Saturday, 22 March 2014

Rulers and Rulers: Worlds of the Electors of Saxony

Something tasteful today
Today's objective was to find August, my Elector. It started out promising enough with the Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments in the Zwinger Complex. Then the plan was to head over to the Royal Palace to see where he lived. I wanted to see some of Leonhard Danner instruments in the armoury.

My good Elector who could plan an itinerary to the nearest hour would have been disappointed in our finding abilities. Still, as I said, we were struck by the extraordinary mathematical, measuring, surveying, geographical and astronomy instruments. It wasn't just the technological sophistication of these things, it was the decoration of what would ordinarily be quite utilitarian. Swirls and cut-out patterns adorned set squares and protractors.

It was these that gave us the most immediate sense of the prince. He believed in the power of technology to demonstrate his terrestrial dominion. If we have good guns, let us maximise their impact on the enemy by improving the trajectory of cannon ball; if we have valuable metal mines, let us extract as much as possible and navigate through the dark passage ways with nocturnal compasses. His technology may have been vastly expensive but it was not frivolous. It was an investment in the advancement of his state; exquisitely wrought. 

Where automaton crayfish, hottentot dancing, and the drumming bear alarm clock comes in, I don't know. I'm imagining workman humour and a belly laugh at any ingenious way of demonstrating new mechanisms. A c16th geek with a sense of the ridiculous. 

Part of the problem with the royal residence is WW2. As Erna von Watzdorf's incredible 1945 photos demonstrate, a mere shell was left standing. You feel the professional art historian heartbreak in these works. Her life's work was in those destroyed rooms. She was responsible for initial evacuation of many treasures but she couldn't save the building. From piles of rubble to fallen walls, the entrance courtyard was a site of devastation. It remained as such through the 50s until restoration began in the 1960s with the installation of new windows, until the completion of the entire restoration and grand opening in 2013. 

Most of the interior is light, airy, modern and the only echoes of the stone exterior are behind the fake walls of the exhibition rooms. The best, most atmospheric rooms are the stone turrets; one such room, called the micro-kabinet contains tiny carved cherry stone wonders. A perfect miniature world which requires a magnifying glass and a personal encounter. 

Coming here without seeing the historic green vault would be a mistake but my Elector was slipping away. The other Augustus, the Strong, was muscling in. The relative restraint of the intellectual was being replaced by sense-befuddling baroque. The theatrical sun king inspired absolutism demanded bling, and then some. Amber, ivory, silver, gilt, rock crystal, copper coat of arms, ruby glass, and jewelry rooms swam by in a suffocation of wealth. The final room was like reaching heaven; the renaissance bronzes whispered their restraint and purity, and my taste chip recovered!

I wonder if the religious changes which followed when on 1 June 1697, Elector Friedrich Augustus "the Strong" (1694–1733) converted to the Catholic Church had an influence on taste? As I have seen, baroque religious art was incredibly ornate and propaganda rich. If he consequently was elected king of Poland, he clearly had a position to establish. Investigations required!

The book shop called and I feel vindicated on my choice of dissertation. The lack of English material on this bench and kunstkammer is frightening. The highlight was finding the full inventory and seeing the bench listed amongst all the other items in the room. 

The elusiveness of the Elector continued into the evening. We returned to the royal palace and despite my efforts to speak to museum staff, no one knew what a wiredrawing bench was, even in German. I wanted to see the machines which had produced the turned ivory, the tools which had perfected surfaces. The focus of the museum is quite rightly a display of the remaining wonders of the Dresden court. Yet the materiality and work shops which created them is missing. 

The Dresden Green diamond scattered us with tiny rainbows; like questions appearing, the many illuminating facets of this family's collection and contribution to European cultural life lie ahead. I lost my way today yet found many questions. I don't think I'll find any answers tomorrow but, hopefully inspiration will continue to lighten my way.

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