One of the most popular tourist destinations in St Petersburg, Catherine Palace was originally constructed by the German architect Johann-Friedrich Braunstein for Catherine I in 1718. The original 2-story building had 16 rooms and the original staircase is still visible today inside the palace.
After the death of the Empress Catherine I in 1728, the estate of Tsarskoe Selo passed to Empress Elizabeth, who had more imperial ideas for the future of the palace. She had grown fond of hunting in the forests and perceived the palace as a potential source of revenue. Soon after ascending the throne in 1752, Empress Elizabeth ordered her court architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli to reconstruct the palace in a truly lavish and extravagant style.
On July 30th, 1756, Rastrelli showcased his masterpiece to Empress Elizabeth, her court, and foreign ministers. They were in awe at the beauty and magnificence of the palace. The Empress spared no expense for the construction and it was rumored that even the roof was made completely of gold. Over 100 kilograms of gold were added to the building facade and statues peering down from the roof.
The Amber Room
Amber, described as the “Tears of God”, has been used for healing, jewelry, and even money over thousands of years. Amber was also crushed into a powder and used as incense for the unique smell it delivers when burned. Very often it encloses insects and even small animals from up to 65 million years ago. In the ancient world amber was a highly valued commodity. For example, in ancient Rome a poet complained “A small statuette of amber was more costly than a slave.” During the Middle Ages amber was used as medicine to treat such diseases and illnesses as the plague, typhus, gought, hysterical attacks, hepatitis, cramps, sore throat, and asthma.
The original Amber Room was created between 1701 and 1713 by Gottfried Thurau for King Friedrich Wilhelm I, the first King of Prussia. The room was then gifted to the Russian Czar Peter the Great, in exchange for a treaty which brought together Russia and Prussia in a war against Sweden. In addition, Peter the Great Peter presented to King Frederick 55 large grenadiers and an ivory goblet that he made with his own hands. Peter the Great wrote at the time to Empress Catherine: “The King has made me the elegant present of a yacht which was finely decorated in Potsdam and the amber study which I have long desired.”
The Amber Room was moved in 1755 to the Winter Palace and then to Catherine Palace. Czarina Elizabeth had her Italian architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli create a new design from the originals and this required more amber from the Baltic Sea, provided by Frederick II of Prussia. The Amber Room had multiple renovations during the 18th century and in the end contained over 6 tons of amber and a combined 10 years of construction work.
During WWII the Amber Room was disguised behind simple wallpaper after attempts to remove it proved too difficult. However, the German army was well prepared to search for such treasure and the Amber Room was removed from Catherine Palace in 1941 by the German army and was last seen in Konigsberg, now Kaliningrad. It was on display at Konigsberg Castle and the director of the museum was overjoyed that the room had been returned to Germany.
As the Russian army advanced on the German soldiers near the end of WWII, the room mysteriously disappeared.
To this day treasure hunters are scouring the land near Kaliningrad hoping to find the mysterious Amber Room. The original Amber Room was reconstructed for the 300-year anniversary of St Petersburg and is a shining treasure to be seen in Catherine Palace once again.