Dres­den: An art lover's de­light

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Known for be­ing de­stroyed dur­ing World War II, Dres­den is a city that has lit­er­ally risen from the ashes. But it al­ways had a history full of art and cul­ture, as historian Tom Dun­can ex­plains

The year was 1747 and Europe was al­most at the end of the War of the Aus­trian Suc­ces­sion (1740 – 1748). Italy had long been emp­tied of “Grand Tourists” dis­cour­aged from trav­el­ling in Europe due to the un­set­tled con­di­tions. Not un­nat­u­rally, this was a dis­as­ter for those artists who made a living from pro­vid­ing vis­i­tors with paint­ings, par­tic­u­larly the newly fash­ion­able

ve­dute or view paint­ings com­mis­sioned by vis­i­tors, par­tic­u­larly to Venice and Rome.

An­to­nio Canaletto (1697 – 1768), the most fa­mous living painter of views, was al­ready in Lon­don, where he would work from 1746 to 1756 (with brief pe­ri­ods spent back in Venice). His nephew, stu­dent and even­tual peer as a painter, Bernardo Bel­lotto (1720 – 1780), also left Italy but headed in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. In 1748 he ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion from one of Europe’s gen­uine ‘con­nois­seur’ rulers, Fred­er­ick-Au­gus­tus II, Elec­tor of Sax­ony, to work in Dres­den, cap­tur­ing the beau­ties of his cap­i­tal city. It was an ar­range­ment which both men came to re­gard as a to­tal suc­cess and no doubt so too have many oth­ers, as his paint­ings of the city and the surrounding land­scapes have inspired art lovers ever since.

What drew Bel­lotto to Sax­ony and its cap­i­tal, Dres­den? The House of Wet­tin ruled Sax­ony for cen­turies, one of the seven Ger­man princely houses that en­joyed the hered­i­tary right to elect the Holy Ro­man Em­per­ors – a priv­i­lege con­ferred in 1423 when they were cre­ated Dukes of Sax­ony. The fam­ily had come to promi­nence in the tenth century and hailed from the town of Wet­tin in Sax­ony-An­halt, hence their name. By the fif­teenth century they had set­tled at Wit­ten­berg, where they would be­come pow­er­ful rulers, in­clud­ing pro­tec­tors of Martin Luther.

The Wet­tin fam­ily ruled var­i­ous parts of north­ern Ger­many in Medieval times. They ac­quired ter­ri­to­ries that in­cluded the eastern March (the Ost­mark), the March of Meis­sen, the Land­grave of Thuringia and most im­por­tantly, the Duchy of Sax­ony.

In 1485 the fam­ily di­vided into two rul­ing branches, a sit­u­a­tion given le­gal sta­tus by the Treaty of Leipzig con­cluded fol­low­ing var­i­ous ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes after the death of Elec­tor Fred­er­ick II in 1464. The Ernes­tine branch was hence­forth based at Wit­ten­berg, while the Al­ber­tine branch, orig­i­nally based at Meis­sen, even­tu­ally made Dres­den their cap­i­tal where they re­mained for sev­eral cen­turies.

The se­nior, Ernes­tine, branch played a pre­dom­i­nant role in the Protes­tant re­for­ma­tion (for in­stance in its pro­tec­tion of Martin Luther), and it pro­duced sev­eral cadet branches, par­tic­u­larly the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha line based

in Thuringia. This is the branch of the fam­ily that pro­vided sev­eral nine­teenth-century monar­chies rul­ing Bel­gium, Por­tu­gal, Bul­garia and the United King­dom, through the mar­riage of the young Queen Vic­to­ria to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

The Al­ber­tine branch, while orig­i­nally less prom­i­nent, ruled most of Sax­ony and would even­tu­ally play a sig­nif­i­cant role in Pol­ish history. The Hab­s­burg Holy Ro­man Em­per­ors pre­ferred this Al­ber­tine branch of the fam­ily and in 1547 the Wet­tin’s right to par­tic­i­pate in the elec­tion of new Em­per­ors was trans­ferred from the Ernes­tine to the Al­ber­tine branch, where it re­mained un­til 1806. This is what con­ferred such im­por­tance on this branch of the fam­ily, lead­ing to the devel­op­ment of Dres­den as a fine cap­i­tal, suit­able for dis­plays of royal pageantry and mu­nif­i­cence, a must for all mid­dle and up­per level dy­nas­ties in pre­vi­ous cen­turies.

