Court Culture in Dresden: From Renaissance to Baroque
Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2002, ISBN: 33398448; 325pp.; Price: £45.00
Kings College London
Date accessed: 1 June, 2023
Although the Electorate of Saxony was one of the most influential Protestant territories in the Holy Roman Empire, it has received little attention from English scholars. In fact, the period between 1553 and 1694 is so bereft of original modern scholarship that historians of the seventeenth century have been forced to rely on often unreliable nineteenth-century German works for even the simplest of details. Certainly the years in which the GDR was largely closed to western researchers have not helped matters, but even 12 years after its collapse the migration of academics into the fertile lands of the Dresden archives has been slow, particularly in comparison to the quantity of work produced on Bavaria, Hessen-Kassel, Württemberg and Brandenburg-Prussia. This may be in part due to an increased obsession with nineteenth- and twentieth-century German history, but much of it is down to the Saxons themselves, who still cannot accept that the early modern period saw anything more than squandered opportunities for Saxony’s greatness, ignoring the fact that the very existence of such opportunities was testament to the greatness the Electorate had already achieved. Given this research vacuum, Professor Watanabe-O’Kelly should clearly be commended for this book, which covers especially well those barren years after the Reformation, and attempts to bring so many different aspects and themes to life.
The author begins with a brief consideration of Dresden’s rise to prominence under the Albertine Electors, followed by a sensible acknowledgement of the objectives that underpin her research, including both the desire to place the Electors within their own contemporaneous intellectual climate and the importance of examining the relationship between political and religious factors, on the one hand, and the encouragement of various art forms at court, on the other. This statement of intent is then further clarified by an acceptance of the limitations placed on her work, foremost among which is her free admission that the book is not a political, administrative or economic history of the Dresden court. Yet it is debatable as to how far culture and artistic representation can be separated from these factors and the absence of any political dimension, particularly for the period 1555-1648, raises a few questions about this otherwise impeccably researched piece of work.
Professor Watanabe-O’Kelly’s first chapter examines the influence of Lutheranism upon the Saxon court, as seen through the prisms of death (the House of Wettin’s burial chapel in the Cathedral at Freiberg) and entertainment (tournaments). The burial chapel is a particularly interesting example of representative architecture because, as the author points out, it underwent a gradual metamorphosis from an individual monument to a dynastic shrine which served as a manifestation of both the Electors’ faith and status within the Empire – although on this latter point she could have mentioned that the Electors, who are dressed in armour, carry the oversized ceremonial Electoral swords to reaffirm visually their rank to the knowledgeable observer. Staying within this religious context, the author goes on to advance her earlier work regarding court tournaments, swiftly affirming their importance within the so-called ‘Confessional Age’ as a means of ‘articulating confessional tensions’ (p. 20), although, at least in Dresden, the more graphic demonstration of ‘sectarian animus’ was increasingly accompanied, after 1591, by ‘gentler representations of biblical events’. (p. 21)
This seems to be the perfect moment to synthesize the simultaneous development of an artistic form and the surrounding political situation but Professor Watanabe-O’Kelly confines herself to explaining the initial, more visceral, tournament-type as a product of the Calvinist insurgencies into Saxony of the early 1570s/late 1580s, without detailing the extent of the change in style or, indeed, accounting for it. For example, she presents the 1614 Dresden tournament as an illustration of the less graphic ‘biblical-form’ but does not explain why this should be so in the exact same year as Saxon theologians were frantically warding off the threat provided by the attempted ‘Second Reformation’ of neighbouring Brandenburg. Perhaps with greater political awareness she might have explained the change as representative of a general trend in Saxon policy, certainly after 1608, to downplay the religious divisions within the Empire, which were threatening to tear it apart. Fortunately, the author is more comfortable with the internal politics of the Albertine family and her illustration of the contrast between Elector Johann Georg II’s preference for ‘Joseph plays’ – as a means of artistically reinforcing his familial position – and his immediate eldest brother August’s use of ‘biblical semi-opera’ on the theme of the ‘wronged younger brother’ is a fascinating expression of the subtle representation of intra-dynastic rivalry in the early modern period. She might, however, have given some credit to Johann Georg I for anticipating the rivalry between his four sons and issuing a testament which broke from the traditional primogeniture of the Albertines in order to provide them all with some degree of material satisfaction.
