I took the train down to Dresden a couple weeks ago.
It was very clean there, and at first this unnerved me. There wasn’t any litter or graffiti around the main station either, or in the old town. A very un-Berlin sense of order reigns.
I really didn’t know much about this city before my visit, apart from the devastating Allied incendiary bombing on February 13, 1945, so vividly described in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. It left Dresden a smouldering ruin, and caused intense controversy at the time for the punitive nature of the raid, and the lack of military objectives. Among German cities, only Berlin and Hamburg suffered such total destruction during World War Two.
During the centuries before the war, Dresden was described by Canaletto as the “Florence on the Elbe”. It’s Baroque architecture had made it the most beautiful city in Germany, and one of the gems of Europe.
But how did this relatively minor city acquire such wealth?
The Saxon ruler Augustus the Strong (1696 – 1763) was an Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, one of those few kings with the rare privilege of electing the so-called King of the Romans from the 13th century onwards.
The Holy Roman Empire had nothing to do with ancient Rome, of course. It was simply the name for a complex network of territories which spanned Central Europe, the largest portion of which were in what is now Germany. It was established in 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor, and lasted until 1806.
Strong enough to snap horseshoes in half with his bare hands, Augustus was said to have fathered some 370 illegitimate children from his 12 mistresses, who included French dancers, aristocratic ladies, and an Ottoman noblewoman.
When he wasn’t busy fornicating, Augustus was a ruthless autocrat who made the city into a jewel to reflect his own sense of personal glory. His cash was as good as the next Sun King’s, and he attracted a brilliant group of artists and architects to his court.
His main palace in the city’s Altstadt (“old town”) — the Residenzschloss — was thoroughly gutted in the wartime bombing, but much has been restored, and today it houses an incredible variety of treasures.
We spent an entire day exploring it, from the 60m long Riesensaal filled with suits of armour and every type of medieval weaponry, to the old and new Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault), where the king’s incredible treasures were displayed with a level of gold and glitter that would dull the shine of Donald Trump’s gold plated bathroom.
Augustus the Strong was also Augustus the Avaricious, or perhaps Augustus the Crow. He sure loved to pick up shiny things.
I soon lost track of how many rooms we shuffled through, dutifully admiring the gold plated objects room, the silver plated objects room, the rooms with ivory and mother-of-pearl trinkets, red glass, rock crystal tableware and objects, and an astonishing array of delicately crafted clocks, automatons and instruments.
My favourites were the “drinking vessels”.
[Voice from another room: “Oh, how predictable…”]
These guys took their drinking parties seriously. When they weren’t hunting stags in private preserves or watching the servants polish their treasures, they were indulging in drinking games that make our high school sessions of Noises seem rather tame.
One golden vessel depicts a glutton being pushed in a wheelbarrow because he is too fat to walk. He wears a cuckold’s cap, and is pushed by someone encased in a wine barrel. The horns on his companion’s head and the cloven hoofs sticking out from beneath the barrel reveal him to be the Archfiend himself, leading our bloated boozer into further temptation. At first glance this is a cautionary tale against excess, but the lid comes off and the inside is filled with wine. Look more closely and you will find this rhyme: “I took my pleasure with beautiful wenches so much that now I have to be carried along like this,” and, “Therefore let my Epicurean life be recommended to everybody. Whenever he is thirsty, even early in the morning, he will find me ready to join him night or day.”
A poke in the eye of moralizers everywhere!
Another absolutely incredible contraption was a sort of self-propelled “drinking machine.” This automaton, purchased in 1610 from Prague, depicts a hunting scene, with Diana and centaur surrounded by several dogs. The thing moves itself across the table as Diana and the centaur shift their eyes back and forth, the larger dog moves his head, and the smaller dog jumps up and down. When the automaton stopped in front of someone, the centaur shot his arrow at the chosen diner, and that person was expected to down a drink.
In another room, we find an enormous representation of the Court of Delhi on the birthday of the Grand Mogul Aurengzab, carefully crafted by chief court jeweller Johann Melchior Dinglinger with 137 gold and enamel figurines and some five thousand jewels. This piece alone apparently cost Augustus more than his hunting lodge in Moritzburg.
And then there was the massive cabinet by Hans Kellerthaler. Designed to hold collection objects from the Kunstkammer, it shows the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, by the prophet Daniel, foretelling the demise of the four ancient empires: Rome, Babylon, Greece and Persia. Perhaps Augustus should have taken a lesson from this.
The treasures went on and on and on, hoarded and displayed with obsessive-compulsive need.
Believe me, you’ll have drinking vessels on the brain after exploring this place. We wandered the halls for a full 6 hours and still couldn’t examine everything. All of that exertion left me in serious need of a beer. Fortunately, this is something you will not find a shortage of in Germany.
It was a brisk winter late afternoon when we left the Residenzschloss and wandered through Dresden’s old town.
…down Augustusstrasse and past the Fürstenzug, at 102m the world’s largest porcelain mural. These carefully painted Meissen-china tiles show a procession of the rulers of Saxony, shuffling along on horseback from right to left, and from 1904 all the way back to 1123.
It’s just a short walk from there to the massive open square of the Neumarkt, where the Frauenkirche — a heap of rubble after the wartime bombing — has been rebuilt and serves as a symbol of rebirth from the ashes, and of peace.
After gorging on heavy German food in a backstreet tavern, we took a postprandial stroll along the Brühlsche Terrasse overlooking the river Elbe. Originally constructed as a cabinet minister’s private garden, the “balcony of Europe” is the perfect vantage point for contemplating the river, and the fire-blackened architecture of the palace and the Academy of Fine Arts behind you.
And on a cold winter night, you’ll have it pretty much to yourself.