By the time Bel­lotto ar­rived in Dres­den, he found a re­mark­able state ruled in a most un­usual way. By that date, the ruler was a Catholic, yet his an­ces­tors, un­til a generation be­fore, had been one of the firmest sup­port­ers of the Re­for­ma­tion and had given Martin Luther aid and com­fort. Al­most ev­ery­one in Sax­ony was firmly Lutheran but the very few Catholics who lived there had no civil or po­lit­i­cal rights what­so­ever. So, we have to ask, why did Bel­lotto move to Dres­den? The an­swer lies in a com­bi­na­tion of mag­netism and op­por­tunism.

The Saxon lands were ruled at the turn of the seventeenth century by a charis­matic leader, Fred­er­ick-Au­gus­tus I, known as ‘Au­gus­tus the Strong’. He was both hered­i­tary Elec­tor of Sax­ony and the elected King of Poland. Poland had an un­usual sys­tem by which from 1659 its hered­i­tary princes elected their mon­archs un­til the coun­try ceased to ex­ist when par­ti­tioned for the third and final time in 1797. If a for­eign can­di­date seemed likely to keep the usual en­emy, Rus­sia, at bay, then an out­sider was elected. Such a can­di­date was Au­gus­tus the Strong, one of the great gen­er­als of his time. To gain this sec­ond role, the Lutheran

Elec­tor con­verted to Catholi­cism, an as­ton­ish­ing de­ci­sion given his fam­ily’s history.

For us, Au­gus­tus’ claim to fame lies in his role as a great pa­tron of the arts. He be­gan the trans­for­ma­tion of Dres­den and founded the fa­mous porce­lain works at Meis­sen. He and his suc­ces­sors built or al­tered some re­mark­able coun­try palaces at Pill­nitz, Moritzburg and Gross-Sedlitz. He col­lected mag­nif­i­cent works of art – all as­pects of which can be seen in the city’s won­der­ful mu­se­ums, trea­suries and in the palaces which dot the surrounding coun­try­side.

Au­gus­tus’ son, Fred­er­ick-Au­gus­tus II, who was also elected King of Poland as Au­gus­tus III, con­tin­ued his fa­ther’s lav­ish pa­tron­age of the arts, invit­ing Bel­lotto to Dres­den. Thus, the artist mem­o­rably cap­tured the city’s evo­lu­tion in a se­ries of limpid paint­ings and these mostly re­main in the city’s Gemälde­ga­lerie.

When Bel­lotto left Venice he knew that his na­tive city, in­deed any­where in Italy, could not pro­vide enough work for both him and his un­cle, Canaletto. He had travelled ex­ten­sively through­out north­ern and cen­tral Italy dur­ing the 1740s and when the King-Elec­tor’s in­vi­ta­tion ar­rived, it of­fered a so­lu­tion to the prob­lem of where he might find suit­able em­ploy­ment. He spent al­most twenty years in the city, with the ex­cep­tion of an ex­tended pe­riod vis­it­ing Vienna and Mu­nich when Dres­den was be­sieged by Fred­er­ick the Great dur­ing the Seven Years’ War, 1756 – 1763. Bom­barded by the Prus­sians, the con­se­quent dev­as­ta­tion was cap­tured by the artist in sev­eral paint­ings cre­ated shortly after his re­turn, a presage of what would en­gulf the city in 1945.

