Dresden / DPA
When his royal palace in Dresden was badly damaged by fire in 1701, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland seized his chance: Out with the original romanesque architecture and in with a glamourous new-fangled style: baroque.
Over the next three decades, August II (1670-1733) oversaw a major refurbishing of the Dresden Royal Palace, creating an architectural landmark, a celebration of baroque, that would stand for two more centuries.
Then came the February 13, 1945 Allied fire-bombing of Dresden, and the palace was reduced to a hollow, burnt-out shell.
The exterior has been restored, the interior rebuilt in concrete and parts of the complex have been opened to tourists, but it will be years until the project is completed. Next up is the main royal suite which contained a throne room to receive visitors and giddyingly luxurious bedchambers.
That work is to be completed by 2019, the 300th anniversary of August II’s original.
Belgian marble, Versailles tapestries, gold, velvet, silk – all have been in storage for decades, many partly burned.
In the rooms, furniture is being replicated and rooms are being painstakingly reconstructed based on whatever visual evidence – paintings, illustrations, copper etchings and photographs – could be found in Dresden or elsewhere in Germany and Europe.
The 18th-century second floor consists of five ceremonial chambers built specially for August II and his bride, the arch-duchess of Austria, Maria Josepha.
The dining room, two ante-chambers, an audience chamber and the bedroom with its huge imperial bed were designed according to the French fashion of the day, notes Ludwig Coulin of the state of Saxony’s office for property and building management.
Preserved chandeliers, mirrors, furniture and paintings are being returned to their original locations. Artists are recreating lost paintings which now exist only on a few old colour slides.
Restorers are thrilled when there is even the tiniest original item to work with. “One original button is like DNA. With it you can clone the entire room,” castle director Dirk Syndram enthuses.
Majestic is the only way to describe the royal four-poster bed with a canopy over 4 metres high. The ornate original went missing after Germany’s abolition of royalty in 1918, so a new bed based on the original is to be built.
The wooden throne survives. With a 1.90-metre back and a 90-centimetre seat, it was sturdy enough for the well-fed frame of the king who was nicknamed “August the Strong.”
The wear and tear inflicted on it by being exhibited so often is apparent. Restorer Katharina Hummitzsch is inspecting the throne, which was made for the wedding celebrations of August’s son. Carved from lime wood, the throne is upholstered in red velvet decorated with gold-plated silver threads. The throne has undergone many previous restorations, and now another is under way.
“We want to present as much as possible the original version,” Hummitzsch says.
This approach falls within what Ludwig Coulin calls the “palace principle” for restoration: “The original parts that have been preserved will remain as they are. Whatever else that is required will be remade to look like new.”
Be it a mirror or wood paneling, the experts can base their designs on copper etchings from 1719 that the royal House of Wettin ordered made to record the splendour.
“Back then, that was like what Twitter or Facebook is today,” Coulin says of the copper etchings. In the Tower Room, all the expertise of sculptor Eva Backofen and her colleagues is needed for the restoration of some 50 plaster sections in the ceiling depicting ancient sea gods, birds and plants.
“Our only information is from reflected bits in mirrors in the old photographs, so we have to think up the rest,” Backofen says. “This is like doing art studies a second time over. I really have a lot to learn.”
Coulin and Syndram say that once restored, the suite will be a greater sensation than the Green Vault, the elaborately decorated basement room where the king first stored tax money and later kept a huge collection of jewellery and tableware.
The royal suite is much larger and more splendid than the Green Vault or the royal armour collection, the current favourites with tourists at the palace. “This section was never just a showcase, but rather the crowning glory of European-level court ceremonial.”