If ever you want a deflating and painfully funny outline of history, turn to Simon Winder, whose Germania I not only treasured at the time but also turned back to more recently as an alternative guidebook while we were in Dresden and Berlin. Winder begins his Saxon rhapsody thus:
It is conventional in histories of Germany at this point to start talking about Prussia so that everyone can start gibbering and rolling their eyes with fear. Instead I thought I would write about Saxony.
The fundamental pleasure of Saxony lies in its hopelessness. It is as characteristically German as Prussia and yet as a political entity it failed in all it did. Saxony's history appears somewhat marginal, and yet this is the place that gave us Schumann, Wagner and Nietzsche. Despite woeful frivolity, insanity and misamanagement it clung on to its independence, never quite going under , until the last wholly unmourned king abdicated at the end of the First World War. At least while within the confines of Saxony it is possible to think of an alternative Germany - wayward, self-indulgent and inept in a way that gives hope to us all.
'Woeful frivolity' is incarnated in the personage of Friedrich August, Augustus II the Strong, who may have made the skyline of Dresden what it is today but who also, in Winder's inimitable words, 'embroiled Poland in disastrous wars [as its king, bizarrely converted to Catholicism], frittered money away on bits of amber and ivory, fathered over 300 children [si non e vero...], did a party-piece involving tearing a horseshoe apart with his bare hands, and left Saxony helpless and indebted to an eye watering degree'. It comes as no surprise to find him gilded on his horse, an appropriate image of hubris which we encountered with crescent moon behind it on a balmy summer evening stroll over to the Neustadt.
Yet we now have to thank Augustus the Strong for his obsession with the curious, and his 'pitiful' successor August III the Fat for his incredible assemblage of great paintings which forms the backbone of one of the world's finest collections, the Dresden Gemäldegalerie. He it was who in 1765 commissioned Bernardo Bellotto, nephew of Canaletto and happy to take his uncle's name, to paint the most futuristic-looking amon g that artist's often conventional views. Pictured up top, it represents the unintentionally prophetic demolition of the Church of the Crucifixion's demolition on a site where now stands the Church of the Holy Cross in the Altes Marktplatz, around which sandbags still lay deposited a week after the floods.
Anyway, I digress. You can't get much more 1945 than such a painting.
I'd been to the Gemäldegalerie in 1990, of course. But since then Dresden's state museums organisation, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, has created several more of the world's best museums. It was a sentence about the 'headspinning Green Vault' in Winder which made me keen, even on a day when we might have basked in the sun on the banks of the Elbe, that we should all visit the Neues Grünes Gewölbe in the Residenzschloss.
We first had to surmount some confusion over which ticket to buy; there seemed to be a separate one for the reconstructed vault itself, a main one for its major treasures and other collections. Clearly we had to see the extravagant and pointless masterpiece of August the Strong's chief goldsmith, the Swabian Johannes Melchior Dinglinger, The Birthday of the Grand Mogul Augungzeb.
I don't know what you can glean from this, one of the images the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen supplied me on request and all (I'm assuming, for some are creditless) taken by Jürgen Karpinski. The devil of 'woeful frivolity' is in the detail: 137 enamelled figures covered in 5,000 diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls. There's also a hideous coffee set and plenty of what Winder calls 'repulsive little statues of dwarves'. Other regal donors had little more taste: Peter the Great gifted a large sapphire in the form of a nose. Overshadowing the Lilliputian court in terms of expense is the green diamond for which Augustus III paid 400,000 thalers in 1742, now set in an agraffe (that's a clasp, for those of you who like me had never head the word before)..
This was the crowning glory in the route round the rooms as we took it. I think I preferred most of what was in the first, though, all around the late 16th-early 17th century mark and already tumbling into mannerism. Here's Daphne as a drinking vessel by Abraham Jannitzer of Nuremberg, coral serving as the laurel branches which mark her metamorphosis.
Much in this room would really come to life if the museum had a little more imagination to provide demonstrations once or twice a day. One such is the rolling-ball clock with supposedly revolving Roman emperors made by Hans Schlottheim in 1600. Again, the beauty is in the detail, so I apologise for the long shot.
