For nearly two and a half centuries, the stunning achievement of the Amber Room stood as one of the world’s most exquisite works of art. Conceived and originally constructed in Prussia, it was soon thereafter presented to one of the most enlightened and forward-thinking of the Russian Tsars. There it was expanded and enhanced by his successors until it ranked as one of the wonders of the world and a powerful symbol of the glory of Mother Russia. It reached the apotheosis of its design and ornamentation scant decades before the Regency, and was famous across the Continent, indeed, the world, as a treasure beyond price. It survived Bonaparte and his invasion of Russia, yet like the Royal Hanoverian Creams, what Napoleon could not destroy, the Nazis ultimately did. But during the Regency, visitors to Russia with entrée into royal circles would have had the opportunity to behold this magnificent masterpiece.
The Amber Room, from its conception to the Regency …
First, a bit about amber. This often golden substance is the fossilized resin of conifer trees which grew in massive forests many millions of years ago. These conifers released a sticky resin to heal wounds to their trunks and branches. Some believe that a period of global warming millions of years ago caused these tree to ooze huge amounts of their resin. Others believe that some unidentified disease attacked the great conifer forests, causing them to "weep" vast amounts of resin in an attempt to heal themselves. Regardless of the cause, this thick sticky resin was expelled from the trees of the forests, oftentimes trapping small creatures and organic material before it solidified and eventually fossilized deep in the earth. Many thousands of years later, erosion, wave action and other natural processes in the earth’s crust brought amber to the surface.
Most amber falls into the yellow to orange to brown color range, though there are rare examples of red, green and even blue amber. The finest quality amber is transparent, while the less valuable varieties are cloudy to opaque as they typically contain many tiny entrained air bubbles. The transparent amber is more likely to contain inclusions of prehistoric creatures, most often insects, making it the most valuable. Amber was rare enough to be considered precious for tens of thousands of years and was most commonly made into jewelry and small decorative objects, even in prehistoric times.
The primary source of amber in Europe is a deposit known as the Blue Earth, which is a submerged shelf extending beneath the Baltic Sea. The strong currents and violent wave action caused by severe storms break the amber loose from this deposit and throw it up onto the seashore. The greatest concentration of Baltic amber is found in the area of the Samland Peninsula, which, until World War II, was part of East Prussia. The medieval Prussian port city of Königsberg became a major center of the amber trade in the Baltic. In about 1204, the Teutonic Knights brutally conquered Prussia as well as many other countries along the Baltic. They soon took control of the valuable amber trade, regulating distribution to keep prices high. The Knights stockpiled massive amounts of amber in Prussia, which remained behind when they were eventually expelled from the Baltic states more than three centuries later.
In 1699, the soon-to-be-crowned King of Prussia, Frederick I, learned that there were literally tons of raw amber stored in the cellars of his palace. This discovery was made by Court Architect Andreas Schlüter, who was familiar with the decorative potential of this precious material. Amber had been used to make mirror frames and occasionally to ornament furniture in the seventeenth century. But Schlüter conceived of a complete chamber with walls covered floor to ceiling with amber. He set to work on his design for this unique room, but it was not until January 1701, when Frederick was finally, officially, crowned King of Prussia, that he secured the King’s permission to begin the work. Schlüter sent to Copenhagen for an expert carver. Gottfried Wolfram was a master craftsman who had been employed by the Danish court to fashion exquisite and ornate miniatures from ivory and other precious materials and had made chess sets, jewel caskets and even some small items of furniture from amber. Wolfram was very enthusiastic about Schlüter’s audacious concept and eager to set to work.
Wolfram knew all the techniques of softening the raw amber lumps with just the right amount of heat, then using pressure to flatten and smooth them into pieces he would then fit together as a mosaic to cover the walls of the room under construction. This master craftsman also understood the secrets of using a mixture of cognac, honey and linseed oil to give all these many smoothed and flattened pieces a lustrous luminescence and a rich depth of color which would enhance the appearance of the walls of this unique apartment. All these pieces of amber, in their various shades of color, were backed by thin gold or silver leaf then affixed to wooden panels and skirting board that would line the chamber which would become known as the Amber Room. The polished amber backed with gold and silver was dazzling in candlelight or sunlight. Eyewitnesses who saw the room when it was installed in the Charlottenburg Palace are reported to have said that when the sunshine came through the windows it was like standing inside an open jewel box. But most people agreed that the room was at its most breath-taking in the glow of candlelight, the flickering light dancing and glinting on every translucent golden surface.
