Bright and fragile, amber has long inspired reverence. Protected by Prussian law from the 13th century, fossilized resin was a sought-after substance for the manufacture of royal and religious objects throughout Eastern Europe. The Amber Room, a series of panels made from six tons of amber mounted on gold leaf walls and adorned with mosaics and mirrors, was a hymn to the beauty and status of the material.
Designed for the royalty of Prussia and Russia, lost in the war in Germany and ultimately reborn in a palace in St. Petersburg, the piece remains a mystery as captivating as the amber itself.
The Amber Room was originally designed at the beginning of the 18th century as a sumptuous 16 m2 performance hall for Frederick I, the King of Prussia. In 1716, the room was offered to Russian Tsar Peter the Great and was eventually moved to the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg. To match the spacious rooms of the palace, the Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli was called upon to enlarge the hall. Under his leadership, the original panels were incorporated into a 55 m2 room decorated with more amber, candelabra, mosaics and gilded figures. The Russian baroque wonder has become the “eighth wonder of the world”.
When the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, they dismantled the Amber Room and moved it to Königsberg Castle in what was the German state of Prussia. According to Anatoly Valuev of the Kaliningrad Museum of History and Arts, Königsberg was a “transfer base for [looted] cultural objects, which would be stored in the city for subsequent transport to other parts of Germany. “But when the Red Army captured the city in 1945, no trace of the amber chamber was found.
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Some believed that the room may have been destroyed by fire. “But no trace of burning amber was found,” Valuev said. “And it was assumed that the room survived after all, and it was hidden in the basement of the castle where it was taken elsewhere.”
The search for the legendary Amber Room continued. In 1946 Koningsberg became part of Russia and was renamed Kaliningrad. Two major investigations revealed no sign of the coin. Soviet specialists continued to explore hundreds of places around the city and in the ruins of the city’s castle. In the 2000s, teams with more advanced equipment continued their research and found works of art and jewelry in a hidden part of the castle’s basement. But still no Amber room.
Even if the Amber Room were found, said Tatyana Suvorova of the Kaliningrad Regional Amber Museum, it would likely be a shadow of itself. “Amber is a complex material; it is quite fragile, and it changes over time,” she said, adding that if the chamber were to be rediscovered, “it would be the greatest happiness, [but] it would be a historical fact and not a work of art. Because these works of art made of a fragile material require very delicate handling – they require a museum environment. “
As the hope of finding the Amber Room wore off, a new idea emerged. In 1979, the former USSR began to reconstruct the coin guided by two remaining original objects: a single box of relics from the coin; and 86 black and white photos of space taken just before WWII.
The reconstruction took 23 years, but today the recreated Amber Room is on display at Catherine Palace in the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum and Heritage Site in St. Petersburg. With shiny orange and gold walls, this new amber bedroom brings the ancient appeal of fossilized resin to life.
(Video by Irina Sedunova; text by Christine Sarkis)
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