There are also intriguing fripperies like the automatic spider of Tobias Reichel - what wouldn't you give to see this in operation? -
and the celebrated cherry stone of 1589 which, flanked by gold, enamel and pearl, is viewed under a magnifying glass so you can make out the 185 heads carved on it.
In spite of all this folly, much of the goldsmiths' work is extremely beautiful and artistic. I loved the wall mirror with Nebuchadnezzar's dream, the globe-shaped goblet held up by Hercules, some stunningly wrought ewers and basins. And there are quite a few handsome frigates like this one dated 1620 by Jakob Keller of Dresden.
The eye eventually tires of such opulence, but there's enough contrast to keep the interest alive for longer than usual in a museum trawl (I admired the Venetian reticulated glass in the third room, for instance). Even so, we had to give it a break and walked a fair way for lunch on the extraordinary roof terrace of the Yenidze Tobacco Factory - but that's for another time. Suffice it to say that we returned for more than an hour to the glories of the Turkish campaigns on the floor above the Neues Grünes Gewölbe, and were especially dazzled by the designs on the enormous tents, again sumptuously displayed and glowing in the near-darkness.
On, then, to Day Two in Dresden and back to the Gemäldegalerie in the Zwinger Palace. It's awaiting a big revamp, but so far the big grand room you reach first seems to have been sensitively relit and ordered. Raphael's celebrated Sistine Madonna, with the most reproduced winged putti in the world, naturally dominates, though I was pleased to see the two Dosso Dossis either side of it. These, like a very large percentage of the Italian renaissance collection including a Saint Sebastian of Antonello da Messina very different from the exquisite miniature portraits we saw in Sicily,
seem to have been acquired by Fat Augustus from Modena, also the source of some large-scale Correggios (the artist's least attractive work to me). He bought pictures from dealers all over Europe, and his taste - at least in the pictures on show - seems to have been catholic and yet discriminating. Mostly because of that, the Gemäldegalerie seems to have almost as much a representation of all the great artists, at least up to the 1750s, as the National Gallery. There's a Van Eyck to rival the one in Berlin (the saint's wings on the left are especially beautiful)
and two relatively early Vermeers, one characteristic
and the other not (how drawn one is in a room to the yellow of the Procuress's blouse).
The Guercino Evangelists are all outstanding, and once you hit the Titian room with the gallery's other most famous painting, the reclining Venus, a wealth of portraits unfolds over the next three rooms. Statesmen by Tintoretto and Titian
are followed by three great Holbein heads for the price of two, quite overshadowing for me the famous Dürer portrait of Bernhard von Reesen. In this room there's also a haunting face by an artist I'd never heard of, Barthel Beham)
and even among the host of Cranachs young and old there's an outstanding pair of portraits of two hard-looking nobles, Lord and Lady Macbeth to the life.
As it's Rembrandt's 407th birthday today (15/7) - Google, of all things, doodlingly reminds us - I ought to balance hard with soft and J's favourite picture in the collection, of Saskia with a flower.
Once past the Bellottos - and I think I'm right in saying there are some pictures by the real Canaletto too - on the next floor, Fat Augustus's sway gives out, along with my interest in the eras concerned, but unflinching self-portraits by Mengs and Rosalba Carriera keep it lively. And then you come out in to the Zwinger courtyard, and realise how many thousand tourists have given one of the greatest galleries in the world a miss. Their loss. Augustus the Fat bequeathed an artistic treasure-house to the world. He also, according to Winder, carried on the tradition of 'political infantilism' by destroying Poland and reducing Saxony 'to a nullity'. I'll leave you Winder's judgment as postlude.
Germany's 20th century fate was not as Wilhelm II and Hitler believed it to be: to follow in the footsteps of Frederick the Great. Instead Germany followed in the footsteps of August III the Fat and his successors and was beaten, devastated, occupied and partitioned, having twice entirely misunderstood the forces and resources arrayed against it. Perhaps Saxony is a more striking model for the anxious appraisal of German behaviour in the modern era and a much less harmless one than first seemed the case.