Bel­lotto even­tu­ally left Dres­den for good in 1767, when he stopped off in War­saw on his way to St Petersburg. It was a jour­ney he never com­pleted as he stayed to cap­ture the Pol­ish cap­i­tal, just as he had Dres­den, and where he even­tu­ally died.

Nine­teenth-century Dres­den

Dres­den in the nine­teenth century was no less in­ter­est­ing. Dur­ing the Napoleonic pe­riod the

Wet­tin dy­nasty be­came Kings of Sax­ony in 1806. Their change of ti­tle was a di­rect con­se­quence of the abo­li­tion of the Holy Ro­man Em­pire in 1806 by Napoleon, when the fam­ily’s role as ‘Elec­tors’ was con­verted into that of Kings, - an ‘up­grade’ awarded to sev­eral other Princely Houses, such as Bavaria. They con­tin­ued to rule un­til the rev­o­lu­tions of 1918 which led to the abo­li­tion of all the Ger­man king­doms and prin­ci­pal­i­ties.

At this time, the city en­joyed a prom­i­nent role in the spread of the Neo-clas­si­cal style in ar­chi­tec­ture with new pub­lic buildings, such as the Sem­per­oper. The ‘Opera House’ was de­signed by Got­tfried Sem­per (1803 – 1879) who was given the commission in 1838. Here, some of the great­est names in Ger­man Ro­man­tic Opera pre­miered many now fa­mous works, not least Carl Maria von We­ber with Der Freis­chütz (The Marksman) and Richard Wag­ner with Der Fliegende Hol­län­der ( The

Fly­ing Dutch­man); still fre­quently per­formed at the Opera House to­day.

Re-con­structed twice after a fire in 1869, and the bomb­ing of 1945, the ex­act replica of the orig­i­nal build­ing was re­opened on 13th Fe­bru­ary 1985, forty years to the day after its de­struc­tion by the Royal Air Force.

The musical tra­di­tion of Dres­den is an ex­ten­sive one, with the boys’ choir of the Kreuzkirche ex­ist­ing since the thirteenth century. They per­form Ves­pers ev­ery Satur­day in the Church of the Holy Cross, a Lutheran church and the largest church build­ing in the Free State of Sax­ony. In re­cent times Dres­den has taken on an added layer of sig­nif­i­cance due to its de­struc­tion dur­ing World War II and its rise, phoenix-like, from the lit­eral ashes and bears re­mark­able tes­ta­ment to the tri­umph of hu­man for­bear­ance over ad­ver­sity. This too, adds a poignant des­cant to any visit to this city of ar­chi­tec­ture, art and mu­sic.

Ex­plor­ing the city

The cen­tre of Dres­den, the Alt­stadt, of­fers a re­mark­able over­view of the city’s history. It is full of fine his­toric buildings, many de­stroyed dur­ing

World War II and left derelict for much of the com­mu­nist pe­riod. These have now al­most all been fully re­stored and of­fer vis­i­tors once again a city which its cre­ators, Au­gus­tus the Strong and his son, Fred­er­ick-Au­gus­tus II, would recog­nise.

The only way to be­gin to ex­plore the Alt­stadt is on foot, start­ing at the cer­e­mo­nial court­yard of the Zwinger Palace, the work of the fine ar­chi­tect, Matthäus Daniel Pop­pel­mann, com­mis­sioned by Au­gus­tus the Strong. A ‘Zwinger’ is ef­fec­tively a bai­ley - the space be­tween two walls built for de­fen­sive pur­poses. In con­trast, the mag­nif­i­cence of Pop­pel­mann’s Baroque court­yard is off­set by the se­vere nine­teenth-century ap­pear­ance of the Sem­per Gallery wing, de­signed by Got­tfried Sem­per and con­structed from 1847-1854, which closes one long side of this great space.

