13 August 2013

The Amber Room Explained

Rob's Note: I'm done with labelling Trivialities by Roman numerals. I love Roman numerals, I do, but sooner or later we'll get to Triviality MMLXXIX or something (though 1979's pretty unlikely) and yeah. Now every Triviality will just be a topic followed by "explained". Not that it matters, but if you're looking for the latest Trivialities, they'll just be labelled as explained. :P

Who's in the mood for treasure? :)

I've been meaning to discuss this very fascinating subject around the time of VOC, when I wrote it, but I never got to it. I simply forgot. I've known about this topic for a long time, based on a certain overpriced unnamed children's book series about history. But what that book series told about the Amber Room was very little, and most was speculation. This post may have some wistfullness in it, but just bear with my nerdness. To set the record straight through all the secrets and stuff, well, that's today's mission.

First off: what is amber? C10 H16 O. :) (Or, for those who love Fringe, it's the stuff the Parallel Universe uses to seal off wormholes. Amber 31422...but I digress. We're not in the Altverse today.) :

What's the Amber Room, then? The Amber Room was a room made of amber, as you've probably guessed. "But wait!" I hear you calling. "What's amber, anyhow? Who would make a room made of amber? Wouldn't it break because amber tends to become brittle and harden with age and completely crumble? And how would it last?" These are all good questions. Your answers...

The book/card/online melange that started
it all, pretty much. Not the construction. My
interest. :P
Photo Credit: Scholastic!

The history of this (faux) gilded room began in the early 1700s, when the King of Prussia (if you've forgotten your world history lessons, Prussia was mostly Germany and Poland, especially the coasts) decided to create a room for himself of amber. He hired architects from Germany, Denmark, and Russia to help create this magnificent, dizzying work of art.

So how did it in end up in Russia? Some fifteen years later, Peter the Great was on a visit and he admired the room greatly. The king had changed - it wasn't the original one who had commissioned the room - so he decided to give it to Peter as a peace offering in 1716, hoping for an alliance against Sweden.

How do you move a room? "Very carefully, in little tiny pieces. And then they put it back together again," as Patrick Carman put it in a chat I had the pleasure of attending back in 2009.

Basically they took the pieces apart and shipped them in lots of boxes to Russia, where it was put together in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg (or St. Petersburgh, if you're Mary Shelley.)

Some forty years later, in 1755, Czarina Elisabeth decided to move it to her palace, the elegantly named Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo (for the unlinguisted, including me, that's The Czar's Village). With her, and Catherine the Great, the two immediately embellished it, making it even more dramatic, opulent, beautiful, and star-studded than it had ever been. More sheets of amber were imported from Italy, jewels were added around the walls and ornaments to make it shinier. It took over 15 years, and in the end it was just dizzying. It was now around 592 whopping feet square (about 55 square metres for the metrics).

How much? Historians estimate that in today's money, it'd have cost $142 million dollars (more by now, it's inflation that's tricky). In addition to amber, the walls had gold behind them to support. It was that opulent. I can't even describe it (for why we shall presently see.)

So the room was there for almost 2 centuries. Then it all...disappeared.

Photo Credit: Roland Weihrauch /dpa /Corbis

"How did a giant room of fossilised insects disappear, Rob?"

The same way said room traveled to two different places in just 50 freakin' years. (Treasure can be really cool if learned about the right way. See? Rooms that move!)

During WWII, the Nazis were pretty much trying to find everything shiny and pretty to glorify themselves. A room made of fossilised stone and animals? Sure. In a name that was surely picked out of an Italian textbook, "Operation Barbarossa" was basically an excuse for the plundering and taking of art treasures. Since Prussia used to be part of Germany, the Nazis wanted it, naturally.

So the Russians desperately tried hiding it, covering it up with wallpaper, but remember, amber's brittle, and how do you hide a room, anyway? (The only question I can't answer today.) It didn't work. Himmler found out, and the Amber Room was immediately swarmed with insects who broke free from the amber Nazi curators and artists who knew how to take it out, the same way it was done in 1755 and 1716.

This is a close-up of a little piece. Some
have insects inside, some don't. All
carbon, hydrogen, oxygen. Isn't chemistry
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Reports from this point get sketchy. Some say it was placed in a castle which was destroyed in an air raid. Some say it was taken in a submarine to Berlin and bombed on the way. Some say aliens. Either way, it was never seen again. Except for two pieces, oddly, which were stolen by some soldiers, and given to their families, and which were passed down through the years. One was a mosaic, which the family had no idea how it had gotten into their family. (Most likely a war trophy.)

All hope is not lost, though. A few decades ago, the Russians decided to rebuild the room for national pride. It took lots of efforts in part by the German and Russian governments, and many people donated. Those two pieces I mentioned above were tracked down and placed. In the end, after more than 30 years, the brand-new Amber Room was unveiled by President Vladimir Putin in 2003, in time for the (almost) 300-year anniversary of the Room's turbulent history. It cost about $11 million and is on display for all of us to see (well, those who want to hop on a plane to Russia and look at a room. I would!)

See? Treasure can be fun. :) Depends on what kind of treasure. And for the record, when insects get put into amber, they are converted to inorganic (not living) material. Sorry, Jurassic Park. You just wanted to be alive again, didn't you, dinosaurs... :) And Fringe Amber, too.


Sources: Wikipedia, The Black Circle (not a lot, though), US News, Smithsonian.

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