March 20, 2007

Dresden: Das Grünes Gewölbe

"In Dresden, there is one thing that you should endeavor to do and that is visit the so-called Grünes Gewölbe or Schatzkammer.” (Johann Georg Keyssler, from his European travel guide, 1730)

Although written nearly 300 years ago, these words could not be truer today. In 2004, after a fifty year hiatus, the famous Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vaults), the royal treasury of the Electors of Saxony, where restored to their original home at the Residenzschloß in Dresden and reopened to the public. It’s funny to think that Dresden, with its troubled history and impoverished landscape is home to one of the world’s wealthiest museums. But even before having read Keyssler’s advice, it was already my number one reason for visiting Dresden. I spent my entire first two days there, and I didn’t even break for lunch.

The Green Vaults are above all a royal treasury, or Schatzkammer, but they are also an excellent example of Wunderkammern (cabinets of curiosity). The idea behind wunderkammern such the Green Vaults was to assemble in one place the most amazing objects that Art and Nature could produce, a sort of Noah’s Ark of the wonderful. The best pieces would seamlessly combine the two, for example the coral and silver challis (above, left), which depicts Ovid’s tale of Daphne’s metamorphosis into a laurel tree. The point of objects like these was not utilitarian (it’s unlikely they were ever even used), but to surprise and dumbfound the viewer. Few modern visitors are likely to believe that a rhinoceros horn drinking vessel is made from a gryphon's claw, but they’ll still enjoy how it tickles the imagination.

First I visited the Historic Green Vaults on the ground floor of the museum. Even in it’s modern incarnation, it’s clear that you’re going inside a high-security vault: Tickets to this exhibit are only available to groups of thirty people at thirty-minute intervals, and before entering the exhibit you have to leave all your belongings at the coat check and step through an air-locked entryway. But once you’re through, you enter a series of rooms, each more wonderful and luxurious than the one before. I felt a little like Charlie seeing the Chocolate Factory for the first time.

The first room is the Amber Kabinett, where, as its name suggests, everything is made of amber: small sculptures, drinking vessels, a complete chess set, even a full-size armoire. The honey brown amber positively glows, as it’s lit from behind and set against dark purple walls. Next, is the Ivory Room, filled with at least a hundred delicate ivory sculptures balanced precariously on individual consoles against warm marble-patterned walls. Most of the sculptures are what’s called “turned ivory,” a single tusk of ivory that has been carefully “turned” on a lathe and whittled-down into mind-bogglingly complicated geometric shapes: an intricate spire set atop a hollow icosahedron containing six smaller icosahedra, one inside another, with the whole thing positively floating above a single narrow column. It’s impossible to comprehend that these marvels were carved with 16th century tools.

Beyond the Ivory Room are a pair of traditional treasury rooms, the first containing the Elector’s collection of silver and second his collection of gold (actually gold-coated silver, but who’s going to scratch the surface and find out?). Sadly, much of the family silver had to be melted-down and turned into currency in order to finance the Seven Years’ War, but what remains has been displayed to its best advantage. These rooms are decorated for maximum glitter effect: The Silver Room is bright red and covered with gilded mirrors, and the Gilt Room is lime green and covered with gilded mirrors. Like the Hall of Mirrors as Versailles, the scene is reflected back on itself, endlessly multiplying its already opulent treasures.

Next up is my favorite room, Pretiosa Room, which contains the most curious of the vault’s treasures. Hundreds of delicate sculptures created from coconuts, ostrich eggs, nautilus shells, barocco pearls, and rare stones line the mirrored walls. Each one is a perfect synthesis of the natural and man-made: such as an ostrich egg drinking cup in the shape of a very life-like ostrich. When you unscrew its head and try to drink from its silver neck, the wings flap in your face – a sort of Baroque practical joke, but an unbelievably bizarre and beautiful one.

Next door, the Coat of Arms Room appears a little bland after the opulence of the previous galleries, but it’s a welcome change, since by this point in the tour your brain is likely in sensory overload. Originally used as a sort of grand mailroom, new acquisitions and secret documents could be stored in hidden cabinets behind the plaques before they were put on display. Unfortunately, only 36 of the original coats of arms belonging to the House of Wettin remain; eight were destroyed by fire during the bombing of Dresden. The curators have carefully left part of the room unfinished to remind visitors of the damage the museum sustained – and overcame.

Beyond is the grandest room of all: the Jewel Room. The Electorate of Saxony was just one of many German principalities, but the family, under Augustus the Strong (1670-1732) endeavored to be the wealthiest and most powerful. In order to enhance its prestige among the other princes, and ultimately win their vote to become King of Prussia and Duke of Lithuania, the family amassed a collection of jewels befitting a king. The Elector owned complete sets of garnitures (buttons, buckles, rapiers, daggers, hat pins, etc.) for every occasion: sets in ruby, emerald, sapphire, carnelian, tortoise shell, and two sets of diamond. According to my audio guide the tortoise shell set was the most expensive, although it doesn’t explain why.

The Jewel Room’s most valuable object has been moved to a more secure location upstairs in the Neues Grünes Gewölbe (New Green Vaults), a larger, thoroughly modern gallery space, where visitors can get a better view of some of the collection’s most interesting pieces. “The Dresden Green,” a pendant originally belonging to August III, August the Strong’s son, contains the largest green diamond in the world – 41 carats. Its unusual green color comes from the fact that the stone was exposed to naturally occurring radioactivity below the earth’s surface. It is truly a wonder of nature – and art.

Although “the Dresden Green” brings in the crowds, it’s the collection of curiosities, like the cherry pit pendant carved with 185-unique heads, that captured my attention and kept me coming back for more the next day. Rather than describe ad nauseum all the really cool stuff I saw, I’ve created my own little wunderkammer, a "Best of the New Green Vaults.” (My apologies to the State Art Museum of Dresden for the liberties of their photographs.) I hope it gives you the same sense of jaw-dropping awe that I experienced. Enjoy!


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