At one point, the Livonian Order—or, to put it rightly, the Livonian Branch of the German Order—had its castle at Mitau, modern Jelgava. History’s oddities have made Jelgava one of the most important cities in Latvian history, and it was here that the Kettler’s made the capital of their Duchy of Courland after the Livonian Order was secularized in the 16th century.
The Courlanders were not only a military but also a mercantile people—another oddity of the times is the Courlander colonization of the Caribbean—but they were a subject state of the great Commonwealth of Poles and Lithuanians. The status of the Dukes of Courland, however, surpassed that of the declining Commonwealth in the 18th century when a Duchess from Mitau, Anna of Courland, was made the Empress of All the Russias, Anna Ioannovna. In Courland her reign lasted for nineteen years; in Russia, a decade.
The Order’s castle here dated to 1265 when they built in wood. This structure burned—and fire has since accompanied many of the constructions that the Palace Island has housed over time—and was replaced by a castle of stone in 1345. This stone structure was chosen by Gotthard Kettler as the capital of his new state, but major reconstructions only started in Empress Anna’s time, in 1737, when the old stone edifice was finally brought down.
Next year, an Italian Bartolomeo Rastrelli led the starting construction of a new, Baroque, palace. Rastrelli spent the majority of his working life within Russia’s bounds, and designed some of its greatest palaces, including Peterhof and the Winter Palace. Those names have been written, often in blood, into Russia’s long history, while Schloss Mitau has stood on the sidelines of the great stories.
Yet, even a cursory visit to Jelgava can show what a wonderful place this is. Regrettably, the palace is not accompanied by a garden, unlike so many other Baroque palaces. The nature of this house as a centre of administration, and not leisure, is clear from even a cursory walk around the river island on which the palace sits.
Some of the greatness is perhaps provided by Mitau having been the place where the exiled French king, Louis XVIII, spent his time during the late 18th century when France was in the grips of Revolution. Mitau probably did not serve as the Versailles the French would have preferred to live in, but nevertheless the kindness of the Russians must have been noted by Louis.
The original palace featured the centrepiece and two wings; the fourth side was added during one of the periods of reconstruction in the 20th century. As the palace suffered heavily in both the First and Second World Wars, most of what can be seen today is reconstructed. Yet, the palace is living its life, housing the administration of the Latvian University of Life Sciences and Technologies, which is probably comfortable enough with the 669 rooms in the palace.
The absence of a park designed by Rastrelli was taken as an opportunity by some early 19th century thinkers who thought to design the grounds of the former castle into a park. Now an area of numerous small bridges and winding pathways, it doesn’t come with the rigidity of Baroque thinking, but rather with a more human complexity.
I found Mitau an odd mix of modernity and history, paved four-lane bridges off of which cobblestone streets led into the palace. Our visit there was an enlightenment because the only other Baroque palace in Estonia I’ve seen thus far—though there are three in total—is in Tallinn, and has an emphasis on the gardens instead of the palace structure itself. Mitau is different; different but no worse.