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Dresden - the "German pearl of Baroque" cultivated by Augustus the Strong 

Travellers allow themselves to enchanted time and again by the charm of the "German Florence". It is as if the Elbe is never going to leave the valley: with its green banks, the river passes slowly by in a sweeping curve. Vineyards are testimony to a mild climate. The tall dark towers and spires of the old city stand out in contrast to the lush green slopes of the valley. The paintings by Canaletto, the Italian court painter of the 18th century, lent the Dresden silhouette a worldwide reputation.

The age of Baroque was Dresden's absolute heyday: magnificent palaces, churches and townhouses make the Dresden of today the German city of Baroque. And in a few years time the largest Baroque church dome north of the Alps will once more form the culmination of the Frauenkirche Church, which was built by George Bähr from 1726-1743 and reduced to a ruin in the firestorm of 1945.

Dresden owes the fact that it has been able to gain fame as a city of Baroque above all to the Saxon elector Augustus the Strong. He came to the throne at the age of 24 in 1694 and was crowned King of Poland in 1697. He reigned until 1733. Augustus was not only a lover of splendour, like most of his contemporaries of similar standing, but also interested in architecture. Indeed, he even drafted plans of his own, handing commissions to the finest architects to be found in Europe to translate these plans into practice.

The most important masterpiece initiated by Augustus is the Dresden Zwinger. It was built on the site of the former city fortifications as a backdrop for the glittering festivities organised by Augustus the Strong in the pavilions, orangeries and inner courtyard.

The experts are agreed: the complex created between 1709 and 1722 by architect Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann and sculptor Balthasar Permoser represents the pinnacle of European Baroque.

Alongside stone cherubs, beautiful nymphs, musicians and satyrs as expressions of joie de vivre and pleasure in the arts, we are also able to find countless signs of Augustus' personal pride perpetuated in the building: the careful observer can discover many a Polish crown, Saxon electoral sword or Polish eagles around the Zwinger.

The name of Augustus the Strong is also linked with another fortification complex: the Brühl Terrace, which was often described as the "balcony of Europe" in the previous century on account of the magnificent views across the Elbe and the Neustadt area, not to mention the sight of other illustrious guests. Augustus the Strong, however, was more interested in what went on beneath the terrace: it was in the giant barrel vaults of the former fortress, which are open to the public by the way, that Johann Friedrich Böttger once tried in vain to find the formula to turn base metals into gold. Fortunately for his life, and to the great joy of Augustus the Strong, he discovered the secret of porcelain manufacture in 1708.

How did Augustus come to receive his epithet? - his thumbprint is to be found in the cast-iron railings of the Brühl Terrace. It is only a pity that the railings were not erected here until ten years after his death.

That Augustus fathered 354 children can definitely be treated as a legend. One of his proven heirs, however, was of equally great importance for the richness of art in Dresden: his son Friedrich Augustus II, at the same time Augustus III of Poland.

Dresden is indebted to him for its splendid cathedral, which was built from 1738 to 1755 by the young Roman architect Gaetano Chiaveri. That such a Catholic church should be erected in Protestant Saxony had a purely political background: Augustus the Strong had converted to the Catholic faith in order to be able to claim the Polish crown.

The Augustusstrasse, by the way, reveals an original chronicle of the House of Wettin: the Procession of Princes. 35 Saxon rulers look down on passers-by from 25,000 Meissen porcelain tiles. The final figure on the far right of the frieze is the artist himself, Wilhelm Walther.

The treasures of the Dresden art collections are of sheer immeasurable value, and they, too, are the work of the Saxon electoral princes. The Semper Gallery houses one of the five greatest European picture galleries. The porcelain collection is the finest in the world.

Another "must" for visitors is the royal treasure chamber, the Green Vault. A sea of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and gold, artistically formed by masterly hands, represents the greatest collection of precious stones in Europe. In 1730 Augustus the Strong opened the Green Vault to the public and made it one of the first museums of its kind.

Further jewels left to the people of Dresden by their elector Augustus the Strong include Pillnitz Palace, situated on the banks of the Elbe about 7 kilometres upstream from the city centre. The most important sections were also the work of architect Pöppelmann, in this case inspired by Chinese motifs. Fourteen kilometres north of the city, Augustus' Moritzburg Hunting Lodge attracts visitors by the crowd. Standing exquisitely in the middle of a lake, it is a work of art in its own right, and an expression of Baroque lifestyle.


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