Augustus the Strong once described his passion for porcelain as his maladie de porcellaine — his "porcelain sickness.''
Until I visited Dresden in May, I had never heard of Augustus (1670-1733), the elector of Saxony and king of Poland who turned Dresden into a cultural center — a kind of Versailles for eastern Germany. It used to be known as "Florence on the Elbe,'' for the river that winds through the city and its aspirations to rival Italy's cradle of the Renaissance. Kurt Vonnegut, writing about Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five, likened its fanciful architecture to Oz before it was demolished by Allied bombing near the end of World War II.
Today, Dresden is enjoying a renaissance of its own, shaking off the backwater provincialism that prevailed under the communist rule of the former East Germany. Many of its fine old buildings have been beautifully restored, such as the domed Protestant cathedral, the Frauenkirche, whose rubble symbolized the city's destruction.
I was there to attend the Dresden Music Festival, held every spring, but when I had time away from the black sandstone churches where many of the concerts were performed, I found myself drawn to the city's museums, and that led to my discovery of the Baroque ruler's legacy in porcelain.
Augustus was a collector of many things — including mistresses, with whom he had countless illegitimate children — but his greatest collection was of porcelain art objects from China, Japan and Europe. His vast horde now has a gallery all to itself at Dresden's Zwinger Palace, and it is amazing.
The Porzellansammlung (Porcelain Collection) contains case after case of plates, bowls, teacups, saucers, tureens, vases and more. They're richly detailed in every imaginable color — blue and white is a staple — and pattern, many luxuriantly gilded, others classically austere. There are hundreds of precious porcelain figurines, from kitsch to high art, including elaborate bouquets of flowers, shepherdesses in crinoline, court jesters, a stunning white peacock and the apostles.
I had never given more than a passing thought to porcelain — sometimes called Dresden china — but after spending an afternoon with the Zwinger collection, as well as touring the famous Meissen porcelain factory in the nearby town of that name, I realized what I had been missing. You can give yourself a comprehensive lesson in the history of taste and art by contemplating porcelain's radiant splendor.
Peter Marino, a New York architect who designed the Porzellansammlung's Oriental Galleries, which opened in 2006, is a collector of porcelain himself. He described its allure this way to Architectural Digest: "Take a breath and look softly, for a long while, at the beauty of its surface: You get lost in its depth.''
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For consumerist reasons, I would recommend taking in the Zwinger porcelain collection before visiting the Meissen factory and museum. You're probably going to want to buy some porcelain from the factory outlet store, and it helps to have a sense of the aesthetic standards of the art form before shopping, because it can be expensive. I paid $200 for a dish 5 inches in diameter in the "scattered flowers'' decor, and there were plenty of customers spending thousands for dinner settings and tea services at the store.
Meissen, a picturesque, ancient town on the Elbe about 12 miles downstream from Dresden, is easily reachable by train. The factory, established by Augustus in 1710, is a short walk from the Triebischtal station. On a Tuesday morning, I took a little tour with an overflow crowd, listening over a headset to the English translation of the presentation. The half-hour tour goes through five rooms in which workers from the factory demonstrate what they do in various stages of porcelain making.
Kaolin — "white earth'' from a mine in the rolling green hills outside Meissen — is the main ingredient of porcelain, which also contains feldspar and quartz to give it toughness and brilliance. It starts out as a doughlike, creamy white mass that is spun on a potter's wheel, cast in molds, embossed with sculptural details such as the folds of a skirt, fired in kilns up to 1,400 degrees Celsius, hand-painted and glazed in more than 10,000 shades. Every piece includes the company's trademark crossed swords in cobalt blue.
The factory museum is fascinating, with two floors of galleries displaying the work of almost 300 years of porcelain making, from early pieces like the Soup Tureen With Lemon Knob to designer Peter Strang's 1992 sculpture The Collector, depicting a bow-tied, bespectacled aficionado of porcelain figures. A kitschy favorite of many visitors is Monkey Orchestra from around 1765.
Music and porcelain come together in a pipe organ. This was an idea that goes back to Augustus the Strong, who ordered such an instrument built in 1732. It apparently wasn't technically possible until just a few years ago, and now the world's first organ with pipes made from porcelain occupies a place of honor in the Meissen factory. It is a lovely thing, with 22 porcelain pipes among the more than 200 pipes (the others are wood and metal), and you can buy a CD Der Klang des Porzellans (The Sound of Porcelain) of it playing everything from Bach to Shostakovich.
The Meissen porcelain factory established a tradition of precision manufacturing in the area that includes cameras and electronics, and that continues with a new Volkswagen plant made of glass, a gleaming piece of modern architecture near Dresden's largest park, Grosser Garten. You can take a tour of the Glaserne Manufaktur (Glass Factory), where white-coated auto workers assemble the high-end Phaeton in spotless, strangely quiet conditions.
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Along with its porcelain riches, Dresden struck me as a music lover's paradise for a relatively small city (population about 500,000), though I don't know if there's a particularly strong connection between the two art forms beyond that pipe organ in Meissen. Dresden has the Semper Opera (where Richard Strauss' Salome premiered in 1905) and its Staatskapelle Dresden orchestra, which also plays symphony concerts, as well as the Dresden Philharmonic. Plus the churches are big presenters of music.
The highlight of my visit to the music festival was a church concert by the Vienna Philharmonic, with the dynamic Russian conductor Valery Gergiev leading the fabled orchestra in the Frauenkirche. Though it is Lutheran (a statue of Martin Luther stands in the square), the cathedral is far from plain.
The sanctuary is a huge affair, seating more than 1,000 on the floor and in galleries making their way up the walls to the towering dome. The lavish altar is covered in gold. The predominant colors of the stone pillars and plaster walls are creamy pink and green. To hear the Vienna Phil play Sibelius' First Symphony and Stravinsky's Firebird ballet score in such atmospheric surroundings was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Jan Vogler, the world-class cellist who was in his first season as artistic director of the festival, said in an interview that Dresden had a way to go before it can compete in the cultural tourism market with long-established festivals such as those in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Lucerne, Switzerland. But he was encouraged by this year's strong attendance — most concerts I attended were played before virtually full houses — and the positive response to some of his more offbeat programming. Jazz man Bobby McFerrin and Ute Lemper, a cabaret singer, sold out their shows.
Another aspect of musical tourism is alive and well in Dresden, which has a pair of museums in former residences of opera composers Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner. Beginning in 1818, Weber lived in a small, low-ceilinged house in Hosterwitz, a leafy suburb, where he wrote several important works, including Euryanthe. Wagner lived in a farmhouse in Graupa during the summer of 1846 and composed much of Lohengrin there.
It's not known if Weber and Wagner were porcelain fanciers — perhaps not; there is none on display in their old houses. But now whenever I think of Dresden and music, I will also think of the Baroque opulence of porcelain.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs at Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.