Splendours of Saxony

Splendours of Saxony

WHO could have visualised that something as unremarkable as an abandoned gas tank could be transformed into a spectacular art show, one that would invite a steady stream of connoisseurs and visitors from all over the world? But then Yadegar Asisi did, and thus sprang the Panometer, a circular structure smack in the middle of Dresden city, offering panoramic views of the Saxony countryside as it might have been in 1756.

On the outside of the gas tank, all one can see are neat rows of frosted glass windows filtering out the smouldering rays of the sun. But when you enter and ascend a stairwell to the top of a circular platform in the middle, encircling you is a breathtaking view of the Saxon countryside, put together through the happy marriage of triptych and Photoshop. Asisi, an Austrian citizen of Persian origin, has brought alive the baroque splendour of a bygone era from larger-than-life photographs.

Vignettes of Dresden of 1756, painstakingly recreated from Canaletto’s many sketches of the city and photographed in jigsaw puzzle pieces, have been pasted on to the circular innards of the gas tank, piece by meticulous piece, to achieve a holistic and spectacular view. Light and sound effects in the Panometer literally transport you to Dresden of the 18th century in all its hustle and bustle. The Elbe snakes its way around, its myriad bridges alive with folks going about their daily business; in the backdrop, ripe wheat fields wave a cheery welcome; on another side, a church spire towers over carbon-free blue skies; the red rooftops of Dresden city glint in the shine of the painted sun. Discreet light effects enable you to see the city through different times of the day. In fact, the light effects recreate night and day several times each hour.

The Panometer, 27 metres high and 105 metres in circumference, is so realistically done that it gives one an illusion of actually standing in one of those modern-day towers that dot cityscapes everywhere, although the scene itself is clearly historic, depicting a bygone era. The Panometer opened to the public in 2006 and will remain so until 2016.

The province of Saxony lies on the eastern side of the erstwhile Berlin Wall, a two-hour train ride from the German capital. It was the industrial hub of the former Soviet Union, its smoking chimneys and factories abuzz with machinery and men. Dresden itself was the badge of the region, its architecture rivalling that of Paris or Vienna. Leipzig, the other major city in Saxony, reverberates with the compositions of some of the best musicians of the Western classical tradition—Wagner, Bach, Mendelsohn, Schumann. Dresden’s very splendour made it the target of carpet-bombing by the Allies on February 13, 1945. The raining bombs killed nearly 100,000 people in a single day and destroyed every edifice. On my earlier visit to Dresden a few years ago, I had been horrified and pained by the extent of devastation. Heaps of rubble and debris lay everywhere in the city. Its once glorious monuments, now maimed beyond recognition, stood in stubs amidst the detritus. Dresden may have been destroyed, but its spirit remained unbroken. A determined Dresden has now risen anew from the ashes, donning the same baroque splendour for which it was known prior to its demise. Finding the finances to undertake the reconstruction proved to be a huge challenge, but eventually Dresdeners could cobble together the necessary resources to rebuild their beloved city, faithful to the minutest detail, and proudly put it back on the architectural map of Europe.

Dresden prior to its destruction was the creation of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. Seduced by the glamorous palaces of Versailles and Venice, Augustus set about rebuilding Dresden in the most extravagant baroque style. He built the Zwinger, a grand palace, the mother of all baroque buildings. He commissioned Matthaus Daniel Poppelmann, an outstanding architect of the time, to put Dresden on the world architectural map. Poppelmann and his sculptor, Balthasar Permoser, put together, apart from numerous other edifices, an ornate Zwinger, which is now home to the Dresden State art collections.

The Zwinger represents the synthesis of baroque and rococo arts and is surrounded by art museums, playful fountains, courtyards and galleries. A rebuilt Zwinger is now the focal point for all artists and art lovers; it hosts some of the finest art collections anywhere in Europe.

For a fine view of Dresden’s distinctive architecture, one has to enter the town sailing down the Elbe river on a boat. On a balmy summer morning, we board the boat operated by the Saxon Steamship Company and glide leisurely down the Elbe. The banks are dotted with castles, churches, vineyards and villages, and the ride is a relaxing way to savour Saxony. The entry into Dresden itself is dramatic, the boat gently gliding under an arched bridge that frames the silhouetted domes and cupolas of Dresden’s magnificent churches and cathedrals, flanked by the city walls. Dresden’s iconic opera house with a stunning chariot on its crown looms beyond the embankments embellished with ornamental stone lanterns and fountains.

Ceramic mural

In Dresden, baroque surrounds you wherever you are. Even from the window of my room in the Swissotel am Shloss, a palace converted into a hotel, the belfry of the Freuenkirk (Church of Our Lady) towers at touching distance. The palace vault, which might once have housed the royal treasures, is now a spa. Step out on to the street and you see an entire wall plastered with the most exquisite ceramic mural that depicts the procession of all the rulers of Saxony. The mural offers a visual crash course on the history of the province. The original mural was destroyed during the bombing, but Meissen, the town’s famous potter, came forward to put together 25,000 seamless porcelain tiles to replace it, every bit as authentic and as alluring as the original. In fact, this mural is said to be the largest porcelain picture in the world.

Walk a few steps in the other direction and you come to The Green Vault (Grunes Gewolbe) one of the finest treasure collections in Europe. You go through body scanners before you enter the treasury section. Augustus the Strong surely had a penchant for sparkle as his collection of gems would testify. He certainly believed in flaunting his fabulous wealth. Among the displays is a miniature court of Aurangazeb, complete with howdahs and a bejewelled throne. Mother of Pearl and other gems are lavishly embedded on everything from bathroom fittings and mirrors to everyday objects.

