Lucjan Myrta's Sensational Amber Masterworks
(in two parts)
by Wieslaw Gierlowski
An intimate glimpse into Lucjan Myrta's famous amber workshop & art projects.
Regulars at the Amberif Fair still remember the stands of the Amberpol Company of Sopot from the first few editions of the trade exhibition. The stand stood out in its grandeur, as well as because of the diversity of design and technical perfection of the products offered, and most of all thanks to the dominant share of large scale artefacts of artistic amber jewellery craftsmanship. Large chests, chessboards, clocks, mirrors and other decorative objects were irresistibly associated by their viewers with the art of old, and especially with the amber jewellery art of Gdansk in its heyday, which was an oft source of inspiration at Lucjan Myrta's firm.
The Amberpol Company was the leader in the world amber market during the early 90s, ahead of even the large excavating and processing industrial giants of Russia in Yantarny and Germany in Ribnitz-Damgarten. The period of Amberpol's large revenues from the sale of its products coincided with the maximum output of the mines in Sambia and in the Vistula River Delta, as well as with the arrival of a new and significant source of amber from the Ukrainian mines in Volyn. By buying up the raw material (in unlimited amounts with immediate payment for even the largest consignments) during the few years when the supply was at its peak, Lucjan Myrta ensured that he had a collection of the most valuable unique specimens of amber. Sensibly and skilfully selecting the raw material for market production, Myrta also managed to save a large body of material with unique features for his dream goal: to create a great collection of artistic amber artefacts, coming from a single studio. These works were not meant to be sold, nor were they destined for personal use. Their purpose was to be shown at an exhibition modelled after the kunstkamera of old. Myrta attempted to create such an institution at his own facilities in Sopot, but legal and administrative difficulties got in the way and ultimately the growing collection became the cornerstone of the Amber Department of the Historical Museum of the City of Gdansk.
Perhaps the public exhibiting of this collection in Gdansk, which completely lost its centuries-old marvellous collection of amber as a result of World War II, will be a good start for the establishing of new ones, which would equal those of old. With the support of the professional society of amber jewellers, the City authorities are preparing exhibition and storage facilities which will be safe and adapted to the properties of amber, as well as state of the art cabinets and sources of light which will protect the amber from weathering. During the 11th Amberif Fair the museum exhibition of Myrta's collection will be shown together with its latest additions, and the City authorities will also organise the official promotion of a beautiful album (in 3 language versions), which depicts the collection of artistic works together with natural specimens of amber selected during their working: extraordinary colour varieties, enormous nuggets congealed in the form they acquired millions of years ago and a selection of rare and impressive plant and animal inclusions in amber in their natural transparency.
The participants of the 11th Amberif Fair will have the opportunity to take part not only in the promotion of the museum exhibit and the accompanying album, but also in the "sneak preview” of two extraordinary specimens from the Myrta collection in the main exhibition hall: a perfectly preserved lizard inclusion in a nugget of amber and a copy of a gold saltcellar by Benvenuto Cellini made entirely of amber.
Lizards trapped in Baltic amber are an incredible rarity. The first such specimen was discovered in 1875 by R. Klebs, the renowned amber researcher from Königsberg, in a nugget from the Palmnicken mine. The next find came to light only 122 years later. It was found by Gabriela Gierlowska on a coastal sand dune nearby the port in Gdansk in 1997, when we celebrated Gdansk's Millennium Anniversary.
The next specimen, in turn, which we will present among the other features from Lucjan Myrta's collection, turned up only three years after the second one. The specimen has been examined and identified in the Chair of Zoology of Invertebrates at the University of Gdansk under the direction of Prof. Ryszard Szadziewski. This time, a single nugget trapped two rarely seen ancient animals: a lizard and a perfectly preserved tick, and further, a cockroach and a beetle. The actual specimen will be presented at Amberif together with a photographic exhibition showing the anatomical details of all the animals in great magnification.
The Gdansk specimens are examples of naturally clarified amber, characteristic of a material, which has undergone a stage of polishing on the sea floor and a long period of basking on the beach and the sand dunes, so the traces of ancient life trapped in the nuggets are perfectly visible already in their raw state, even prior to processing and polishing.
