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Dresden reverses years of neglect

Published Oct. 10, 2005

"I want to see cranes in Dresden!" Mayor Herbert Wagner exhorted his awakening city last year, as he began a sweeping program of renovation and reconstruction. The mayor must be a satisfied man, because giant cranes now dominate the historic skyline and most of the city's great buildings are decorated with scaffolding.

Although Dresden's architectural jewels are temporarily shrouded, its rich collections of painting, sculpture, porcelain and other treasures are on full display. Tourism and business are booming, overwhelming the modest capacity of local hotels.

The job of rebuilding the old Saxon capital, which was devastated by an Allied bombing attack in February 1945 and largely neglected during 40 years of communist rule, is expected to take more than a decade. Restoration of old or damaged structures as well as new building projects are part of the program. City planners hope that when the job is finished, Dresden will return to its former position as one of Europe's cultural capitals.

"It won't be London or Paris or Rome," said one planner, "but perhaps on the level of Hamburg or Amsterdam or Vienna or Budapest or Prague."

Dresden will celebrate its 800th anniversary in 2006, and that is the magic date around town, the moment when the city is supposed to enter its new era. Financing for ambitious reconstruction projects is not entirely secure and not all plans have been completed.

One reason is that no one has computed precisely how much the reconstructions will cost or determined which government agencies will pay for them. The major part of what has been spent so far has come from the federal government in Bonn.

Nonetheless, artistic masterpieces, nearly unavailable to outsiders for generations due to war and restrictive East German travel rules, beckon now. Dresden was a seat of royalty as early as the mid-15th century, but it did not reach the peak of its glory until about 1700. The following decades encompassed a veritable orgy of artistic creation, during which Augustus the Strong, the visionary monarch and arts patron, commissioned Europe's finest architects to construct dazzling palaces and stately public buildings. To cover their walls and fill their giant chambers, he accumulated great quantities of art.

Artists, craft workers, jewelers and artisans flocked to enjoy his patronage. He and his son Frederick Augustus II brought the city into a golden "Augustan Age" during which it became a metropolis. But it was severely damaged by Prussian artillery attacks in 1755 during regional fighting among German states. It never re-emerged from provincial status.

Today, even with construction crews at work and some ruins of World War II bombing highly visible, Dresden is breathtaking. Standing in Theaterplatz with your back to the serene curve of the Elbe River, you face a panoramic view that encompasses centuries of architectural genius:

To your left is the Hofkirche, a soaring Catholic cathedral built at the height of the Augustan Age and famous for the larger-than-life statues of 78 saints, many now covered by scaffolding, that guard the roof. Behind it lies the medieval Residenzschloss, from which Saxon kings ruled beginning in 1530.

Straight ahead is the ornate Zwinger complex, completely reconstructed in the years after World War II, a Baroque masterpiece modelled on Versailles. And to the right is the 19th century Semper Opera, also reconstructed almost from scratch, where works like Strauss' Rosenkavalier and Wagner's Flying Dutchman were first performed.

Much of the detail on those buildings and others nearby is visible, but time has blackened Dresden's stone astonishingly. As with many people in eastern Germany, Dresdeners have for decades been heating their homes with soft coal and driving locally produced automobiles that are infamous for their thick exhausts. The resulting smog has turned Dresden very dark. Tourist brochures include many photos taken at sunset, because at that time of day the appalling blackness is not so evident.

There are more than 30 museums in Dresden, including half a dozen collections of world stature. My favorite is the classical sculpture gallery in the basement of the 19th century Albertinum, a former armory, near the center of town. Every time I visit the city, I take time to wander among the boldly decorated Greek vases, exquisite figurines more than 2,500 years old, intricately carved temple reliefs, and life-sized busts and statues of gods and heroes.

The Albertinum houses much of Dresden's most famous art. One floor above the sculpture gallery is the extraordinary collection known as the Green Vaults, named after the suite of rooms in the Residenzschloss where it was first displayed.

In a few words, it is an assemblage of objets d'art and jewelry: the most intricate sorts of rococo chests, ornate mirrors, ivory carvings, vases, cabinets, jewelry and other sumptuous trinkets, some of it from far corners of the globe. Amber and agate, jade and lapis, gold and silver abound, and the royal jewels at the end of the display rival the world's finest collections.

The top two floors of the Albertinum house the Neue Meister collection of 19th and 20th century art. Among painters represented are the Germans Caspar David Friedrich and Otto Dix and the French masters Manet, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin and Monet.

Dresden's other great collection of paintings, the Alte Meister (Old Masters), is housed in the Zwinger, which reopened in December 1992 after renovation. The Alte Meister ranges over centuries of European art, including vivid works by Titian, Reubens and Rembrandt. Large as that collection is, it constitutes only part of what the Zwinger offers. The grounds are elaborately landscaped, and the cascading Nymph's Bath still evokes images of decadent trysts.

Inside, one gallery is devoted to an extraordinary collection of maps, globes and mathematical instruments. Another contains a world-renowned porcelain collection, evidence of Augustus the Strong's obsession with the substance. He was fascinated by the hardness of porcelain samples brought from China, subsidized research that led to duplicating and improving the manufacturing process, and established what became an important porcelain industry in nearby Meissen.

Hanging over any visit to Dresden is the memory of the Allied bombing that destroyed much of the city. At that time, as residents frequently explain to visitors, Dresden had no military value and was full of refugees, mostly women and children. The war's end was foreseeable, the outcome already clear. Tens of thousands perished in the inferno.

Now, tourists snatch up postcards of the ruins, including a wide-angle view titled "Pointless Destruction." Yet some older visitors, especially Americans and Britons, cannot bear to see Germans portrayed as victims of World War II, and tourism officials do not want to offend them. The only memorial to those who died in the bombing is outside city limits, at a cemetery where many of the victims were buried. It is a stark granite slab with an inscription that begins: "How many died? Who knows the number?"

At the center of town, left undisturbed for decades, lie the bombed-out ruins of the 250-year-old Frauenkirche, once one of the major Protestant churches in Europe and an anchor of the Dresden skyline. The ruins were left where they fell, and the area was cordoned off as a point of reflection. After German unification in 1990, the new authorities decided to rebuild the church.

In a meticulous effort to salvage as much as possible of the original structure, each fallen stone is being measured, photographed and numbered for possible reuse. Sponsors are raising money privately, partly through the sale of watches that contain small chips of stone from the ruins.

Walking through Dresden, even while so much construction is under way, is a series of felicitous discoveries. Blackened old statues appear at unexpected corners, and gargoyles gaze down from buildings that escaped past conflagrations.

It is even possible to find a "minor" building that momentarily seems more attractive than the imposing palaces for which Dresden became famous.