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A row of supporting Atlantes sculptures adorns the front of the Catherine Palace in Saint Petersburg.

The Catherine Palace is named after Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia for two years after her husband's death. Originally a modest two-storey building commissioned by Peter for Catherine in 1717, the Catherine Palace owes its awesome grandeur to their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who chose Tsarskoe Selo as her chief summer residence. Starting in 1743, the building was reconstructed by four different architects, before Bartholomeo Rastrelli, Chief Architect of the Imperial Court, was instructed to completely redesign the building on a scale to rival Versailles.

The resultant palace, completed in 1756, is nearly 1km in circumference, with elaborately decorated blue-and-white facades featuring gilded atlantes, caryatids and pilasters. In Elizabeth's reign it took over 100kg of gold to decorate the palace exteriors, an excess that was deplored by Catherine the Great when she discovered the state and private funds that had been lavished on the building.

The interiors of the Catherine Palace are no less spectacular. The so-called Golden Enfilade of state rooms, designed by Rastrelli, is particularly renowned.

To create the extraordinary Amber Room, Rastrelli used the panels of amber mosaic originally destined for an Amber Cabinet at Konigsberg Castle and presented to Peter the Great by Friedrich-Wilhelm I of Prussia, and surrounded them with gilded carving, mirrors, more amber panels created by Florentine and Russian craftsman (comprising a total of 450kg of amber), and further mosaics of Ural and Caucasus gemstones. The room was completed in 1770. Due to the fragility of the materials used, a caretaker was employed constantly to maintain and repair the decorations, and major restoration was undertaken three times in the 19th century. In 1941, when German troops took Tsarskoe Selo, the Amber Room was dismantled in 36 hours, and shipped to Konigsberg in a tawdry pretence at historical fidelity. As the Nazi war machine crumbled, the panels were crated up and moved out of danger, but their eventual fate is unknown.

In 1982, the order was given to begin the recreation of the Amber Room, a process that took over 20 years and cost more than $12 million. Opened in 2003 by President Vladimir Putin and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the restored Amber Room is a truly unique monument, and a testament to the painstaking care of the craftsmen who worked on it.

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Additional Photos by Paul Bulteel (pauloog) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 1393 W: 77 N: 1882] (11751)
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