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Amber Room: Eighth Wonder of the World

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Amber Room: Eighth Wonder of the World


Sergey Vinogradov

Photo credit: Ruslan Shamukov / National Reserve-Museum “Tsarskoye Selo”

Twenty years ago, on May 31, 2003, the Amber Room was opened in the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg. Russian conservation professionals spent two decades working hard to restore the masterpiece.

The Amber Room disappeared when the Nazis looted the Catherine Palace. Ever since the interest in it hasn't faded but rather become a global one. For more than 80 years this room has been haunted by various historians, art experts, conspiracy theorists, treasure hunters, and novelists. Even today, a tour is rarely complete without a guide explaining, "No, it wasn't found. It has been recreated."

Today, the Amber Room is a renowned masterpiece. Tourists from all over the world come to see it. Furthermore, it is also a multifaceted symbol of Nazi barbarism, the skills of Russian conservation professionals, and the survivability of true art.

“Extremely Decent Present”

Six years ago, Russia celebrated the 300th anniversary of getting the Amber Room. Although, in 1717, when Peter the Great received an expensive gift ("very decent present") from Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, the room was referred to as the Amber Chamber.

It is believed that Andreas Schlüter, the chief architect of the Prussian Royal Court, designed the Amber Room. This ambitious project lasted for many years until the ruler died and the new one had no interest in the unwieldy and unfinished project. Before the amber bars were shipped to St. Petersburg, they were piled in a warehouse along with military ammunition.

It was in Russia that the Amber Room became truly famous. However, it didn't happen right away. It is unclear whether the Russian Emperor knew that the present was (and still is) the only amber artwork of such scale in the world. Nevertheless, the place selected for it was the Winter Palace, which cannot be considered the most central one.

Years later, when Peter's daughter Elizabeth ascended the throne, she ordered to move the masterpiece to Tsarskoye Selo and decorate it with Florentine mosaics of multicolored gems.

In 1771, the Amber Room was first seen in its final form with amber carvings and gems illuminated by 565 candles reflected in 24 mirrored pilasters and two large mirrors.

Photo credit: Ruslan Shamukov / Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Preserve

This masterpiece was a visual treat to royalty and distinguished guests from abroad. The Amber Room became a venue for receptions, including those of foreign ambassadors, almost immediately after its construction. Moreover, family holidays were celebrated in it.

It was not easy to maintain the "amber wonder" in all its splendor and beauty, and historians have found much evidence of that. The room required continuous renovations, cleaning, and other expensive work.

Loss and Searching

It is impossible to estimate the damage caused by the Nazis to the history and culture of St. Petersburg. It took Leningrad decades to heal its wounds with the support of the entire country. The loss of the Amber Room is a special chapter of the invaders' barbarity.

According to the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Preserve, the evacuation of the Amber Room was impossible since the fragile amber panels might not survive the relocation. Furthermore, the masterpiece was in poor condition shortly before the war. Some sources indicate that the conservation efforts were scheduled for the summer of 1941.

During imperial times, the palace was heated only for the arrival of the noble masters. Amber used to fall off the walls due to the dampness and low temperatures. It used to be reattached with glue, which caused great damage to the stone. The same was caused by the attempts to restore it with varnish and lacquer.

The Nazis transported fragments of the Amber Room torn from the walls to Königsberg where all traces of the masterpiece were lost. The whereabouts of the authentic Amber Room are still one of the major mysteries of the 20th century.

The search was launched almost immediately after its disappearance. Dozens of books in many languages have been written on the subject, including some serious researches, pseudoscientific "revelations" and adventure fiction.

Most of the reports that can be assumed to be reliable are based on the testimonies of people who saw the Amber Room in Königsberg. There are several most likely scientific versions of where the "amber wonder" disappeared to.

The first one suggests that the amber panels were destroyed in a fire at Königsberg Castle in April 1945. Many scholars agree with this version. However, it was refuted by the former keeper of the Amber Room, Anatoly Kuchumov, who visited the castle in 1946. He pointed out that the panels could not fit inside the basement and would have left traces after the fire, which were not detected.

Another theory claims that the Amber Room never left the city. It was hidden in one of Kalingrad-Königsberg's vaults. This hypothesis is based on the testimony of those who allegedly saw the amber panels being packed in crates and taken to an unknown destination when the Soviet army had surrounded the city.

There is also a version that the Amber Room was successfully taken out of Königsberg, and it was lost during transportation by land or sea. The search continues to this day and almost every year new versions of the whereabouts of the Amber Room appear in the media and in the historian community.

Masterpiece of the Catherine Palace

Experts of the Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Preserve shared with the Russkiy Mir about the recreation of the Amber Room and its popularity today. Tsarskoselskaya Amber Workshop was set up to recreate the masterpiece. Leading conservation professionals, art experts, chemists, and forensic specialists were engaged in its work. Their help (and special equipment) was required to examine the smallest details of the Amber Room in the available photographs.

