If you like a palace to be somewhat grandiose, testament to the rich family it once housed, come with me to Rundāle Palace in the Latvian countryside. Its 18th century splendour has been painstakingly restored and is in places almost overwhelming in its extravagance.
Rundāle was built by the Duke of Courland on the site of an old medieval castle. Work started in 1735 but not finished until 1768. It was at this latter end of the construction that most of the lavish decorations were added, thanks to the work of the architect commissioned by the Duke, Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Rastrelli was an Italian and the Russian court architect, whose most famous creation is the Winter Palace in St Petersburg.
After the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia became part of the Russian Empire in 1795, Catherine the Great presented the palace to a Count Valerian Zubov. Later it passed to the Shuvalov family. Then, under German occupation in World War I, the German army established a hospital here. After the war it was used for a while as a school, which remained here until 1978.
But in 1972, Rundāle Palace Museum was established to work towards its restoration. A Latvian painter and art historian, Imants Lancmanis, was made director. The restoration of the palace became his life’s work. That work was completed only in the spring of the year of our visit (2015). We must have been among the first to see it as a whole.
And what a whole! This place is stunning, thanks in no small part to Lancmanis. The restoration has been meticulous and the richness of some of the rooms takes your breath away. Let me give you a tour.
The Gilded Hall
Like most of the staterooms the Gilded Hall is almost completely empty of furniture so you can easily see the grand scale on which it is designed. It is decorated in the German Rococo style, characterised by asymmetry, by flowery and elaborate decorative details, and by a sense of opulence. This room illustrates that style perfectly.
All of this was intended to impress visitors and show the power and authority of the Duke. It has a beautifully painted ceiling, which depicts the glorification of the building’s first owner, the Duke of Courland Ernst Johann von Biron (a modest guy, wasn’t he?!) But for me the most striking features of the decoration were the ornate golden stucco decorations in relief on the background of two-coloured marble.
The Great Gallery
The Great Gallery connects the two formal entertaining rooms of the palace, the Gilded Hall and the White Hall. It was at times used as a dining room for grand banquets. The ceiling is one of the most ornate in the palace and took 14 years to restore. Its depiction of cherubs is very typical of the Rococo period. Cherubs also feature in the wall paintings.
The White Hall
This was by some way my favourite of all the rooms in the palace. Somehow its ornate decorations looked all the more impressive, and beautiful, for being the same neutral colour. Originally designed to be a chapel, in the second construction period this was transformed into a ball-room. The neutral backdrop would have set off the colourful dresses of the ladies to perfection, without clashing with any one of them. And the riot of decorations would have echoed the frothy lace trims on those dresses.
The white stucco decorations on the walls here depict different pastoral scenes as well as the four seasons and four elements of the world. The detail is amazing, especially in the pastoral scenes. All the scenes feature cherubs as the protagonists in true Rococo style. One pair have what seems to be an ox by its horns, with one riding on its back. In another panel a cherub is spearing a wild boar. Elsewhere you will see them hunting for ducks with their hound, gardening, picking grapes and more.
But perhaps the most delightful detail is on the ceiling. Here a stork typical of those seen all over the Latvian countryside stands on its nest and bends its elegant neck to feed the hungry babies clamouring for a meal. One reason for the high level of detail is that the nest was made with real branches covered with plaster.
The Duke’s State Apartments
The Duke’s State Apartments consist of a series of ten rooms on the south facing side of the palace, looking out over the formal gardens.
My favourite room in this series was the Rose Room. It is dedicated to the Goddess of Spring and Flowers, Flora, who is depicted in the ceiling painting. Stucco flowers cascade down the pink marble walls in a riot of colour, softened by the use of silver rather than the more usual gold. The parquet floor is the 1739 original, restored to its former glory.