The Amber Room took nearly twelve years to complete, because in addition to covering all the walls, ceiling and skirting boards with amber, Wolfram and his craftsmen also furnished the room with many objects, all made of amber, including candelabra, vases, snuff bottles, powder boxes, dinnerware and even cutlery. There were also disagreements between Wolfram and another court architect, Johan Friedrich von Eosander, which delayed the work. Sadly, the room was not fully complete when King Frederick died in February of 1713, though the finished panels were installed in a room in the Charlottenburg Palace which he used as a study. The King was known to spend many of his evenings there, often playing noughts and crosses amid the golden glow.
The new King, Frederick William I, known as "The Soldier-King," did not share his father’s love of the arts. He was an excellent ruler, but he was also extremely frugal with regard to anything which did not concern his armed forces. He put a stop to further work on the Amber Room shortly after he acceded to the throne. The craftsmen were all discharged, the room was dismantled and stored in the cellars of the Zeughaus.
Then, in the Autumn of 1716, the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, victor of the decisive Battle of Poltava over the Swedish forces, made an unexpected stop in Prussia on his way to France. Over the course of a couple of days in November, he met with Frederick William in Berlin. The two monarchs discussed many issues of mutual interest. They also discussed the Amber Room, which had gained fame across the Continent and was of great interest to Tsar Peter. They assured each other of their friendship, which was especially important to Prussia, which was in need of strong allies. Once the meetings were completed, court etiquette required that the monarchs exchange gifts. King Frederick William, ever frugal, but wishing to please Tsar Peter, hit upon the idea of presenting the Russian ruler with the not-quite-completed Amber Room. All the amber-covered panels were packed up into eighteen crates and shipped off to St. Petersburg. The Tsar was so delighted with his gift that he sent King Frederick William fifty-five Russian soldiers, each of whom stood over seven feet tall, to serve in the Prussian army. Nothing could have pleased The Soldier-King more, and he immediately conscripted them into his famous regiment known as the Potsdam Giants.
Tsar Peter was exceptionally fond of amber and he had great plans to turn the Amber Room into a sumptuous Kunstkammer at his Summer Palace, along the lines of the one which had been created at Versailles by the French King, Louis XIV. A Kunstkammer, literally, "art chamber," in the eighteenth century was a small room in which a gentleman of culture and wealth kept and exhibited his collections of valuable curiosities. Sadly, Peter was never able to achieve his dream, as the Amber Room was found to be in a very sorry state when it arrived in St. Petersburg. The adhesive which Wolfram and his craftsmen had used to adhere the amber to the wooden panels was failing and many of the amber pieces had come loose. Some of the pieces had actually disintegrated, which can happen to amber if it is allowed to become too dry. No one in Russia could figure out how to re-assemble the intricate mosaic which Wolfram had created, or even just to re-create the missing pieces in order to complete the room. Eventually, Peter had the whole thing stored away in the Summer Palace, where it remained long after his death in 1725.
In 1743, Peter’s daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, remembered her father’s Amber Room and determined to have it installed in her Winter Palace in his memory. She appointed her favorite sculptor, the Italian, Alexander Martelli, to execute her command. She directed him to sort out all the pieces, determine what was missing, make matching replacements and then erect the room. Initially, Elizabeth ordered the room to be installed in a small chamber in the new Winter Palace, but soon changed her mind and decided to have it installed in a much larger hall. There were not enough panels, even after all the missing pieces were replaced, to fill this larger space. Therefore, Martelli decided to spread out the original panels and fill the resulting open spaces both with newly-made amber panels and mirrored pillars which were ordered from France. The new and improved Amber Room was completed in September 1745.
But still, Elizabeth was not happy with the result, and had the room moved, not once, but three times, each time to a still larger space in the Winter Palace. For each move, Martelli had to fill the ever widening gaps between the amber panels. Fortunately, the new King of Prussia, Frederick the Great, son of The Soldier-King, heard about the travails of his grandfather’s Amber Room. He, like his father before him, needed the goodwill of the Russian monarch, so he sent the Empress Elizabeth three looking glasses in ornate amber frames. But Elizabeth needed a fourth looking glass to balance her growing Amber Room. Frederick had it made, at a very high cost, and sent to her in St. Petersburg. Still, the Empress was not happy, and ordered the Amber Room dismantled and installed next to her bedchamber. She enjoyed it in that location for some time, then decided that it had great power to impress and had it moved again. This time, it was erected as a reception hall for foreign diplomats and ambassadors.
