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Dresden and its porcelain

First European porcelain developed in Dresden from 1708 to 1710 / world’s largest porcelain museum

Three hundred yeas ago, the Saxon Elector Augustus the Strong dreamed, like many of his fellow rulers, of immense treasures – diamonds, gems, silver and gold. However, Augustus’ gold was white, fragile, semi-transparent and finely painted. It came from Japan or China, being referred to indiscriminately as “Indian”, and was well-nigh priceless owing to its high production costs and long-distance transportation.

Augustus was so taken with porcelain that he commissioned his gold-smith, Johann Melchior Dinglinger, to design “the beautiful golden tea service decorated with precious stones” in such a way that the golden cups might be enamelled and thus, when painted, give the impres-sion of being made of porcelain.

The service, produced in 1703, is today one of the outstanding pieces in the “Green Vault”, the royal treasure-museum. Two years earlier, Augustus had had the 19-year old apothecary Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719) brought to Dresden from Wittenberg.

Böttger, who claimed to be able to make gold from base metals, was wanted by the Prussian king. Augustus and the Saxon nobles initially courted the supposed gold-maker, who even resided in the Palace for a while. However, his attempts to fulfil his claim ended in failure. Not even the prayers the Saxon ruler was heard to utter brought any success.

The Saxon scholar Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus therefore directed Böttger’s penchant for invention towards ‘white gold’. Noone was to know about Böttger’s experiments. Therefore, Augustus had the alchemist brought to the secure environment of Königstein Fortress during a siege by the Swedes in 1706.

On 22nd September, 1707 Böttger set to work in the ‘Virgin’s Bastion’ below what is today the Brühl Terrace. The vaults of Dresden’s city fortifications are now partially open to the public. On the Terrace itself, there is a porcelain stele in memory of Böttger.

Augustus the Strong visited the laboratory down in the depths of the fortifications. At the end of December 1707 Böttger showed him the results of the first successful firing of white porcelain. Böttger gradually perfected his technique and in 1709 he officially presented his invention.

“There are three things that awaken man’s desire to possess this or that which he could otherwise probably do without as far as necessity is concerned,” declared Böttger to Augustus and the Saxon ministers. “First, beauty; second, rarity; and third, the combination of these with utility. These three qualities make the thing pleasing, valuable and necessary.” And Böttger added proudly, “The vessels presented here possess all three of these qualities.”

On 23rd January, 1710 Augustus the Strong informed the world in four languages – German, French, Dutch and Italian – that he had founded a porcelain manufactory in Dresden. But how was Augustus to protect the secret of its production from the industrial espionage that was already rife at that time?

A place had to be found that was large enough to accommodate the manufactory and the dwellings of the future employees and that was secure enough to ensure no-one could enter or leave without permission. Such a place was found at the Albrechtsburg castle in near-by Meissen. Today, the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory is to be found not far from its original location. With its demonstration workshop, exhibition and shop, it is now one of the most popular destinations for day trips from Dresden.

The first objects produced imitated oriental models. Many Dresden sculptors tried out the new material. Johann Joachim Kaendler (1706-1775) developed new forms, and Johann Gregorius Höroldt (1696-1775) became the first significant European porcelain painter.

As early as 1710 the white porcelain was sold at the Leipzig Trade Fair. And what did Augustus do with the proceeds? He bought more porcelain, of course. Indeed, in 1717 the Saxon ruler decided to turn the building now known as the “Japanisches Palais” (Japanese Palace) into a porcelain palace. However, sufficient finance for this huge project was hard to come by.

Hence, Augustus went so far as to sell 600 of his best soldiers to his Prussian rival Friedrich Wilhelm I, who used these troops to set up his dragoon regiment. In return, Saxony’s ruler received 151 items of Far Eastern porcelain. The largest items, produced in China between 1662 and 1722, are part of the Dresden Porcelain Collection and are known as the “Dragoon Vases”.

Dresden Porcelain

Dresden Porcelain is a popular souvenir from Dresden.

 

When Augustus the Strong died in 1733, he owed the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory the sum of 47,926 Talers. The Porcelain Palace project was never completed. What remained were the “Japanisches Palais” with its pagoda-style roof and the magnificent gable relief en-titled “The porcelain-producing countries present their treasures to Saxonia“ as well as approximately 20,000 items of porcelain, which have been exhibited in Dresden’s Zwinger since 1962.

The Porcelain Collection is today the largest museum of its kind in the world. In 2005, Peter Marino designed the extension of the permanent exhibition in the nort eastern wing of the Twinger.

By the time Augustus the Strong died, Count Brühl, who was both an art lover and an astute businessman, had risen to the position not only of Prime Minister but also of Director of the Porcelain Manufactory. In 1736 he commissioned Kändler to produce sample plates for a dinner service.

Brühl selected the form “that was in the shape of a sea-shell with 2 swimming swans and two other water birds and reeds inscribed in flat relief”. This service, known as the Swan Service, was produced starting in 1738 and consisted of 1400 individual items, making it the largest and most lavish service ever created by any porcelain manufactory.

In the 19th century, Dresden reflected on its role as the location of Europe’s first porcelain manufactory. As a result, the industrialist Karl Thieme had the idea of establishing a Dresden Porcelain Manufactory in Dresden itself. The company opened in 1872 in Potschappel, on the immediate outskirts of Dresden.

Since that time, a unique museum and not one, but two, manufactories producing outstanding works of art have established Dresden’s world-wide reputation as a city of porcelain. Porcelain also plays a major role in the appearance of the city itself. Not only is it visible in the windows of the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory shop in the Hilton Hotel and the Dresden Porcelain Manufactory shop in Haupstraße, but one of Dresden’s most famous sights, the Procession of the Princes ("Fürstenzug"), is entirely made of porcelain.

This, the world’s largest por-celain wall frieze, depicts the Wettin rulers of Saxony over a period of more than 800 years. The 102 metre-long frieze has a surface area of 957 m² and is made up of almost 25,000 Meissen porcelain tiles.

It was made in 1907 to the designs of Dresden art professor Wilhelm Walther. The second largest wall frieze made of Meissen porcelain was com-pleted in January 2002 and now adorns the newly restored art nou-veau-style entrance hall to Dresden-Neustadt railway station, which was built in 1901. The frieze, covering a surface area of more than 90 m², depicts Saxony’s most beautiful castles and palaces.

Japanisches Palais

The Japanese Palais in Dresden once was designed by Augustus the strong to host its porcelain collection which now is exposed in the Dresden Zwinger. Photo by Christoph Münch

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