Locating the Material: Prussian Carved Ambers, Place Ambiguity and a New Geography of Central European Art

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No material is linked more closely to early modern Prussia than amber, and both the Hohenzollerns (rulers of Brandenburg-Prussia) and the Vasas (overlords of Royal Prussia) used it extensively for diplomatic gifts, linking this prized material to their territories. Amber was also one of the most enigmatic materials of the period, with its alchemical nature often examined by natural philosophers who sought to determine its origins and physical makeup. Prussian artisans participated in these explorations by foregrounding amber’s metamorphic qualities. Many amber artefacts carved in Königsberg and Danzig self-reflectively depict the transformation of the Heliades, the daughters of the Sun, into poplar trees, an Ovidian trope important for the understanding of amber as a material that was once something else. This article explores how the physical properties of cups, caskets and altarpieces carved in amber had consequences for how these objects were used and activated as a vehicle of elite sociability. By tapping into natural-philosophical treatises, descriptions of places, gift records and poetry, it proposes that amber’s material rhetoric was twofold: (1) to frame the geographically peripheral Prussia as a centre of cultural activity and material exploration, and (2) to encourage the perception of amber-made artefacts as multivalent media capable of evoking multiple geographic locations. It thus delves into the transcultural implications of amber, a Prussian material that simultaneously publicized and obfuscated its origins.