Amber is a rather fragile material, and is particularly sensitive to temperature changes. In time the room began to come apart. Some of the walls began to warp, and as they buckled, many amber pieces were dislodged and fell off the walls. Finally, in 1755, Elizabeth ordered the whole room dismantled and moved to the new Catherine Palace she had built on the site of her mother’s original palace at Tsarskoye Selo, near the Baltic coast. This new space was even larger, but this time there was not enough money to purchase more amber to make in-fill panels, so much of the additional space was filled with glass backed with gold foil. But Elizabeth did hire an amber specialist, which she brought all the way from Prussia, to care for the amber and maintain the room. The room remained in this location for the rest of her life.
In 1778, the new Empress, Catherine the Great, decided that the Amber Room needed to be refurbished. Catherine, born in the Baltic province of Pomerania, in the town of Stettin, understood and appreciated the value of amber. She ordered that all of the gold-foiled glass in-fill be removed, and replaced with real amber, importing nearly a thousand pounds of the precious material from the Samland Peninsula of East Prussia. She hired a team of four amber carvers from the Königsberg Guild to work the new amber into panels to match the originals. She also commissioned the Italian craftsman, Giuseppe Dzokki, to design and construct four large mosaic panels of Florentine stone depicting the senses. One of the finished panels, "Sight," "Hearing," "Taste," and "Touch & Smell," was hung on each wall of the room, where all the senses would be stimulated by its magnificence. It took more than four years to complete, but Catherine’s final version of the Amber Room was soon acknowledged as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
From its completion in 1782, until 1941, the Amber Room remained in the same location in the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo. Visiting royalty and important dignitaries who traveled to this "Tsar’s Village" outside of St. Petersburg were usually granted the opportunity to visit and admire it. Perhaps the most fanciful description of the Amber Room was written by the French art critic and writer, Théophile Gautier, after he saw the room in 1866:
Only in The Thousand and One Nights and in magic fairy tales, where the architecture of palaces is trusted to magicians, spirits and genies, one can read about rooms made of diamonds, rubies, jacinth and other jewels … Here the expression ‘the Amber Room’ is not just a poetic hyperbole but exact reality, and it is not, as you could believe, a small boudoir or study. On the contrary, the room is rather large, with … walls wholly adorned with amber mosaic from top to bottom, including a frieze. The eye, which has not adapted to seeing this material applied in such a scale, is amazed and is blinded by the wealth and warmth of tints, representing all colours of the spectrum of yellow – from smoky topaz to a light lemon. The gold of carvings seems dim and false in this neighborhood, especially when the sun falls on the walls and runs through transparent veins as those sliding on them.
Though Gautier visited the Amber Room nearly fifty years after the Regency, the room itself had not changed since its final re-construction by Catherine the Great. The room would have appeared to visitors who saw it during the Regency just as it had to Gautier a half-century later. During the Regency, St. Petersburg was the capital city of Russia, and because of it location as a port on the Baltic Sea, most visitors from England would have entered Russia through St. Petersburg, which was only a short distance from Tsarskoye Selo. How many of those visitors would have resisted the opportunity to view the Eighth Wonder of the World?
Was it Napoleon’s arrogance in failing to properly provision his Grande Armée or prepare them for the cold of a Russian winter which saved the Amber Room from his predation? Or did Mother Russia herself protect this sumptuous work of art from the rapacious Emperor? Experts say the winter of 1812 – 1813 was actually rather mild. Yet neither Bonaparte or his army made it further than Moscow before they were forced to retreat from Russia, never reaching Tsarskoye Selo, the Catherine Palace and the rare and precious room which it contained. Sadly, the Amber Room did not have the same luck when the Nazis invaded in 1941.
Over the years, I have read a number Regency novels which take place all, or in part, in Russia, oftentimes in St. Petersburg. But the Amber Room has never been mentioned in any of them, though it had already been world-famous for more than a century by that time. Yet this room has such potential as a setting, or even part of the plot of a Regency novel with a Russian setting. One can only hope that some creative author will take advantage of what was the Eighth Wonder of the World during the Regency to weave it into her story and delight us all with the glittering glories of this golden room.
For more information on amber and the Amber Room:
Finlay, Victoria, Jewels: A Secret History. New York: Random House, 2006.
Rice, Patty C., Ph.D., Amber: The Golden Gem of the Ages. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1980.
Ross, Andrew, Amber. London: The Natural History Museum, 1998.
Scott-Clark, Catherine, and Levy, Adrian, Amber Room: The Fate of the World’s Greatest Lost Treasure. New York: Walker and Company, 2004.