Highlights of Latvia | Rundale Palace
80 km south of Riga, the Latvian capital, one will find Rundale Palace, a magnificent Baroque and Rococo-style mansion used as the summer residence for the Dukes of Courland. Often referred to as the ‘Versailles of Latvia’, the dazzling complex features wonderful formal gardens and the grand residence is a sumptuous monument to aristocratic opulence. The gardens and around 40 of the palace’s 138 rooms are open to visitors and feature glimpses into the everyday life of 18th-century aristocrats.
History of the Rundale Palace
On the site where Rundale Palace now stands, there stood a medieval castle. In 1735 Duke of Courland Ernst Johann von Biron bought the land where the castle stood and planned to build a grand summer residence. Born in 1690, Biron was not of noble blood but he became a court favourite of the Russian princess Anna Ioannaovna. Biron married one of Regent Anna’s ladies-in-waiting, Benigna Gottlieb von Trotha gt Treyden, but only to disguise the fact that he and the princess were having an affair. By the time Anna was elevated to the Russian throne in 1730, becoming Empress Anna, Biron and his wife were very much benefiting from their position in the Empress’ inner circle. It is said at Anna’s coronation Biron was appointed grand chamberlain, made a count of the Empire, granted an estate in what is now Latvia and had an income of 50,000 crowns a year. After Biron bought the land, he had the old castle demolished and commissioned Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli to design the new residence. Rastrelli also designed the Winter Palace and Peterhof Palace in Saint Petersburg.
In 1737, Empress Anna proposed that Biron be elected as Duke of Courland. He was an unpopular choice but there was no reasoning with the Empress and he was invested with the duchy of Courland. The investiture took place at Warsaw in 1739.
Anna died the following year, at age 47, and on her deathbed she appointed Biron the Regent of Russia. His regency, however, did not last long and on the 17 November, 1740, three weeks after Anna’s death, he was seized in his bedroom and arrested by his rivals. They sentenced him to death by quartering but his sentence was commuted to banishment for life in Siberia. His property, including diamonds he owned worth over 600,000 euros, was confiscated.
Rundale Palace was unfinished as construction had proceeded slowly and after Biron was sent into exile, the property sat empty for 22 years. Then, in 1762, Empress Catherine II of Russia re-established him in his duchy of Courland and construction of Rundale Palace started up once more. Supervised by Rastrelli, the residence was finished in 1768 and Biron moved there that year, spending summers there until his death in 1772. After his death, the palace was inherited by his devoted wife Duchess Benigna Gottlieb who added the orchards around the palace.
In 1795, the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was absorbed by the Russian Empire. Catherine the Great presented the palace to Count Valerian Zubov, the youngest brother of her lover, Prince Platon Zubov. When Count Zubov died, Prince Platon Zubov inherited the manor and he lived out his final years at the palace, dying in 1822. His young widow, Thekla Walentinowicz, then married Count Shuvalov and the palace passed into the control of the Shuvalov family. The Shuvalovs rarely stayed in the palace but it remained in the family until the German occupation in World War I when the German army established a hospital and a commandant’s office there.
During the Latvian War of Independence in 1919, the palace suffered serious damage and parts of the building were burned. In 1920, the palace became the property of the Ministry of Agriculture and in 1933 Rundāle Palace was taken over by the Ministry of Education and was officially reconstructed for use as a school. A school was located within the palace until 1978.
In 1972, the Rundale Palace Museum was founded and the director of the museum, Imants Lancmanis, dedicated himself to restoring the palace. Extensive research and restoration work was completely funded by the state until 1992. In 2015, it was announced the restorations at the palace were complete.