The Dresden Zwinger
by Susanne Reichelt
Admittedly, SEHENSWÜRDIGKEIT (german for sight) is a somewhat dusty word, a bit cumbersome, unwieldy and rather long; the English words SIGHT or HIGHLIGHT are much snappier and easier to grasp.
And yet I must take up the cudgels for the German language. You can just let the word melt on your tongue: Something worth seeing (Sehenswürdigkeit – des Sehens würdig). And this is undoubtedly true of the Dresden Zwinger: who has not raved about this ensemble, in which baroque architecture and sculpture are so ingeniously interwoven, the brittle material sandstone is so virtuously shaped into flowing, moving lines, and yet, with all the love of detail, the grandiose overall impression never fails to make an impact.
Cheerful architecture with an enigmatic name
Even today, every visitor is seriously impressed when, for example, he steps through the archway of the Picture Gallery from the Theatre Square and descends the steps to the Zwinger Courtyard. Directly opposite, the graceful Crown Gate with its onion-shaped dome under the gilded Polish royal crown immediately catches the eye. It interrupts the long gallery decorated with wall fountains between high arched windows. To the left and right, the gaze wanders to two almost identical pavilions, which are followed by arched galleries on both sides. They end in corner pavilions, which are accessed from the courtyard by double-flight staircases. Once the visitor has let these ingeniously proportioned and rhythmically grouped buildings with their rich figural decoration take effect on him, ONE question is almost written on his forehead, and we city guides have to answer it a thousand times over: WHY IS THE ZWINGER CALLED “ZWINGER”? Admittedly, it is a legitimate question, for the word “Zwinger” has a rather martial sound, reminiscent of a fortress, dungeon or cage, and thus completely at odds with the cheerful, festive character of this building complex.
But if you go out of the courtyard again through the famous Crown Gate, you stand on a simply constructed bridge over a moat that once served as a fortress moat that could enclose the entire city if necessary, thus complementing its strong defences. Part of the new fortification walls built during the Renaissance period is still preserved below the Long Gallery and the Crown Gate. Where the moat today merges into an idyllic pond and an acute-angled wall bend, the “sharp corner”, is recognisable, one of the seven bastions of the fortifications adjoined.
Between their walls, which converged in the shape of arrows, was the area known as the “kennel”, where anyone who had entered without permission could be “conquered”. When such fortifications were more or less obsolete in the 18th century, such areas were also used elsewhere for civilian purposes, often for gardens and pleasure buildings. In Dresden, however, a truly outstanding creation of this kind was achieved and fortunately can still be experienced today, despite the considerable destruction during the Second World War, because the reconstruction of this Dresden landmark, which took around 20 years, was completed as early as 1946.
The wedding of the century and its prelude
Now that you know where the name “Zwinger” comes from, the next question is what the whole thing was used for. One thing first: it is not a palace, the Zwinger was never inhabited! Rather, it was a venue, an arena for courtly festivities, to put it flippantly, one could call it a party location, and there is even a “chill room”, namely the somewhat hidden grotto-like Nymph Baths with its refreshing water features. However, the festivities with which the Zwinger was inaugurated as an open-air ballroom in 1719 were hardly comparable to today’s banal parties. They have gone down in history as the wedding of the century and were indeed an event of European significance, celebrating the union of the House of Habsburg with the Wettin dynasty. With whom, please? Some readers who have perhaps hardly ever heard of the Wettins will ask themselves. But with August the Strong, at least one member of this dynasty is quite well known, even if often only in connection with his weakness for women and their consequences, which has led many to assume that every second or third Saxon is one of his direct descendants. The often quoted number of 354 or 365 children is, of course, grossly exaggerated, but there is of course a grain of truth in these insinuations, although he actually legitimised “only” nine offspring. He fathered only one child with his wife, Elector Friedrich August, born in 1696.
This only legitimate son of Augustus the Strong was thus married in 1719 to the Habsburg princess Maria Josepha, the eldest daughter of Emperor Joseph I, who by this time had already died without male descendants. Now his younger brother sat on the imperial throne, Charles VI, the father of Maria Theresa, who, as is well known, took over the reign from him after his death as the first woman on the Habsburg throne.
This had been made possible by the Pragmatic Sanction of 1713, which allowed female succession to the throne in the absence of male heirs. However, at the time, this was initially a controversial law on paper, which had to be enforced in the event of an emergency, as the War of the Austrian Succession later testified.
This brief excursion into family constellations is necessary to understand why this marriage had such immense significance for the Wettins. Augustus the Strong reckoned he had a realistic chance of one day seeing his son on the Roman-German imperial throne, since this marriage made him the husband of the first-born daughter of the elder of the two Habsburg brothers. Pragmatic sanction or not. And this prospect, in turn, motivated Augustus the Strong to turn this celebration into an event that all of Europe was talking about. He could spare no expense and effort, since the aim was to demonstrate the economic and cultural power of his country. Thus, the festival was by no means a trivial, amusing pastime, but a means of forward-looking state policy.
A connection between the Protestant Saxon dynasty, which had been in power since the Reformation, and the original Catholic dynasty of the Habsburgs had only become possible with the conversion of the Elector to the Catholic faith. His father had already converted for purely political reasons in order to be elected King of Poland. However, the population and also large parts of the court and even his wife had remained Lutheran and the Elector Prince was brought up Protestant. No wonder that the change of faith, which took place during his cavalier tour in Italy, was kept secret for years and only made public in Baden near Vienna in 1717, which was the prerequisite for the application for the hand of the emperor’s daughter.