The Duke’s Bedroom with its state bed is the central room on this side of the palace (in the tradition of Versailles) so the Duke would have had the best view in the place. Again, the parquet floor is the 1739 original. Either side of the bed you can see the large tiled stoves. Most of the rooms have these and they would have been essential during the chilly winter months. A palace on this scale must have been a real challenge to heat. Every tile on these stoves was hand painted with a unique design, usually of a hunting or pastoral scene.
The Dining Room has one of the more subtle colour schemes in the palace. It is another of those I especially liked. The coving is festooned with flowers as is the centre of the ceiling.
Other rooms in this part of the palace include a billiards room. There are several where the emphasis is on the extensive collection of paintings such as the Dutch Salon (old Dutch Masters including Rembrandt’s Simeon and Anne in the Temple) and the Italian Salon with a number of engravings of Italian cities and landscapes.
The Duke’s Private Apartments
One of my favourite rooms in this sequence was the Duke’s Dressing Room, situated in the centre of the palace next to his bedroom, with a view out over the entrance. So he would have been able to see if any visitor arrived before he had finished dressing to meet them!
This room has some of the prettiest silk wall-covering in the palace and one of the original tiled stoves. But its most striking feature is a large silver sun at the centre of the ceiling, surrounded by flowers. There are more flowers and also birds around the coving.
The room you see through the door of the Dressing Room is the Duke’s Second Study. It is noted for the wall painting with its trompe l’oeil effect. Meanwhile his First Study (no, I don’t know why he needed two!) is another of those rooms with a dramatic ceiling, this one featuring more birds and flowers and silver scrolls in its centre, echoing those around the coving of the Second Study.
Other rooms in this series include three bathrooms (again, why the Duke needed three in his private apartments isn’t clear!). They are some original Delft tiles and various 18th century personal hygiene devices including a fountain for hand washing. By this point in the tour though I was wilting a bit (there was so much to take in) and didn’t take any photos unfortunately.
The Duchess’ Apartments
Of these, her boudoir is probably the most interesting. It has an alcove in the shape of a huge shell, at the top of which two children are holding a parasol as if to shade her while she rested on the day-bed below. Opposite, between the windows, is a large mirror festooned with stucco tree branches and flower garlands, and with a large duck (I think) perched above it.
Next door to this is the Duchess’ bedroom, with two secret doors on either side of the bed. The one on the left leads into the toilet-room, while the one on the right leads into the corridor used by servants, allowing her maid to come and go discreetly.
Other rooms in this series include a reception room, the Duchess’ toilet-room (which has been reconstructed from old photos and has a washing bowl, bidet and porcelain chamber pot) and her study. There are several devoted to showing the Biron family tree, family portraits, and portraits of Duchess Benigna Gottlieb. But at this point I was definitely flagging, and suffering from ‘ornate room overload syndrome’. So unfortunately I took no more photos until we were outside the palace and in the gardens.
Rundāle has an extensive garden designed in the formal French style. A French garden is always laid out to a specific design, with radiating avenues and paths of gravel, lawns, parterres and pools enclosed in geometric shapes. This one has been completely restored in recent years. Close to the house, on its south side, you will find the parterres outlined in low boxwood hedges. Their geometrical shapes are intended to illustrate the triumph of art over nature: everything controlled, everything symmetrical. The focal points are provided by three water basins with fountains.
On either side of this area are roses, planted in rectangular or triangular beds, themed according to the country of origin. There is an English rose garden, a section for Latvian roses, for European roses, for New World roses etc. And beyond, the formality continues with a number of bosquets, enclosed with hornbeam hedges and each with a different theme. There is the Oriental Bosquet, the Dutch Bosquet, the Water Bosquet, the Blue Bosquet (planted with delphiniums) etc.
Beyond the formal gardens is a hunting park and woodland, and the whole is encircled by an artificial canal. The total area of the land belonging to Rundāle is 72 hectares, with 10 of these devoted to the formal French Garden. You would need a lot more than the few hours we spent here with our Latvian friends to see it all!
I visited Rundāle in 2015