The Gemälde­ga­lerie Alte Meis­ter (Old Masters’ Gallery), housed in Sem­per’s wing, is one of Europe’s great­est col­lec­tions of paint­ings, and it in­cludes Raphael’s Sis­tine Madonna, not to men­tion a truly stun­ning group of view paint­ings of Dres­den and its sur­round­ings by our friend, Bel­lotto. There are around 750 paint­ings col­lected by Au­gus­tus the Strong and Fred­er­ick Au­gus­tus II and these works were saved for pos­ter­ity dur­ing the war when the mu­seum was closed and the paint­ings put into stor­age. When Dres­den

was cap­tured by the Red Army, the pic­tures were re­moved to Rus­sia but the ma­jor­ity of the col­lec­tion was re­turned to the re­con­structed Sem­per Gallery in 1955.

Else­where in the Zwinger Palace com­plex find time to visit the fab­u­lous Col­lec­tion of Meis­sen and Ori­en­tal Porce­lain, the Porzel­lansamm­lung, which even if the prospect leaves you cold, per­se­vere due to the qual­ity of both dis­play and contents! There are around 20,000 arte­facts – in ad­di­tion to mag­nif­i­cent pieces of Meis­sen, there are also fab­u­lous pieces of Chi­nese and Ja­panese porce­lain. These in­clude the 151 Chi­nese lid­ded vases known as the ‘ Dra­goon vases’. In or­der to ob­tain these ves­sels from Fred­erik Wil­liam I (fa­ther of Fred­er­ick the Great) in 1717, Au­gus­tus the Strong of­fered in ex­change a 600-strong ‘dra­goon’ reg­i­ment of cav­alry!

Just across from the Zwinger com­plex, close to the River Elbe, you will find the ex­tra­or­di­nary Hofkirche, the Ital­ianate court chapel built by Fred­er­ick Au­gus­tus II to serve as a Catholic chapel, much dis­liked by the city’s Lutheran pop­u­la­tion. Splen­didly re­stored, it con­tains one of the city’s finest or­gans, the last work of Got­tfried Sil­ber­mann, still much used for reg­u­lar recitals.

The city’s palaces and mu­se­ums are no less en­tic­ing. The Res­i­den­zschloss, or Royal Palace, is a modern re­cre­ation of the mostly Re­nais­sance build­ing lived in by the Wet­tin Elec­tors and Kings over many cen­turies. Orig­i­nally a fortress, trans­formed after 1547 into a Re­nais­sance castle; under Au­gus­tus the Strong it was mag­nif­i­cently re­designed with Baroque fea­tures, then at the end of the nine­teenth century a neo-Re­nais­sance style ren­o­va­tion cel­e­brated the 800-year an­niver­sary of the House of Wet­tin. Burned to the ground dur­ing the night of the bomb­ing of Dres­den in 1945, it has since been en­tirely re­con­structed. The qual­ity of the restora­tion is amaz­ing, as is the justly famed his­toric Green Vault where can be found, mag­nif­i­cently dis­played, some truly as­ton­ish­ing items from the Wet­tin fam­ily’s Trea­sury.

Great­est of these is the ex­tra­or­di­nary jew­elled trea­sure of The Court of the Great Mogul Aureng

Zeb, a mas­ter­piece of crafts­man­ship made to rep­re­sent the Court of Delhi on the birth­day of

Grand Mogul Aureng-Zeb. Made be­tween 1701 – 1708 by Jo­hann Mel­chior Din­glinger, Au­gus­tus the Strong’s court jew­eller (with help from Din­glinger’s brothers, as well as nu­mer­ous as­sis­tants), it com­prises 137 gold and enamel fig­urines en­crusted with over 5,000 jew­els and is quite sim­ply breath­tak­ing.

