The Treasures of Dresden
The baroque heart of Saxony still beats, the art still amazes, and the architecture still takes one’s breath away
There are cities that offer a glimpse into the past that is unparalleled. They are not merely preserved as a museum might put its treasures behind glass walls to protect them. Dresden, quite literally is rebuilt from its ashes. A baroquely beautiful living breathing city.
As I walked through the oldest parts of Dresden Germany, jaw agape, I kept asking – this whole area was bombed? Reduced to rubble? And my very patient guide would assure me that the fairy-tale elegance and magnificent historic plazas through which I walked were carefully (and expensively) recreated, stone by stone.
Dresden History: From Village to Bombed RuinFrom a fishing village on the left bank of the Elbe River, Dresden emerged as a merchants' settlement and the seat of the local rulers. The city was a bit of a late bloomer, but in the 15th century onwards the city was the residence of the Saxon dukes, electoral princes and later kings. Their power, reach, and influence came from the silver mined in the hills of Saxony, and other metals and minerals that enriched the coffers of the rulers.
But it was under Elector Friedrich August I (Augustus the Strong) that Dresden began its assent towards architectural and artistic greatness. Augustus was a second son, and not expected to ever become ruler. With that freedom, he followed his inclination towards architecture. When his older brother died in 1694, Augustus became the ruler and Dresden became a city of Baroque. The royal court and the nobility commissioned buildings all over the city.
This changed abruptly in February, 1945. Three months before the end of the Second World War, between 13th and 15th February 1945 bombing raids practically erased the center of Dresden. Although areas of the suburbs were also leveled, it was the destruction of the historic center of the city that puzzled and horrified the world. Although historians now believe that Dresden (pronounced DRA-zen) was stronghold for Hitler, and used slave labor in its precision factories, it was clear that the city paid a heavy price. Its architectural wonders now lay buried under tons of rubble. Many feared it would never survive.
Today, the buildings have mostly been restored and the treasures of Dresden are open.
FrauenkircheIt is impossible not to notice the elegant, baroque beauty of Church of Our Lady. It dominates the Neumarkt. This Protestant church was built in the first half of the 18th century, completed in 1743. Reduced to a pile of rubble by an interior fire during the bombing, it served for many years as an anti-war monument. In fact, there were arguments over whether it should have been restored, or left to as a memorial.
None the less, over a period of 11 years and more, the church was rebuilt stone by stone, using the same design and architecture of the original designer, George Bähr, and the same stones wherever possible.. The new parts are easily seen. The generally light sandstone façade is punctuated by a scattering of the original, now darker-colored stones. It was reconsecrated in October 2005.
It is open for religious services, and concerts. There is a regular and free program of devotions with organ music. Although the English pamphlet mentioned the guided tour, don’t expect to walk through the church while hearing an English translation. It’s a sit-in-the-pew tour, totally in German. The music was magnificent, and the setting exquisite. It could be the most beautiful church that ever graced a plaza. The church dome was said to be open, but the hours are limited during the winter months.
The Residenzschloss (Royal Palace)It wasn’t only WWII bombings that left buildings in ruins, the original Royal Palace was built in late 15th century (with a Renaissance-style enlargement 1548-56). Then, destroyed by fire in 1701 and rebuilt under Augustus the Strong. More alterations followed . Today it’s part of a museum complex with several fascinating collections, including the legendary Green Vault.
Opulent does not begin to describe the riches amassed by the Electors who ruled Dresden. The "Neues Grünes Gewölbe" (New Green Vault) and "Historisches Grünes Gewölbe" (Historic Green Vault) have very different collections but only the former was open when I visited. It was still more than enough to overwhelm. It is described as having over 1000 works of art in gold, precious stones, and ivory. But this plain description can not convey the relentless sumptuousness.
Some items stopped me cold, such as the beautifully worked rolling ball clock standing two to three feet high. A ball of rock crystal circles the tower shaped clock in exactly one minute while inside a second ball was lifted to move the minute hand. The god Saturn struck the bell twice a day while musicians raised their winged instruments and an organ played an melody. It was created by Hans Schlottheim circa 1600.
On my way to another next room I was waylaid by something large, green, and glittery. It was a green diamond 41 carats in weight. Said to be the only one of its kind found, its unique color comes from contact with natural radioactivity.
More wonders followed, including carved cherrystones. The pits of the cherry are tiny, so tiny that a magnifying glass was built into the display case. Despite the small size, 185 faces was said to be carved into one of the pits.
Signs in English explain the treasures that flow by and an audio tour in English is available. Sadly, photos were not permitted.
Procession of PrincesJust outside the entrance is the Procession of Princes - a mural painted on tiles of Meissen porcelain depicting the successive generations of Wettin rulers as a mounted procession. It’s actually on a narrow street that joins two plazas.
Zwinger: Royal FestivitiesThe Zwinger in Dresden is a major German landmark and shelters several more collections. It was constructed for royal festivities, and on a grand scale. It is considered one of the best examples of late Baroque architecture in Germany.
The Semper Opera HouseAnother rebuilt wonder, the Semper Opera House was closed when I visited. But it too offers tours, and promises to be quite an experience. It was rebuilt in 1871 following a devastating fire in High Renaissance style but when restored after the 1945 bombing, it was returned to its original appearance as it was designed by Gottfried Semper.
Canaletto: The paintings that helped reconstruct the cityIt is said that the reconstruction of Dresden was helped by the paintings of Canaletto. He was actually born with the name Bellotto, and was trained by his uncle, Canaletto, the famous Venitian painter. He later adopted the same name as his uncle and came to Dresden where he painted the city views until 1767. Several of these huge paintings are on view at Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery).
New QuarterAcross the Elbe River is the Neustadt Quarter. Everything is relative - including new and old. After a disastrous fire in 1685 the quarter - in the meanwhile incorporated into Dresden - was systematically rebuilt as the "New Town near Dresden", the Neustadt quarter.
Getting Around DresdenOne excellent way to discover Dresden is through one of the hop-on-hop-off tours. Narrated in all major languages, it’s both an introduction to the city, and excellent transportation. The Dresden City Card is also quite helpful. I stayed in perfectly located luxury at QF Hotel In the heart of Neumarkt, it is one of the buildings restored on the outside, and modern on the inside.
Despite its compact size, Dresden offers days of exploration, dining, and shopping. And, its beautiful Baroque and Renaissance heart.
For more information visit Dresden Tourism