The Eighth Wonder of the World is a man-made one. The masterpiece looted during World War II was resurrected by Russian specialists. This is a true conservation feat. In 1979, the RSFSR Council of Ministers issued a decree on the recreation of the Room.

The conservation team had only black and white photographs of the interior, a 1917 autochrome (color slide), a watercolor featuring a detail with the Prussian king's monogram by the artist P. Grekhnev, and about 50 small fragments of amber decoration. The restoration work lasted more than 20 years.

Photo credit: Ruslan Shamukov / Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Preserve

The specialists followed a complex and meticulous method of scientific conservation, which enabled them to recreate the authentic artistic features of the Amber Room. This experience resulted in the emergence of a unique school of conservation professionals in Russia. It has revived lost crafts and technologies of the 17th-18th centuries: amber art and stone decoration artwork based on the Florentine mosaic technique.

The skill of conservation professionals can be discussed extensively. One of the most convincing examples is the recreation of Florentine mosaics. Four Florentine mosaics adorn the Amber Room. They are "Sight", "Hearing", "Taste", and "Touch and Smell". Elizaveta Petrovna got these pieces of art made of semi-precious stones and marble as a gift from the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa.

The stonecutter Louis Syriès made the series of mosaics, Allegory of the Five Bodily Senses, based on artistic sketches by Giuseppe Zocchi in 1751. All four mosaics disappeared during the Great Patriotic War and were considered lost. However, in 1997, one of the four Florentine mosaics, "Touch and Smell", was found on the black market of antiques in Bremen. It took three years to get the mosaics back. The issue was addressed at the highest governmental levels in both countries.

Photo credit: Ruslan Shamukov / Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Preserve

The authentic Florentine mosaic "Touch and Smell" was returned to Tsarskoye Selo on April 29, 2000. By that time, the conservation professionals of the Tsarskoselskaya Amber Workshop had already finished recreating two of the four Florentine mosaics, including "Touch and Smell". They had now the possibility to compare the original and the recreated "stone paintings".

During the recreation, the conservation professionals had only black-and-white photographs and pre-war descriptions of the Florentine mosaics. Later it was discovered that paintings by the Italian artist Giuseppe Zocchi served as prototypes for the compositions of natural stones. The artistic sketches of the Tsarskoye Selo mosaics were found in the Opificio delle Pietre Dure Museum in Florence where the mosaics had once been made. They helped Russian experts to find out the color and semiprecious stone composition of the mosaics.

The recreation of the four 56 x 43 cm (22 x 17 in) mosaics took several years. They were made of jaspers from the Urals, Korgon porphyry from the Altai Mountains, quartzite from Belorechensk, firestone from the Moscow area and Kazakhstan, lapis lazuli from Transbaikalia, and other semi-precious stones.

Photo credit: Ruslan Shamukov / Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Preserve

Only minor differences, virtually nuances, were found when the original work was checked. This confirms that the Russian conservation professionals performed their work at the highest level.

“Our work will give people an idea of the Amber Room that used to be a decoration of the palace. I saw it with my own eyes," said Alexander Kedrinsky, the author of the Amber Room restoration project who was involved in the restoration of the Catherine Palace since 1957. "I have no doubt that sooner or later it will be found. Such a masterpiece can't disappear without a trace. It will then become clear that our artists have also created a unique work of decorative art."

Photo credit: Ruslan Shamukov / Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Preserve

Amber Room Today

The Amber Room is the brand of the National Reserve-Museum "Tsarskoye Selo". It is the jewel of the Catherine Palace and a genuine art piece surrounded by legends and myths. Millions of tourists from all over the country and the globe come to the museum just for it. The disappearance of the Eighth Wonder of the World during the Great Patriotic War is referred to as almost the main enigma of the twentieth century.

The Amber Room symbolizes the cultural losses of World War II. This powerful image impresses everyone. Some are fascinated by history, others by the beneficial effects of amber, many are thrilled by the mysterious story of the disappearance of the interior, and the vast majority are fascinated by the splendor of the "amber masterpiece" and the unprecedented work of Russian conservation professionals.

The Amber Room has been the most coveted destination for visitors to the Reserve Museum and the main focus of everyone who enters the Catherine Palace for twenty years now. Some tourists confess that seeing the Amber Room was one of their greatest desires. The National Reserve Museum "Tsarskoye Selo" is a must-see for tourists from other cities and countries who visit St. Petersburg.

The amber wonder recreated in the Catherine Palace delights our contemporaries in the 21st century as much as the original interior delighted all those who saw it at various times. In 2022, the museum created a virtual version of the Amber Room supported by Gazprom. Those who have no opportunity to come to the museum can now see an exact interactive model of the masterpiece.

By the way, it is now possible to taste the Amber Room. Russian pastry chefs have created a pastry of the same name to mark the 20th anniversary of the re-creation of the Eighth Wonder of the World. Its base consists of baked chocolate mousse on almond dacquoise (biscuit made with whipped egg whites and nut flour). Cloudberries add a unique amber sheen to the pastry.


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