Now there were not even two years to prepare the ambitious wedding plans, not enough to build a new palace, for example. This was what August the Strong had in mind, and there are concrete plans for it, according to which the Zwinger in its present dimensions would have been merely the forecourt for a gigantic palace that would have extended from the site of today’s Theatre Square to the Elbe. But that would have taken up too much time and money, and August had to be content with restoring the existing old-fashioned city palace of his ancestors to a condition “fit for an emperor”. This was a mammoth task for a building complex that had been repeatedly altered and interlocked over the centuries and, to make matters worse, had been half destroyed by fire in 1701.
But Augustus the Strong made a virtue of necessity and combined the renovation with the furnishing of a magnificent series of rooms in the west wing, which were furnished in the most precious way and did honour to the reception of the imperial bride. Since 2019, it has once again been possible to get a picture of these parade rooms, which have been faithfully reconstructed with the same immense effort as back then on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the Elector’s wedding.
From the Garden of the Hesperides to the Open-Air Festival Hall
But that was not all: for the festivities, other venues were needed that had to be upgraded or even created from scratch. And the Zwinger played a key role in this. At that time, the buildings on the rampart side, which had been erected as an orangery by Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann from 1709, already existed. The central rampart pavilion, often referred to as the highlight of the Zwinger buildings, is crowned by the figure of Hercules with the celestial sphere on his shoulders. Well-informed tourists with a knowledge of mythology often say on guided tours that it was Atlas who carried the celestial vault. True, but Atlas was once tricked by Hercules, whose 12 tasks included procuring the Golden Apples of the Hesperides. He could only do this with the help of Atlas, who carried the celestial vault at the western edge of the world. Hercules got him to fetch the Golden Apples, which were probably oranges, from his daughters, the Hesperides. In return, he relieved him of the burden of the celestial sphere and shouldered it himself, but was clever enough to trick Atlas into taking it back when the job was done, so that he could hurry off with the oranges. August the Strong liked to compare himself with Hercules and his physical strength and cleverness, so the sculpture on the pavilion, incidentally an original work and perhaps even a hidden self-portrait by the chief sculptor Balthasar Permoser, is a very direct allusion to August the Strong, who had his own Hesperides Garden created to house the expensively imported exotic potted plants. These buildings on the ramparts were extended a few years later to include the Long Galleries and the Crown Gate, which effectively underlines August’s dignity as Polish king, since the crown is also symbolically worn by eagles, the heraldic animal of Poland. And when the wedding was imminent and a chic place for the festivities was needed right next to the palace, it was obvious to place an identical counterpart on the city side opposite the ramparts and thus create a symmetrical setting for the festivities. The fourth side, which was still open and is now the site of the Picture Gallery, was intended to make it possible to realise the grand plans for the new palace at a later date and was initially only provisionally closed with a kind of grandstand from which the illustrious spectators could follow the festivities.
Full programme 1719
By no means all the events of the great party took place in the Zwingerhof. The festivities lasted the entire month of September 1719, after the marriage had formally taken place in Vienna and the bride had travelled with her entourage to Dresden – the last leg on a state galley on the Elbe – and been received in the brand new parade rooms in the Residence Palace. On the following days, the wedding party was entertained with various merrymaking, show dinners and tournaments alternated with performances of specially composed operas and comedies, again followed by battle hunts, masked balls and fireworks. In fact, a “rest day” is also once to be found in the calendar of events. All these events, however, were only the “gap fillers” between the great highlights, the so-called planetary festivals, which kicked off with the Festival of Apollo, continued with the Festivals of Mars, Jupiter, Luna, Mercury, Venus and concluded with the grandiose Saturn Festival, which paid tribute to mining and thus the source of Saxony’s wealth, which made these costly festivities possible in the first place.
Jupiter and Mercury were the themes of the two largest festivals for which the Zwinger served as a venue. At the Jupiter Festival, for example, a horse ballet was staged, with horsemen costumed as fire, earth, water and air appearing in a choreographed procession, the so-called Caroussel of the Elements. The Mercury Festival, on the other hand, was celebrated as a fair of nations, with the guests dressed in costumes – financed by themselves, by the way – that made them appear as Tartars, Turks or Chinese, for example. On this occasion, however, a kind of fair was also held and products of the country, such as porcelain from the very young Meissen manufactory, were offered. And Augustus the Strong did not miss the opportunity to serve the guests himself in a so-called “tavern”, and his wife, the good Christiane Eberhardine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, who was mocked as “Saxony’s pillar of prayer”, probably also had to condescend to do so.
The Dresden Zwinger today
In future, visitors will be able to experience a newly designed multimedia exhibition called ZwingerXperience in one area of the Zwinger, where they can virtually mingle with the protagonists of this baroque festival and get a vivid idea of the Zwinger as a venue for lively festivities. This new exhibition complements the diverse museum landscape that now has its home in the Zwinger: the Mathematical-Physical Salon, a collection of historical measuring tools and scientific instruments that Augustus the Strong already had housed in the Zwinger, the extremely rich porcelain collection with ceramics from the Far East, but also the very first products of the oldest porcelain manufactory in Europe founded by Augustus the Strong in Meissen, as well as the top-class Old Masters Picture Gallery in the so-called Semper Building of the Zwinger. Since the middle of the 19th century, it has stood on the site where, according to August’s plans, the new residence was to be built, but which, after the costly wedding of the century, had to remain a dream for financial reasons alone.
But to actually experience the Zwinger, its spectacular overall effect as well as its detailed figural decoration, you have to SEE it with your own eyes, and as stated at the beginning, it is indeed WORTH SEEING, a SIGHT worth seeing in the truest sense of the word.