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Mystical Riddle of Florentine Box

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© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Amongst St. Petersburg Mining Museum exhibits, there is a unique 18th-century box. Its history is intertwined with both the Italian Medici family and the royal dynasty of the Russian Empire.

Florence is the symbol of the Renaissance. When talking about it, the first thing that comes to mind is the House of Medici, the dominant family and probably the most well-known patrons in history. They rose to political power in Florence but basically ruled the entire Tuscany region for centuries. The Medici were known for being greedy and guileful, living in unimaginable luxury, yet they also showed love for art and were patrons of Michelangelo. Despite all the good this family had done, they also caused a lot of trouble – savage turf wars leading to the civil unrest in Tuscany, harassment of political opponents, family and church feuds.

The Medici dynasty is notoriously famous for killing their enemies by poisoning them. Poisons were kept and transported in classy wooden boxes encrusted with gold and silver. The 'silent assassin' was incredibly efficient, leaving its victims no chance to survive.

Catherine de Medici, queen consort of France, is perhaps one the most renowned poisoners ever. Born in Florence, she was lucky to become the ruler of the neighbouring country, helped by her mother, a French aristocrat. Catherine went down in history as the instigator of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre.

Time went by, with the age of Botticelli, Raphael and Michelangelo coming to an end by the mid-16th century. Florence was now under the reign of Ferdinando I de Medici, and mosaic, the art form that had remained lost since imperial Rome, revived.

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n 1588 the Grand Duke opened the first workshop that recreated original art pieces – murals, pictures and caskets decorated with a mosaic of precious and semi-precious stones. Such mosaics were created by tiling large lumps of coloured rock, supplemented with inclusions of noble metals, sometimes even diamonds.

This is when the delicate art of Florentine craftsmen comes into play with the history of Russia – in the most remarkable manner! Following the coup d'état of 6 December 1741, Elizabeth Petrovna, the younger daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I, ascended the throne. Masquerades, hunts, festivities, a wardrobe of 15,000 dresses – the life of the Empress was nothing but fun. Contemporaries said Elizabeth was an easy-going and cheerful person with a pointed wit.

It should not come as a surprise then that exquisite, expensive items for nobles’ wardrobes became exceptionally popular during Elizabeth's reign. Shortly after boxes in Florentine mosaic spread amongst the European aristocracy, the first production factory opened in Russia, and refined pieces of artwork caught on at the imperial court of St. Petersburg, followed by the city's upper-class society. In due course, Russian craftsmen mastered the Italian technique so skillfully, they became tough competitors to 'box makers' from Tuscany.

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© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

One of their works, a casket studded with precious stones, is exhibited at the Mining Museum in St. Petersburg. It is made from fine wood and black marble, presumably in the XVIII-XIX centuries, and covered with decorative panels featuring volumetric Florentine mosaics. The mosaics are rich in jasper, agate, lapis lazuli and gilt bronze.

This box was passed on to the Mining Museum in 1927 by the Leningrad branch of the State Museum Fund. Before that, it was stored at the Marble Palace, then owned by Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich and his spouse Elisabeth.

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So what is the story behind the Florentine box that ended up in the home of imperial family members? According to one of the versions, it was presented as a gift for the wedding of Grand Duke Konstantin Romanov and Elizabeth Mavrikievna, née Princess Elisabeth Auguste Marie Agnes of Saxe-Altenburg. This marriage united the two great aristocratic houses of Europe – the House of Romanov and the Duchy of Saxe-Altenburg. As for the delicate jewellery box gifted to the newlywed couple, the present did not bring much happiness to their owners. Could the reason be that such boxes enchased with gemstones were primarily used for storing deadly poisons that could kill political rivals?

Princesse Elisabeth was born into the family of Prince Moritz of Saxe-Altenburg, who was the grandson of Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, daughter of the Russian Emperor Paul I. The bride's German parents were against their daughter marrying the Russian duke due to the recent death of Emperor Alexander II. Elisabeth was, however, deeply in love and firmly answered: 'I am not afraid of gunpowder!' Konstantin's family, for their part, tried to find their son another bride-to-be, but he declared his heart had been already taken. An interesting fact is that the princess refused to convert to Orthodox Christianity.

The lovers' wedding took place at the church of the Winter Palace in 1884. Konstantin and Elisabeth resided in the Marble Palace and had nine children (one girl died at two months) who mostly suffered a tragic fate, though. Almost all of them were either killed in the First World War or shot by the Bolsheviks. The Grand Duke himself died in 1915, unable to survive the death of his eldest son Oleg from wounds suffered in battle.

Princesse Elisabeth, her younger children and grandchildren managed to leave Russia for Germany with the start of the October Revolution. She died alone at the estate of her younger brother, the Prince of Saxe-Altenburg, 62 years of age.

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© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

The precious box, created by Russian masters, had survived all the evil of the 20th century and retained its original form. Nowadays, it is on display at the Mining University's museum. One can only guess whether the 'infernal ancestry' of the Florentine box had anything to do with the fate of the Russian-German princess.