You are told by your guide that Augustus was also afflicted by the porcelain malady, as if this overdose of opulence is not enough. Saxony, incidentally, is the birth place of European porcelain. The Green Vault hosts some of the best ceramic collections in the world. Samples from the Ming dynasty vie for attention alongside porcelain jars from the reign of Emperor Kangxi. Imari and Kakiemon porcelain from early 17th century Japan is also on display. The museum also contains some lovely pieces of Ottoman art, said to be the biggest outside of Turkey.

Meissen pottery

Porcelain in Saxony has an interesting history. During Augustus’ reign, many alchemists were engaged in experiments to synthesise that elusive and expensive yellow metal. Johann Friedrich Bottger, an alchemist hired by Augustus, happened to stumble upon white gold, namely, rock powder from the adjacent hills, the ingredient for making porcelain. The shrewd Augustus soon realised the value of porcelain and made sure that Bottger was kept in protective custody so that the secret of porcelain-making did not leak out. Starting with brown stoneware, Bottger soon graduated to fine white china. Now Meissen pottery in Saxony has perfected the art of fine china, one that is delicate, translucent and bewitchingly beautiful.

The Meissen porcelain factory is where art colludes with commerce. Meissen porcelain is among the most expensive of its kind. The factory has a mammoth display section full of breathtakingly beautiful objects. Incidentally, works of Jiten Thukral and Samir Tagra, two artists from Delhi, occupy pride of place in the Meissen porcelain museum. The two won their place in a stiff competition to produce something funky with porcelain.

On display is a massive church organ whose pipes are all made of pure white porcelain. There are intricately painted thin porcelain jars with fairies clinging to their sloping curves. There are porcelain figurines of mermaids, angels, cherubs and fairies. And there are rows and rows of tableware, paper thin and in the most delicate colours. Eventually, I wander into the sales area and pick up a small bowl to check the price. I almost drop it in shock; it would cost me an entire month’s earnings to possess this bowl. Meissen obviously believes in pitching its products to those who value its snob appeal.

Those who cannot afford to buy Meissen tableware need not despair. One can pay a modest sum to eat and drink out of Meissen tableware at the café on the premises. Sumptuous and delicious cakes, pastries, tea, chocolate and cocoa are served in exquisite plates, bowls and cups. The guide rattles on about the subtle distinction between a chocolate cup and a tea cup and almost elevates our experience to spiritual levels by her hyperbolic commentary accompanying the tea ceremony.

Albrecht castle

Meissen, the porcelain town, is also home to the Albrecht castle built by the Wettins, the ruling dynasty of Saxony from the Middle Ages to 1918. The Wettins were one of the seven princes who would elect the Elector of Saxony, and hence were, in a sense, kingmakers who put Augustus the Strong on the throne of Saxony. Thus, Meissen hill became an important centre of political and cultural power. The architecture of Albrecht castle is of a Gothic-style residence, which was never lived in. But the severity of its exterior belies the stylistic and unique arches, doorways and balustrades that make up the interior. Each door and archway in Albrecht’s castle is truly a work of art.

After a tour of Albrecht castle, Wolfgang and his Indian wife Seema, our gracious hosts in Saxony, take us to lunch at Vincenz Richter, a 500-year-old quaint restaurant where the proprietor, Herr Herlich, has perfected the art of coupling wines with music. Thus we have Bach with Burgundy, Mozart with Riesling and Beethoven with Traminor.

As if we had not had our fill of baroque, we were shepherded to yet another baroque edifice, the Schloss Morritzburg, or Morrtizburg castle, not far from Dresden city. It was originally built by Morritz, another Elector of Saxony, as a hunting lodge; Augustus had it redesigned to satisfy his extravagant tastes. The interior is splattered with gilt, leather and satin to rival Versailles. Every square inch of wall space is taken up by deer head trophies. I have never seen more deer head trophies anywhere else, not even in the many hunting lodges built by the British in India. Even as I wonder if there would be any wildlife left in the surrounding forests, a flock of migratory birds fly overhead. On the verdant slopes that form the backdrop to Morritzburg castle, a herd of deer with impressive antlers hotfoot it up and away into the forest.

Saxony is not all manmade turrets, tinsel and trinkets. In Bastei, nature has worked her own style of architecture—stark, steep and stunning. The soaring columns of sandstone form a dramatic backdrop to the Saxony countryside with the Elbe winding its way lazily at the foot of the rocks. Quaint villages dot the valley below. Many artists have made their home in the vicinity, inspired by the drama of the setting. Rathen, Europe’s most dramatic open air theatre, is located in the Bastei, hosting regular performances of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel and Freischutz, Germany’s national opera by Carl Maria von Weber.

Saxony also has the distinction of being a bastion of rebellion. Considered the cradle of Reformation, it was from the Hartenfels castle that the great reformer Martin Luther consecrated the newly built Protestant Church to the world. The University of Leipzig is one of the foremost Protestant teaching institutions in the world. In recent times, Saxony distinguished itself as the first region from which the chorus to break down the Berlin Wall began. As early as 1982, seven years before the wall came down, citizens of Leipzig congregated in the courtyard of St. Nicholas Church, clamouring for the unification of a nation kept asunder by the Cold War. Protests became a regular feature from then on and the number of protesters soon swelled from a few hundreds to more than 400,000 until, eventually, the wall was breached in 1989 and the two Germanys were united the next year.