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Walls that overcome barriers

Times Staff Writer

It’s been nearly 60 years since the Amber Room vanished after being stolen by the Nazis from Catherine Palace here. They crated up the 18th century gem fancied by Peter the Great, carted it off to Koenigsberg Castle in nearby East Prussia, and reassembled it. But when the castle burned in 1945, the fate of the walk-in jewel became a mystery: Did it perish, or was it hidden away?

The near-mythic structure is still missing, but today the public will get a chance to glimpse the next best thing: a replica Amber Room has been completed at its old home in this St. Petersburg suburb. The potent symbol of the centuries-old love-hate relationship between Russia and Germany will be officially unveiled by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as part of the former imperial capital’s 300th anniversary festivities.

‘It is a jewel’

Fans of the room often call it “the Eighth Wonder of the World.”

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“Now that the Amber Room has been finished, I looked at it and I realized that it is a jewel,” said Larisa Bardovskaya, deputy director and head curator at the palace. “It is astonishing.”

A stunning quantity of honey-yellow amber adorns three sides of the room, which is about 32 feet square with 22-foot ceilings. Windows dominate the fourth side. Amber of varied hues -- about 2,640 pounds total -- has been set into large panels. Some pieces are intricately carved with landscapes, human figures, regal symbols and geometric patterns.

Gilded carvings attached to the walls add to the opulence. A large painting adorns the ceiling of the room, which was used to entertain and impress guests.

The Amber Room exerts a hold on people’s imaginations because of its unusual history, the gem-like beauty of the stone-hard solidified tree sap and, perhaps most of all, the mystery of its fate, Bardovskaya said.

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“The history of its disappearance makes it a real superstar,” she said. “The search that has been going on and has not yielded any result so far gives it the popularity that it has today.”

The original Amber Room was planned by Andreas Schluter, chief architect of the Prussian royal court, for a palace ordered by King Friedrich I. Work started in 1701 and went on for about a decade but was halted after the king’s death.

In 1716, King Friedrich Wilhelm I gave the amber panels to Russia’s Peter the Great, who had expressed interest in obtaining the room. The gift reflected the Prussian king’s lack of interest in the room and his hopes for a good strategic relationship with an increasingly powerful Russia.

Peter the Great reciprocated by sending 55 exceptionally tall soldiers to serve Friedrich Wilhelm I, who was assembling a unit of giant men.

But the amber panels were put into storage; finally in 1746, Empress Elizabeth used them in her Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. She ordered them moved to Catherine Palace, the centerpiece of the czars’ summer retreat, named for its first owner, Elizabeth’s mother and Peter the Great’s wife, Catherine I.

In the next 15 years, various additions were made using more amber. Four Florentine mosaics were added, using precious stones to create pictures on the theme of the five senses. There was one each for sight, taste and sound, while touch and smell were expressed in a single mosaic.

By about 1770, the room had taken the form that was to last until its disappearance, and it is this room that has been re-created. The work, launched in 1979, was finished May 12, Bardovskaya said.

German firm steps in

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In recent years, the German gas company Ruhrgas AG gave $3.5 million to support the project, which cost a total of $11.3 million. To remake the room, artisans referred to old photos, historical records and painted models for the mosaics preserved in Italy. About 6 tons of amber were used.

“Today, when you walk into the room, you experience a very surprising sensation, because amber is a living material. It’s not dead,” Bardovskaya said. “Amber carries a very specific energy in it. Amber creates an aura of romanticism.”

The original Amber Room drew rapturous praise from the French poet, novelist and traveler Theophile Gautier in the mid-1800s.

“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,” he wrote in a book quoted on the palace’s Web site.

Others, however, argue that such gushing is misplaced.

In a recent article in the magazine Kommersant-Vlast, Russian journalist Grigory Revzin predicted that “throngs of people will flock to the Catherine Palace ... to take a look at the wonder -- and will, most likely, be disappointed.”

Revzin described Schluter as “a master who was not marked by the presence of artistic genius” and argues that the Nazis took the room not because it was great art -- but because it was German art.

Speculating on room’s fate

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Revzin believes the original Amber Room was destroyed in the fire at Koenigsberg Castle in 1945.

The Koenigsberg region was swallowed by the Soviet Union, which renamed it Kaliningrad, the name it still bears today as part of Russia. It was the Soviet authorities’ unwillingness to admit to the Amber Room’s destruction, Revzin says, that fueled the decades of searches by treasure hunters.

With time, he said, “the Amber Room acquired the dimensions of a national relic spiced with cheap sensations: spy stories, pursuits and secret dungeons.”

But Bardovskaya said the Amber Room may have escaped the fire. She argues that the old, originally Prussian parts of the room most likely had been boxed up and shipped elsewhere, and that only some of the pieces added later were destroyed.

“We refuse to say it was destroyed or ‘died’ in the fire,” she said. “We still talk of it having disappeared.”

At least one Florentine mosaic survived. But experts say it was never at Koenigsberg Castle, and apparently had been stolen separately by a German soldier in Russia.

This mosaic depicts touch and smell, and was found in Bremen, Germany, in 1997 -- a year after its replica was made.

“When we saw it for the first time, we were hugging each other,” Bardovskaya said. “We were exuberant. It looked identical.”

The reconstruction team decided to hang all four replica mosaics in the room as planned, with the original touch and smell panel displayed nearby. The scene shows a woman smelling a flower, and a couple gently touching. The main difference in the replica is that its tree leaves are greenish, while the original’s are quite brown.

Although German-Russian enmity led to the disappearance of the Amber Room, the effort to construct a replica has showcased the now much-improved relations between the two nations, Bardovskaya noted.

“There were a lot of enthusiasts on both sides, on the Russian or Soviet side and on the German side, who have been working toward finding the room or financing it or getting it restored,” she said. “Ruhrgas has stressed many times that it was the corporate initiative of their own company; it was not a state decision. But the amazing thing is what was originally the initiative of just one company grew to acquire larger political implications.

“So today, when Russian hands and German money came together to restore this room, I think it’s all too logical for Putin and Schroeder to unveil it,” she said. “Who else would be better? History is back on the love helix, and I think it’s a very good thing.”


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