Concurrently with the presentation of this natural sensation, the participants of the Amberif Fair will also have the opportunity to visit an exhibition at the Gdansk historical Main Town Hall depicting an entire collection of works from Lucjan Myrta's studio, covering a few hundred large-scale artefacts. In all likelihood, a large album presenting the entire oeuvre of Myrta's studio will be published to coincide with the exhibition; a book whose format, size and wealth of photographic material (over 300 large-format pictures) will exceed everything that has been published about amber before, including the Three Centuries of History album published last year in Russia to commemorate the completion of the reconstruction of the Amber Chamber in Tsarskoye Selo.
Apart from completed artefacts, Myrta's album will also include photographs of over fifty large nuggets with unit weights exceeding 1 kg, some of which weighing as much as 4 kg. This collection has been compiled in a single studio, and in terms of the sheer number of items it exceeds every museum collection in the world.
These large nuggets include specimens from every known deposit and accumulation (most of them of course come from the mines in Sambia), as well as especially valuable and specifically reeled nuggets which had washed up on the beaches of the Baltic Sea, for instance nuggets recently found in Puck and Leba.
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Page two of an intimate glimpse into Lucjan Myrta's famous amber workshop & art projects including Benvenuto Cellini's Saltcellar.
The greatest masterpiece of world jewellery art, a saltcellar made of pure gold by Benvenuto Cellini, was produced in dramatic circumstances. Cellini, a brilliant master, but also an incorrigible adventurer, made a wax model of a saltcellar at the bidding of the Cardinal of Ferrara while imprisoned in the papal jail in Rome. He was delivered from his plight in 1540 by Francis I, the king of France, who invited him to his court (together with the model of the saltcellar), just as he had earlier invited Leonardo da Vinci with the portrait of Mona Lisa.
Soon, the monarch could witness the ready work at Cellini's studio, furnished at the Nesle Palace by the Seine. Upon this sight, the king exclaimed: "This is something absolutely more divine than I could have imagined.” A refined expert in art, Francis I was not wrong in his assessment. He had before him a fully-dimensional, multi-figure sculptural composition, both expressive and harmonious, dazzling and delicate, combining large and small figures without the former dominating the latter. In a word, he had before him the quintessence of mature Renaissance sculpture.
The epic saltcellar (350 x 280 mm) contained numerous personifications, which could well fill out the content of even such grand scale monuments as for instance the Fountain de Trevi and the Gdansk Well of Neptune. The composition of large, reclining figures of the Earth and the Ocean (Gaia and Okeanos), turned amicably towards each other with mutual gifts: sea salt and earthly pepper, was developed in numerous figures of beautiful and delicate women and fearsome men, as well as hippocamps, the steeds of the sea god.
Such ideological content was most usually depicted in works of art commissioned by large port cities, which reaped their profits from the linking of seafaring commerce with the hinterland. In Gdansk, we can find a topically closely related painted ceiling decoration in the Grand Hall of the City Council. No wonder then, that Cellini's saltcellar drew the attention of Lucjan Myrta, not only by its beauty, but also by its symbolic appeal.
The choice of the topic was probably determined by the recent theft of the artefact from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (the last legal owner) and the subsequent (so far) fruitless search for the masterpiece. We can see a certain analogy here to the Russian's decision to reconstruct the most famous amber masterpiece of all: the decor of the walls of the chamber at Catherine's Palace in Tsarskoye Selo.
The work on the amber saltcellar is nearing completion. However, its author would like to retain the element of surprise by presenting the work in its entirety for the first time at the March Amberif Fair. This is the reason why this article is not illustrated with photographs of the amber version of the saltcellar. The weight of the amber saltcellar will exceed 9 kg.
During the Amberif Fair, an earlier work from Myrta's studio, a table crafted out of dozens of varieties of colourful amber, will be transferred from the Historical Museum to the main Exhibition Hall. The placement of the saltcellar in the centre of the round tabletop will be a reference to the typical functions of both objects, although one may fear that the competition between the two might be somewhat too keen given the combination of the expressive forms.
A Preview of More Grand Works
Although the great export company Amberpol is no more, Lucjan Myrta's small studio is hard at work, devoted to expand the museum collection. For eight years, work has been going on at the production of the largest movable object in the history of world amber jewellery-making. It will be a four-storey treasure vault modelled on that of Marie Antoinette, the last queen of pre-Revolutionary France.
It will not be a copy of an 18th century piece of furniture, but a completely new structure built not of wood and metal as the original was, but of natural Baltic amber. Only the eight legs at the base will be made of repoussé silver, but even they will have an openwork, relief amber ornament hung between them. Every wall, door, drawer fronts and the finial will be composed of sculpted amber details.
—by Wieslaw Gierlowski, expert of the International Amber Association of Poland