed for the most sought-after looted treasure of World War II.

Finally, after three decades of fruitless effort, the Soviet government in 1979 put aside the equivalent of $8 million and ordered the reconstruction of the Amber Room -- from scratch. In 1999, the German gas concern RurhGas contributed an additional $3.5 million.

Last month, 25 years after the start of the effort, the Amber Room was reborn.

Fortunately for Russia, Kaliningrad is home to the world's largest amber mine. Ninety percent of the global supply of this petrified resin comes from this small territory, once known as East Prussia and since 1945 a part of Russia. Obtaining the 6 tons of raw material for the room's reconstruction was, therefore, the least of the restorers' problems.

Everything else, said restorer Boris Igdalov, ensconced in his workshop next to the palace, where the Amber Room's amber fragments were painstakingly assembled, presented difficulties. "The reconstruction of the Amber Room was one big problem," he said. "Every step presented a problem, so you can't talk about a specific aspect of the work being difficult because everything was difficult and one-of-a-kind."

Starting with black-and-white photographs of the original room and one badly faded color slide, architects and art historians had to draft plans for the room. They were joined by scores of other specialists before a single craftsman could begin the physical work of restoration.

"Over the years, there have been varying numbers of craftsmen that worked on the room. But in the final phase, we had a total of 74 people working -- not only craftsmen physically working on the room's restoration but also art historians, architects, computer specialists, photographers, managers, etc.... That was the total number of staff," Igdalov said.

As for the actual reconstruction work, this, too, presented a major challenge. While the best European masters of the time had been hired by the Prussian court to carve and engrave the thousands of amber pieces on the room's panels back in the 18th century, those skills were no longer in existence. Crafts had to be relearned. Russian stone masons, learning from period drawings, once again became able amber carvers.

As Igdalov noted, the techniques used were the same. Technology had little impact. "The fact is that since the 16th century, or perhaps even the 14th century, nothing cardinal has changed in masonry except, of course, for the invention of the electric engine and diamond-tipped saws. Everything else has remained as before. Hands, human hands, are what creates the most complicated motifs," he said.

The resulting Amber Room, like its forbear, is a complicated and living motif. Unlike marble or granite, amber is not a mineral. It is delicate and subject to change, darkening and cracking over time.

"Amber is a living material -- it's organic. It's a material that constantly changes. It changes color. Its surface constantly alters. It is affected by the atmosphere and becomes covered by a network of cracks that absorb atmospheric impurities so that the color palette of the Amber Room was and is constantly changing," Igdalov said.

Now that is has been rebuilt, some wonder whether it was worth expending so many years and so much money to recreate an object of such luxury that may, in the end, not stand the test of time. No one knows how long the amber in the Amber Room will survive in its current pristine state. But Igdalov said that question is irrelevant. The Amber Room was unique, he said, and that is reason enough for its resurrection.

"There is nothing else like it in the world. We are all used to seeing amber in jewelry. It's a material that is usually employed for decoration, but here, out of this material, a monumental work was created -- a huge work -- to decorate a surface area of 100 square meters, 5 meters high. It's colossal. We can debate whether it was something necessary or unnecessary, but mankind resolves these questions with time. Do we need the Egyptian pyramids today? What use do we get from them? And yet they are a masterpiece of human culture and civilization. It's the same with the Amber Room," Igdalov said.

The thousands of visitors waiting in line outside the palace for admission would seem to agree.