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Restoration of David Roentgen’s Apollo Bureau

Catherine II’s Parisian correspondent, Baron Melchior Grimm, who kept the Empress abreast of political and cultural events in the French capital, regularly informed her of how work was progressing on the unusual bureau being made in Roentgen’s workshop in Neuwied on the Rhine. Catherine looked forward with eager anticipation to adding it to her collection. In 1784 David Roentgen brought the Apollo Bureau to St Petersburg and it became an adornment of the interior of the Large Hermitage, the building that had just been constructed to house the Empress’s collections of art. This was the first work by Roentgen to feature architectural forms. The design was probably chosen with an eye to the tastes of the intended purchaser: from Grimm he knew about the scale of construction work in St Petersburg and of Catherine’s obsession with it. The mahogany bureau with gilded bronze decoration fitted with complex mechanical devices and a musical mechanism delighted the Russian Empress. The mechanisms that Roentgen produced in collaboration with the mechanic Peter Kinzing made it possible to open book-rests, change the cabinets, open side-panels and play music recorded on cylinders. The piece of furniture is crowned by a sculptural depiction of Apollo on Mount Parnassus. A similar figure of the Greek god had first been used in Paris in 1776 in a work for Prince Charles of Lorraine, the governor of the Austrian Netherlands. Francois Remond created it from a model by the sculptor Louis-Simon Boizot. The craftsmen then repeated the design several times. Exactly the same figure of Apollo sits atop a long-case clock in the Hermitage collection.

Catherine II liked to show Roentgen’s unique pieces to her guests in the Hermitage. About 1790 the Empress gave orders for the Apollo Bureau to be placed on public display in the Academy of Sciences. Then, in the 19th century, the Large Bureau returned to the Winter Palace.

With time the piece gradually lost its magnificence and the mechanisms began to work poorly. In the 1980s a thorough restoration was carried out in the Hermitage workshops. All the complex interior mechanics were put back in order. They splendidly selected grain of the mahogany veneer could again be seen at its best. The bronze decoration was cleaned and the musical mechanism set right. Today the Apollo Bureau can be seen in the White Hall of the Winter Palace in which the majority of Roentgen’s works are displayed.