Jelgava Palace

Jelgava, Latvia

Jelgava or Mitava Palace is the largest Baroque style palace in the Baltic states. It was built in the 18th century based on the design of Bartolomeo Rastrelli as a residence for the Dukes of Courland in their capital - Mitava (today Jelgava). The palace was founded by Ernst Johann von Biron in 1738 on an island between the Lielupe river and its branches. The site had borne the residence of the former Courland dukes of the Kettler dynasty and, before that, a medieval castle belonging to the Teutonic Knights.

Following Biron's fall from grace in 1740, all construction work was stopped, even though the roof of the palace had not yet been completed. Work resumed after Biron's return from exile in 1763. Besides Rastrelli (who, with the death of his patronness, the Empress Elizabeth, lost business in Saint Petersburg), Danish architect Severin Jensen participated in the project, giving the palace a touch of classicism.

After construction was completed in 1772, the duke lived in the palace for a six months. In 1779, his successor, Peter von Biron, hosted the famous adventurer Alessandro Cagliostro in the palace. After Courland was absorbed by the Russian Empire in 1795, the palace served as a refuge for French royalty fleeing the French revolution. Louis XVIII of France and his family lived in the palace between 1797 and 1801. It was here that Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte of France married Louis-Antoine, Duke of Angoulême, in 1799.

The interior decorations of the palace were destroyed in 1918 when it was looted and burned by retreating White forces under the command of Pavel Bermondt-Avalov. The palace also suffered heavy damage in World War II, during battles in the summer of 1944. The exterior of the palace was restored between 1956 and 1964, but not the interior. The Latvia University of Agriculture has been housed in the palace since the Soviet period.

Jelgava Palace is not considered one of Rastrelli's better works. Critics note the dull facade design lacking rhythmic diversity and plastic richness which characterized Rastrelli works in the Elizabeth's period. Also, atypically for Rastrelli, the palace does not feature a park; nor is the parade yard closed, rather it faces the urban panorama. Originally, the palace consisted of two wings connected to the main building forming a U-shape. In 1937 a fourth building was added effectively closing the perimeter.

Features of special historical significance include the burial vault of the Dukes of Courland in the south-east basement. All Dukes of Courland from the Houses of Kettler and Biron were buried there between 1569 to 1791. The rooms contain 21 sarcophagi and nine wooden coffins. The crypt was relocated to the palace in 1819.

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Beckov Castle

The Beckov castle stands on a steep 50 m tall rock in the village Beckov. The dominance of the rock and impression of invincibility it gaves, challenged our ancestors to make use of these assets. The result is a remarkable harmony between the natural setting and architecture.

The castle first mentioned in 1200 was originally owned by the King and later, at the end of the 13th century it fell in hands of Matúš Èák. Its owners alternated - at the end of the 14th century the family of Stibor of Stiborice bought it.

The next owners, the Bánffys who adapted the Gothic castle to the Renaissance residence, improved its fortifications preventing the Turks from conquering it at the end of the 16th century. When Bánffys died out, the castle was owned by several noble families. It fell in decay after fire in 1729.

The history of the castle is the subject of different legends. One of them narrates the origin of the name of castle derived from that of jester Becko for whom the Duke Stibor had the castle built.

Another legend has it that the lord of the castle had his servant thrown down from the rock because he protected his child from the lords favourite dog. Before his death, the servant pronounced a curse saying that they would meet in a year and days time, and indeed precisely after that time the lord was bitten by a snake and fell down to the same abyss.

The well-conserved ruins of the castle, now the National Cultural Monument, are frequently visited by tourists, above all in July when the castle festival takes place. The former Ambro curia situated below the castle now shelters the exhibition of the local history.