A defin­ing fea­ture of Dres­den, of course, is its po­si­tion in a val­ley on the River Elbe, the val­ley it­self for­merly a World Her­itage Site, though one con­tentiously no longer due to un­sightly devel­op­ment tak­ing place on its banks. A pleas­ant trip is to take one of the many boats which ply up and down the River Elbe to Pill­nitz where Pöp­pel­mann cre­ated a pair of ‘mir­ror’ palaces fac­ing each other, dra­mat­i­cally look­ing out over the river. His in­spi­ra­tion is said to have been Mughal In­dia but the ‘ori­en­tal­is­ing’ flavour of the buildings is eclec­tic. The surrounding park is a de­light.

The river is a sub­ject cap­tured by Bel­lotto in his paint­ings Dres­den from the Right Bank of the Elbe, above the Au­gus­tus Bridge and Dres­den from the Right Bank of the Elbe, be­low the Au­gus­tus Bridge painted in 1747 and 1748 re­spec­tively. These works were in­valu­able in the re­build­ing of Dres­den after the dev­as­ta­tion of this won­der­ful city in the Sec­ond World War and can be seen in the Gemälde­ga­lerie.

If tak­ing time out­side the city, a fur­ther ex­cur­sion to Moritzburg would de­light any­one. Here the orig­i­nal ducal hunt­ing lodge of 1542 was al­most com­pletely re­placed by the present mag­nif­i­cent palace for Au­gus­tus the Strong, de­signed by Pöp­pel­mann. After a wan­der through its de­light­ful grounds, why not re­turn to Dres­den

us­ing the Loss­nitz­tal­bahn, a charm­ing nar­row­gauge rail­way.

Fi­nally, no trip to Dres­den should ex­clude a day trip to the de­light­ful town of Meis­sen. It has a well­p­re­served and fine Medieval cen­tre and not far away is the fa­mous Meis­sen Porce­lain Mu­seum and Fac­tory. The im­por­ta­tion of porce­lain from China by the Euro­pean rul­ing houses had been known since the early thirteenth century, so Au­gus­tus the Strong com­mis­sioned re­search into the se­crets of its man­u­fac­ture. This was suc­cess­ful, and the first porce­lain was made in 1710 under Ehren­fried Walther von Tschirn­haus and then Jo­hann Friedrich Böttger – with the first white porce­lain pro­duced fi­nally in 1713.

The lab­o­ra­tory to cre­ate this porce­lain was housed in the late-Gothic Al­brechts­burg Castle in Meis­sen (the for­mer res­i­dence of the House of Wet­tin, re­garded as the first castle to be used as a royal res­i­dence in the Ger­man speak­ing world) in 1710, which can be vis­ited as a mu­seum to­day. Pro­duc­tion of the porce­lain then moved to the present site in the Triebisch Val­ley in the 1860s, which can also be vis­ited for fas­ci­nat­ing guided tours to in­clude the demon­stra­tion work­shop.

All in all, Dres­den and its sur­round­ings truly do of­fer vis­i­tors of all types a re­mark­able range of buildings, col­lec­tions and charm­ing ex­cur­sions, seen through the prism of Bel­lotto’s eye.

 In re­cent times Dres­den has taken on an added layer of sig­nif­i­cance due to its de­struc­tion dur­ing World War II and its rise, phoenix-like, from the lit­eral ashes 

Pre­vi­ous pages: View of the old city of Dres­den along the River Elbe Above: Dres­den in 1521

Right: Bernardo Bel­lotto, de­tail

of Self-por­trait as Vene­tian am­bas­sador. Na­tional Mu­seum in War­saw

Above: Fred­er­ick Au­gus­tus I, Elec­tor of Sax­ony, King Au­gus­tus II of Poland, known as ‘Au­gus­tus the Strong’, c.1718

) 0 3. A S - Y B C , k e h t o F e h c ts u e D : ge a m I(

Above: The stun­ning Sem­per Opera House

Above: The Zwinger Palace in­cludes the Meis­sen and Ori­en­tal Porce­lain Col­lec­tions, and houses the Old Masters’ Gallery in the Sem­per Wing

Left: The Hofkirche at night

Above: Street in the Ald­stadt

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