Hello, again, Blogonauts!
I have spent three days exploring Dresden. Some of my photos can be seen by clicking on the "Photos" tab above. However, two unrelated images from my childhood, separate from the snapshots here, keep coming to mind:
First was "Girders and Panels," a make-believe construction toy I had as a child.
The plastic "girders" would lock together in a 3-dimensional grid pattern, all mounted onto a masonite peg board for stability. Once the infrastructure was completed, you attached translucent panels to the exterior, each exactly the same. Once you finish installing the panels, Voilá—
Instant Communist Cityscape!
I doubt that is what the toy designers had in mind, but the parallels between G. & P. and the architecture of post-war East Germany are inescapable. Central planning produced cookie-cutter designs that required very little creative thinking.
The second childhood image is a bit later and far different. At some point, my parents announced they were bringing my brother and me to a concert. I don't precisely remember my age, but it was somewhere in the vicinity of 14. So here we are, in the era of the Beatles and Herman's Hermits, and my parents take us to see...Liberace.
The truth was, I was fascinated! Everything about the show was stunning and over-the-top. Liberace was decked out in ermines and pearls. His piano, which he played with gorgeous gusto, was white and held the biggest candelabra I had ever seen. He drove his limousine onto the stage, and it, too, was spangled from bumper to bumper. Nothing was mundane...it was, if nothing else, Baroque.
Now...juxtapose those ideas, that of rigid central planning and unrestrained opulence, and you may have some idea of how ill-matched the various buildings of Dresden seem to be.
Dresden is the capital of Saxony, and for 800 years (until the early 19th century) was ruled by a succession of Prince Electors from the House of Wettin.
During the Baroque era (roughly 1600-1725), one particular Prince Elector named August the Strong also had the distinction of being King of Poland. He was powerful in battle and had vast population and territorial resources, and he jealously looked at the art and architecture that sprang up elsewhere in Europe. He spent much of his 40-year reign building, collecting, and advancing that same culture...all rooted here in Dresden.
This occurred in the midst of the high Baroque period of art. The style in this time called for ornamentation, florid details, and layering of ancient mythological and religious symbols atop one another. (Liberace would have seemed tame in the 17th century.)
And here it stands! My first, second, and third impressions of Dresden's Innere Altstadt were ones of being overwhelmed by opulence and grandeur. Nowhere other than Paris have buildings seemed to leak into one another. Florid corner details stretch each of the royal structures beyond their expected footprint. Even objects meant for war, such as cannons, are festooned with cast-iron foliage and filigrees.
Obviously something so ornate must be experienced to be believed. The most impressive part of this, however, is that almost every bit of it is...A RECONSTRUCTION...because most of it crumbled into rubble during or soon after the Allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945. In addition, an estimated 25,000 people died as a result of that air assault.
Following the end of World War II, Saxony fell under Soviet control. Still, some of the earlier buildings were rebuilt to match their Baroque splendor. But others were replaced with Soviet-style block-ish bleh..like my Girders and Panels toy. Yet what was reproduced in the Baroque style is still eye-popping.
I won't pump many details into this account. I will list a few highlights, though:
• The Green Vault (Grünes Gewölbe): This collection of 8 rooms was built to house August the Strong's voluminous collection of smaller treasures. There's a room devoted to amber arts, one to ivory, one to silver, one to jewels...and in my travels, I have never seen a more exquisite display.
• The Zwinger: This enormous complex provides space for expansive garden parties, while the buildings that comprise its walls contain world-class art museums, with pieces stretching from the early Renaissance forward.
• Die Frauenkirche: Dresden was (is?) largely Protestant, and Die Frauenkirche had served as the Protestant centerpiece in this region. The Soviets left it as a pile of memorial rubble, even as the city rebuilt around it. In the 1980s, city leaders had already begun to plan for rebuilding the church. The collapse of communist East Germany's government in 1989, and the subsequent reunification of Germany helped to hasten the reconstruction. It finally reopened in 2005, sixty years after the original fell.
I visited several other museums and wandered a bit through territory more attractive to locals than to tourists. This is an amazing city, however—one that feels like a phoenix reborn.
Tonight as I write this, Notre Dame in Paris is ablaze. This news weighs down my joy in traveling. I first saw it 10 years ago, and at my age, I doubt ever again being able to visit that edifice of culture and art. Many people who loved Dresden never got to see it reborn. Indeed, many burned along with Dresden's architectural heritage. I'm grateful for those who saw the value in restoring what they could for future generations. It remains to be seen how Paris and the world deal with history and culture's latest loss.