In her second chapter, Professor Watanabe-O’Kelly examines the Albertine attempts, beginning under Elector August, to establish themselves as ‘rulers of European importance’ (p. 37) by combining their Lutheran/Germanic heritage with the italianisation of both court and capital city. Using Christian I’s reign (1586-91) as a focal point and with the assistance of an equestrian theme, the author moves effortlessly from Christian’s construction of the vast Italianate stables in Dresden, including the lining of the so-called ‘long corridor’ with Heinrich Göding’s portraiture of the Wettin dynasty, to a discussion concerning the growth in equestrian-related works within the Electoral library and the changing substance of the Dresden tournaments to a more diverse and ‘European’ mixture of theatrical spectacle and martial exercise. The acceptance of the ‘Italian ideal’ was further enhanced through the transformation of Christian I’s sons into ‘Renaissance princes’ and the subsequent penetration of the ‘Italian ideal of polished behaviour or “civil conversazione”’ (p. 57) into the Dresden court. To illustrate this, the author produces a wonderful account of Johann Georg I’s Italian ‘tour’ (1601) and its significance for Dresden, manifested in the promotion of Heinrich Schütz’s Italianate musical works and the completion of a ‘Lusthaus’, comparable with those in Prague and Florence. These last sections are of particular importance because they help reverse the tendency within Anglo-Saxon historiography to depict Christian II and Johann Georg I as uncultured monoglots, incapable of understanding or appreciating the finer details of European culture.
One cannot help feeling, however, that this chapter is again restricted by the separation of artistic content from any real political subtext. For example, the author compares two festivals held in Dresden and Stuttgart respectively in 1609, freely contrasting the ‘colourful heterogeneity’ (p. 54) of the former with the specifically Protestant or ‘Germanic identity’ (p. 53) of the latter, but without offering a possible explanation for this difference. Was Saxony’s opposition to the Protestant Union (of which Württemberg was a key member) or its attempts to precipitate a compromise solution to confessionally-driven debates in the Empire not important? The author could also have placed the transfer of ideas between Dresden and Florence under Elector August in the context of his close relationship with Catholic rulers such as Emperor Maximilian II or Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria. It may also have been helpful to the reader unfamiliar with Dresden if the author/publisher had supported a description of its transformation with some pictorial demonstration of this process, perhaps through images of the italianisation of the city’s fortifications. One mistake that should be corrected is the assertion that Antonio Scandello accompanied August to the 1575 Nuremberg Reichstag (p. 40); the year in question actually saw a meeting of the Electoral college in Regensburg, followed by a Reichstag in the same city in 1576.
The Kunstkammer and the practicalities of early modern collecting are the author’s third theme. Beginning with an account of its establishment under Elector August, she details its content and organisation, demonstrating how this in part reflected its founder’s own interests, and facilitated the creation of an artistic space or intellectual environment, rather than a particular place within the Dresden fortress. The potential dangers posed by a close affiliation between ruler and collection were then demonstrated during the reigns of Christian I and Christian II, when the ‘inner logic and progression of ideas’ (p. 91) that had originally been the Kunstkammer’s hallmark were largely replaced by the need for new acquisitions. To a certain extent, however, this was rectified under Johann Georg I, who, while glorifying his grandfather Elector August, helped accelerate the transformation of the Kunstkammer from technical museum to more defined art collection through increased size and diversity. The author concludes by stating that the Electors’ collections ‘functioned as visible reminders of the continuity of the House of Wettin’ (p. 99), thus linking this chapter to the subtext of those preceding it. Unfortunately, however, she does not use this conjuncture as an opportunity for positing an explanation as to why the Albertines compulsively felt the necessity to represent ‘continuity’ which may well have stemmed from the manner in which they achieved the electoral dignity in the first place.
