This weekend, the people of Dresden will witness a site that hasn’t been seen in nearly 75 years. The royal apartments at the Residential Palace are reopening 300 years after they were first unveiled and 74 years after they were obliterated by Allied bombs.
Catherine Hickley at The Art Newspaper reports that the German state of Saxony decided to restore the apartments in 1997, and reconstruction effort began in 2016. The effort is part of an initiative to restore the entire bombed-out palace, a project that’s so far cost an estimated $350 million.
The royal apartments were not just the sleeping quarters of kings and queens; they were a statement by Augustus II the Strong, king of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. After a long, complex series of wars and alliances, Augustus began to double down on soft power by presenting himself as a grand and powerful monarch.
A big part of that was the construction of the royal state apartments, which were built on the second floor of the Residential Palace. Unveiled during the month-long wedding ceremony of his son Augustus III to Archduchess Maria Josepha of the Habsburgs and inspired by Louis XIV’s Versailles palace, the apartments were a series of opulent rooms, each more over-the-top than the next. Visitors were ushered through a ballroom, the “tower room” full of the king’s world-class porcelain collection, the banqueting hall, the audience chamber and the bedchamber, where no one actually ever slept.
Some artifacts survived the bombing of the palace and have been returned to the reconstructed apartments. Silver furniture, 28 paintings, the porcelain collection, as well as the gold wedding suit worn by Augustus at the unveiling of the apartments will return to the palace.
The apartments themselves had to be recreated from the ground up. Architects relied on etchings and drawings form that original 1719 wedding feast and later photographs to recreate the rooms.
Speaking with Rebecca Schmid of the New York Times, Marion Ackermann, general director of Dresden’s State Art Collections, praised the original apartments for being a “tremendous human achievement,” boasting handcrafted baroque design “to the highest point of precision.” The reconstruction, she calls, more than just a German effort, but rather “a European project in that we had to gather expertise from all over the Continent.” The red silk tapestries found in the audience chamber, for instance, were re-created in Lyon, France; the green silk in the bedroom came from Genoa, Italy.
Ironically, one element of the chambers—the elaborate ceiling paintings by French painter Louis de Silvestre—were preserved by Adolf Hitler, the cause of their destruction. When the war began to go bad, the Führer sent photographers out to document the ceiling and other artworks in case they were destroyed. The team used those images to recreate the paintings. “It was a risk... it could have gone wrong,” Dirk Syndram, director of the museums in the Residential Palace, tells the Times’ Schmid. “I was a bit skeptical—after all, this wasn’t the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it was decoration. But I think it looks very good.”
The Residential Palace is scheduled to be completely rebuilt and restored by 2021. It’s not the only piece of pre-World War II Dresden that’s been brought back. The Frauenkirche, the baroque masterpiece in the city center, was also destroyed during the firebombing of the city. For decades, its rubble pile stood as a reminder of the destruction and a de facto memorial against war. Between 1994 and 2005, the church was rebuilt using many of the original stones that had been preserved in that pile.
While the Allies made difficult decisions to avoid bombing culturally important cities like Rome and Paris, Dresden, called “the Florence of the Elbe” was an exception. Known for its baroque architecture and art museums, it had not been bombed before 1945 and was not considered a major military or economic target. Still, the Allies claimed that important communication lines ran through the city and it was necessary to soften up the area for an impending Russian invasion. Later historians have claimed that the attack on Dresden was primarily to terrorize the German population and, hopefully, lead to an earlier end of the war. Between February 13 and February 15, 1945, 800 British bombers dropped 1,400 tons of bombs on the city and 1,100 tons of incendiary devices primarily on the city center, creating a massive firestorm that flattened the area. Later, 300 American bombers hits transportation hubs, bridges and railways. Another wave of 200 bombers continued the job. An estimated 35,000 to 135,000 people were killed in the bombings.