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Gottfried Semper and Dresden

Festive week commemorating the 200th anniversary of his birth / His career began in Dresden

Gottfried Semper is considered one of the most significant architects of the 19th century. He will be celebrating his 200th birthday this year. Gottfried Semper was born on 29 November 1803 in the former Danish town of Altona which is now a district of Hamburg.

Even though Semper taught architecture for more than 15 years in Zurich and contributed greatly to the development of the Kaiserforum, the Burgtheater and the Ringstrasse in Vienna from 1870 onwards, Dresden is still the city in which he developed his view of architecture and where he was able to implement his ideas in an exemplary manner. Gottfried Semper was appointed professor of architecture and the head of the School of Architecture at the Dresden Art Academy.

At the age of 31 he had been recommended to these posts by his professor in Paris, Franz Christian Gau. Friedrich Schinkel is said to have also been involved in this appointment. Danish-born Semper swore his oath of office to the House of Wettin, thus becoming a citizen of Saxony and Germany.

Semper not only wanted to impart his knowledge but he also wanted to apply what he knew in practice. He therefore participated in the intense disputes among the scholars of his day. Even during the times of the founder of modern archaeology, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) who lived in Dresden from 1748 to 1754 (Schloss Nöthnitz and Königstrasse 10), people believed that the buildings of antiquity were a marble white as evidenced in the government buildings of the United States today.

Semper sided with contemporary researchers who had established that the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans was more colourful than that. He had already experienced the colourfulness of the villas of Pompeii during his Italian study trips. Semper therefore had the rooms of the Japanese Palace painted in the brightest colours in 1835/36 during the reconstruction of the Palace’s antiquity rooms. After the rooms have been restored following wartime destruction, they are now a part of the State Museum of Early History.

The next building Semper built in Dresden was a hospital in 1837/38, the Materni Hospital on the corner Freiberger Strasse and Ammonstrasse which was repeatedly reconstructed and then destroyed during the war – the present Elsa Fenske Home still contains elements of the Semper building.

From Rome Semper brought the idea of building a forum to Dresden. After the death of Augustus the Strong in 1733, the Dresden Zwinger was only closed off towards the Elbe by a wooden wall. Bordering onto the loading dock located behind the wall was an empty and unused field. Augustus III wanted to have the architect of the Court Church, Gaetano Chiaveri, build a splendid Baroque palace on the these banks of the Elbe around 1750, an idea which however could not be realised for lack of funds.

Semper’s first forum plan was also rejected because it was considered too modern and expensive. Semper however continued with the plan until he was commissioned to build a new court theatre. The first Semper Opera House was built from 1838 to 1841 and was shaped like an amphitheatre similar to the Roman Colosseum. Semper’s museum built in 1848, which today is the Semper Gallery and houses the Old Masters Picture Gallery and the Armoury, was built as an extension at a right angle.

This was also similar to Roman architecture with the passage to the Zwinger being built to resemble a Constantin archway. Semper did not consider himself to be an architect or a structural engineer. In his first publication he had defined architecture as being “a perfect example of art”. He also considered it to be a hallmark of good quality to use the work of other successful architects as an example. An architect is “the only artist who does not have to search for examples in nature surrounding us but rather whose creativity is stimulated by the works of others and by years of experience”.

Using architectural effects such as spacious stairways, contrasting colours and statuettes, Semper clearly showed with the Gallery and the Opera House that he was building temples of art possessing an almost sacral character.

Semper built a truly sacred building in 1838 when he constructed the Dresden Synagogue which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1938 during a pogrom. The original ground plan has now been set into the courtyard of the modern new synagogue built in 2001. Also destroyed during the war were the residential buildings built by Semper such as the Houpe House (1841) on Marienstrasse, the Kaskel-Oppenheim Palace (1845-48) on Bürgerwiese 5-7 and the Villa Rosa (1838-39) on Holzhofgasse 20 which was inspired by the Palladio.

Many of the later villas built in Dresden which can still be seen today in the districts of Blasewitz, Loschwitz, Radeberger Vorstadt and Strehlen have been modelled on Semper’s villas. Semper participated greatly in the social life of his day, mixing with liberal-minded intellectuals and artists in Dresden.



Gottfried Semper's most famous building is the Dresden Opera House named after him "Semperoper". Photograph by Silvio Dittrich



Together with Ernst Rietschel he not only worked on the Opera House. Semper also designed the foundation for the monument to King Frederick Augustus I which is now located next to the Japanese Palace. Semper’s only construction in a New Gothic style, the Cholera Fountain (1843) between the Taschenberg Palais and the Zwinger, still exists as well as the gravestones of Carl Friedrich von Rumohr (1843) and the Oppenheim family (Trinitatis Cemetery) (1849).

After Richard Wagner came to Dresden in 1843, both artists met and became friends. When Wagner had the body of Carl Maria von Weber whom he looked upon as being his master brought from London to Dresden, Semper designed Weber’s tomb at the Old Catholic Cemetery (1844). Researchers differ on Semper’s role in the Revolution of 1848/49. It is known that he fled to London on 9 May 1849 after the uprising had been suppressed and that a warrant for his arrest was issued there. It wasn’t until 1863 that the warrant was cancelled.

The carelessness of stage workers caused Semper’s opera house to go up in flames in 1869. The people of Dresden pleaded with the King to have Semper rebuild the Court Opera House. In Vienna Semper worked on the plans for an ideal opera house. He entrusted his son Manfred (1838-1913) with the supervision of the building site. Work on the new opera house was completed in 1878.

The results of long discussions between Gottfried Semper and Richard Wagner on the design of the building and its acoustics flowed into this masterpiece. Since its reconstruction in 1977-1985 it has been known under the name of its architect, thus carrying Semper’s name around the world. Gottfried Semper did not live to see his Semper Opera House completed. The ailing architect retreated to the city whose ideal he wanted to recreate in Dresden, a city which also inspired many artists working in Dresden.

It was here in the ancient city of Rom that he died on 15 May 1879. He now lies buried in a marble coffin at the Protestant Cemetery, not far from the Cestius Pyramid under the shade of the ancient city wall. The name “Dresden”, the place where Semper first realised his ideas, is chiselled on the front of his grave.

In 1892 Dresden and the Semper Society honoured the architect with a bronze monument. It was made by the Dresden sculptor Johannes Schilling (1828-1919), a student of Gottfried Semper’s friend Rietschel who also made the figures decorating today’s Semper Opera House, most notably the panther quadriga.


On the 200th anniversary of his death, the Gottfried Semper Club Dresden e.V. ( and the city of Dresden will be honouring Semper with numerous festivities and events which will culminate in the “Semper Days 2003” from 14 to 30 November 2003.

Bronze plaques will be installed on buildings built by Semper and on the sites of buildings which have been destroyed. A commemorative stamp and a 10 euro commemorative coin will be officially introduced and two academic seminars held.

At the Semper Opera House and the Regional Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments / the Regional Court of Appeal at the Schlossplatz, exhibitions of the work of Semper will be on display


The Old Master's Picture Gallery is located in Gottfried Semper's first Museum Building. Photograph by Christoph Münch


Semper Monument

Gottfried Semper's monument by Johannes Schilling at the Bruhl Terrace in Dresden. Photograph by Silvio Dittrich


The Colera Fountain

Gottfried Semper's only neo-gothic bilding in Dresden is the so-called Cholera Fountain right in front of the Dresden Zwinger. Photograph by Christoph Münch

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