If, however, the Freiberg Chapel, Göding’s portraiture and the Kunstkammer are all to be understood as representations of lineage and position, then the twin emblems of alchemy and mining can be seen to have bound the Electors to the actual land over which they ruled – much of which they had only possessed since 1547. An interest in alchemy was of course popular throughout Europe in the sixteenth century, and as the author notes, this gave the Electors access to a powerful milieu, which included such notable practitioners as Emperor Rudolf II. Their fascination was, however, far more than a mere engagement in the intellectual pastime du jour, and the reader may be particularly surprised to discover that Elector August and his successors, whose reputations have invariably been based on their political and religious orthodoxy, concentrated as much on the spiritual side of alchemy – including the works of Paracelsus and various cabbalistic texts – as they did on its actual implementation. Certainly the Electors invested heavily in the development of alchemy at their courts and this tradition appears to have continued all the way through the seventeenth century, although the author identifies a short period of stagnation during the ‘ten year regency’ (mistakenly dated as 1601-1611 rather than 1591-1601, on p. 116) prior to Christian II’s reign. The same can be said of the more public representation of mining within court festivities, which, as the author notes, was ‘a phenomenon peculiar to Dresden’.(p. 121) By this, the Electors clothed themselves in the apparel of the mining trade and situated themselves within a visual depiction which conjoined material substance and mechanical technology, often utilising the imagery of the planets to demonstrate the interaction of heaven and earth within the realm of the Elector’s own power.
A similarly emblematic theme pervades the fifth chapter, on Johann Georg II, which demonstrates his use of a variety of images and methods to manipulate the culture of self-representation, in order to provide artistic ‘propaganda’ that justified his position within his family, the Empire and Europe. Whether it was through the glorification of his father as Elector, the use of heroic symbolism, or through the recurrent celebration of his induction into the English Order of St George, Johann Georg II sought consistently to demonstrate his pre-eminent position over his brothers and the esteem in which he was held across Europe as a Christian knight and defender of Protestantism. Perhaps the author could have explained, however, that in its own way this mixture of paranoia and repetitive justification was as much characteristic of Albertine self-representation as it was of the rivalry between Johann Georg I’s sons. In fact it may well have been the need to fulfil both functions that persuaded Johann Georg II to sanction the preservation of his representational methodology in permanent textual form, through the works of Anton Weck and Gabriel Tzschimmer, both of whom legitimised the exhibition of splendour – in the form of either new construction in the city or court-based festivities – as a peacetime reflection of good governance.
In comparison to her previous chapters, Professor Watanabe-O’Kelly’s sixth chapter, on the impact of theatre, ballet and opera on the Dresden court, sits rather oddly within her attempt to blend artistic representation with contemporaneous circumstance and the need for specific self-presentation. Certainly the internalisation of these ‘displays’ within the court limited their audience but bearing in mind the author’s justification of previous art forms, even those confined within the narrowest part of the court (such as the Kunstkammer), it is difficult to understand the inclusion of artistic forms whose sole purpose appears to have been private entertainment – other than to demonstrate how cultured the Electors were. Of course, the author is keen to emphasise that the integration of media such as English theatre, French ballet and Italian opera were indicative of the ‘cultural transfer’ between the courts of the Empire and the territories to the north, south and west of it, but this doesn’t seem to fit in with the general thesis on the representation of power and tradition later alluded to in the conclusion.(p. 238) If we are to believe that this was an obvious example of ‘art for art’s sake’, then perhaps it would have been helpful if the author had explained why it was so.
It is to the author’s great credit that her final chapter, on Augustus the Strong, by far the most popular Wettin in terms of historiography, does not, as is too often the case, view his reign in isolation but rather strives to emphasise the continuity between past and present. This is achieved by judging the ‘Augustinian period’ against those aspects of Dresden court culture discussed in previous chapters. For example, the effect of religion is presented in the dichotomous relationship between the Catholic Augustus and his Lutheran capital, as represented by the almost simultaneous construction of the Hofkirche and Frauenkirche, while the impact of the ‘French ideal’ upon the Elector – compared to his Italianate predecessors – is shown principally in terms of his emulation of Louis XIV and the construction of the Zwinger palace. In turn, the completion of the Kunstkammer’s transformation into a museum collection is demonstrated by way of its redistribution and part-relocation to the ‘green vault’ (Grunes Gewölbe), while private alchemical practice metamorphosised into a concentration on the more practical and cost-efficient manufacture of porcelain. Even in terms of Augustus’s festivals the continuity with those of his forebears is apparent: those seemingly innovative aspects, such as the ‘use of ‘commedia dell’arte’ and the ‘Grand Carousel’ in 1695, actually contained previously used elements, thus allowing the establishment of a visual continuity between Electors and a ‘grand synthesis of the Dresden tradition’.(p. 237) What did change, as the author notes, was the scale of such productions, which helped August make Dresden into ‘a European city, rather than just a German one’ (p. 237), perhaps in the process eroding the ‘German’ basis of his power.
Professor Watanabe-O’Kelly’s work is an important contribution to our understanding of the interaction between culture and power at the early modern Protestant courts in Germany. The excellent use of plates and the author’s keen awareness of the city of Dresden in its past and present forms help draw the reader into her work, whilst an especially broad bibliography should help facilitate the sort of further research envisioned by the author in the introduction. It is, however, a little confusing that the genealogical table provided excludes the various Electors’ daughters (p. xv), the marriages of many of whom are discussed in the text itself, and it seems strange that the latest summary of Saxon history in the seventeenth century by U. Schirmer (1) is excluded from the bibliography, along with the mid-nineteenth century multi-volume work on the Saxon court by C. E. Vehse.(2)
In terms of content, the book’s emphasis on the importance of the prince in shaping the artistic tendencies of his surroundings is well argued and if at times it fails to penetrate the relationship between artistic representation and political necessity, this is probably because the literature on the latter is so sparse that it almost forces the book beyond its limits. The author might, however, have refrained from stating that ‘[t]he wider political scene was at times the determining factor for cultural production in Saxony’ (p. 240) when politics plays such a small role in her book. Is it not possible, for example, to part explain the Catholic influences from Italy and France on Dresden court culture by the pro-Imperialist policies of the Electors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Can we also not interpret the synthesis of foreign ideas with Lutheran/‘German’ traditions as representative of the Electors’ own desire to synthesize artistic support for their claims to the electoral title with the European aspirations of their contemporaries? In regard to the former question at least, it may have been fruitful for the author to have considered thoroughly the expression of court culture in Dresden in 1574 and 1617 when the most important of guests, namely the Emperor himself was present; additionally, some acknowledgement of the Reformation-based celebrations of 1617 and 1630 might also have strengthened the section on Lutheranism. These are, however, only minor quibbles and an examination of these points might best be left to those who are, as the author hopes, stimulated into further research by her work. Certainly with this book, Professor Watanabe-O’Kelly has given them a tremendous head start.
- U. Schirmer, ed., Sachsen im 17. Jahrhundert: Krise, Krieg und Neubeginn, Schriften der Rudolf-Kötzschke-Gesellschaft, 5 (Beucha: Sax-Verlag, 1998).Back to (1)
- C. E. Vehse, Geschichte der Höfe des Hauses Sachsens, 4 vols. (Hamburg: Kiepenheuer, 1853-55).Back to (2)
Author's response: The author is happy to accept this review and agrees with the reviewer's comment that discussions of politics could have played a larger role in Court Culture in Dresden. The reviewer rightly says, however, that 'this is probably because the literature on the latter is so sparse'. This situation is gradually being remedied, for instance, by such works as Katrin Keller's Landesgeschichte Sachsen (Stuttgart: Ulmer, 2002). Would that such works had been available when Court Culture in Dresden was being written.