The Green Vault is a must-see for any visitor to Dresden, the capital of Saxony in the east of Germany. It’s Europe’s most sumptuous treasure chamber, if you haven’t heard of it yet, this may be due to the fact that it was hidden behind the Iron Curtain for decades. Before I’m going to take you with me on a tour, I have to tell you three things:
1) There isn’t *one* Green Vault, there are *two*.
2) Neither is green
3) Nor a vault in the sense of an underground chamber.
Puzzled? Be patient, everything will become clear eventually.
The Green Vault is situated in the Schloss (Royal Palace), one of the Baroque buildings on the left bank of the river Elbe which are the cultural heart of Dresden. After the air-raid of the American and British allied forces on 13th February, 1945, they were rebuilt rather soon, many people living in primitive living quarters found that inappropriate, others, however, understood that Dresden wouldn’t have a soul any more if its cultural heart wouldn’t be revived as quickly as possible. Now, after half a century of air pollution, the buildings look old and genuine again (with the exception of the Frauenkirche whose resurrection was finished only last year).
You should approach the Schloss from the Neustadt (New Town) on the opposite bank of the river, either get off the train at the station Dresden-Neustadt or park your car nearby, then get to the Elbe (about five minutes away, everybody can show you the way), and walk along the path on the bank towards the nearest bridge upstream, you’ll see one of the most beautiful cityscapes worldwide, immortalised by the Italian painter Canaletto (1720-1780) who was painter to the Saxon court in Dresden from 1746-1758 (the Queen has many Canalettos in her collection).
From the bridge you have to walk for about three minutes to the Schloss, you can buy a ticket to visit the New Green Vault and visit it at once, not the Historic Green Vault, though. For this you can order a ticket online, but . . . Last October I decided to visit my relatives in Saxony and include a visit to the Historic Green Vault, I went to the respective site in the middle of October (I wanted to go in the last week of the month) and was offered a ticket for the end of January of the following year! If my cousin hadn‘t told me what to do I wouldn‘t have got in. Every day a certain number of tickets is set aside for visitors who pass by, the sale starts at 10am, I arrived at the Schloss at 11am and got a ticket for 1.30pm.
Now I have to give you some background information so that you can understand why there are two Green Vaults and why they‘re treated differently. The Green Vault as such owes its formation (1723-1730) to August II, Prince Elector of Saxony and later also King of Poland (1670-1733), aka August the Strong (he could straighten a horseshoe with his bare hands and rumour has it that he sired 354 illegitimate children besides his one legitimate son); he combined his own rich collection of valuables and jewels with inherited Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces. The collection was placed in view in the Schloss in the early 1770 (in the beginning only for the nobility and visiting statesmen) and stayed there until WW2.
As was already done during the course of the Seven Year War (1756-1763), the museum collection was removed to the Königsstein Fort (about 30 km away from Dresden) in 1942 when the museum was closed due to severe air raid danger. Most of the collection survived, after the war it was ‘secured by Soviet troops‘ / ‘seized by the Red Army‘ / ‘taken to Moscow‘ (according to the political leanings of the historians) and returned to Dresden in 1958. The artefacts which are now shown in the New Green Vault were on display in the interim facilities of the Albertinum (a building nearby) from 1959 until 2004 when they moved back to the Schloss.
It‘s 1.30 pm, now let‘s get into the Historical New Vault at last. August III (II‘s son) had eight rooms on the ground floor of the Schloss where more than 10.000 pieces of the collection were displayed turned into works of art, i.e., the rooms themselves are worth looking at. Five of the eight rooms stayed intact in spite of the bombing, a lot of restoration work had to be done and since 2006 it has been possible to admire them in their original splendour. Only a limited number of visitors is admitted every half hour (now you know why you can‘t buy a ticket and just walk in), they have to pass a ‘dust door‘, a type of airlock to keep out particles that could smudge the shine on the exhibits standing freely without any glass covers.
The walls of the rooms have different colours and show artefacts placed on ledges fixed to the walls, vases, cups, statuettes made of different materials: ivory, silver, silver-gilt - each room is dedicated to one material and one colour. The largest room with a vaulted ceiling (that’s where the name ‘Vault’ comes from), called Pretiosa Room is said to have had *green* wall paper (Aha!) on the pillars that are now covered by mirrors, it houses hundreds of artefacts, cabinet, carvings in rock crystal, bejewelled nautilus shells and ostrich eggs. I moved along occasionally looking closer at the exhibits but more taking in the overall impression which is simply overwhelming. The following chambers contain coats of arms in metal and a collection of gems, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, carnelians and diamonds. All in all there are around 3.000 artefacts, it’s an overkill of splendour!
Now off to the New Green Vault on the first floor where another 1080 objects are displayed in unobtrusive rooms. (The numbers don’t add up to the original 10.000 pieces, the royal family had to sell some for their wars, a lot of silver was melted into coins). They stand in glass cases and you can get close to them. All artefacts are worth looking at attentively, but I can’t do it, too much glitter, I get a headache! From this you can deduce that it’s a better idea to go to the two Green Vaults on different days and not to ‘do’ them one after the other.
One of the highlights is The Royal Household of the Grand Mogul, a kind of tray that could be placed on a table, with lots of tiny oriental figures and animals , I focussed so intently on the many different scenes that I became cross-eyed! The famous goldsmith Dinglinger made it, it cost August the Strong 60.000 Taler, to fully understand its value it’s useful to know that a house cost 3.000 Taler at that time. Then there is the sailing ship with blown sails made of paper thin ivory, it takes your breath away, and the Green Diamond, it has 41 carat (8.2 g) and is the biggest green diamond world-wide, the green colour is due to natural exposure to radioactive materials. It cost more than the Baroque Frauenkirche which was built at the time of its acquisition!
The last item I‘d like to mention is the Golden Coffee Service, which presents cups and saucers and sugar bowls on an elaborate pyramidal etagère surmounted by the coffeepot, all in enamelled gold, a piece unique in Europe.
Where did all the money come from? Unfortunately we can‘t ask the peasants who had to bleed for their Prince Elector and King.
When I told a friend that I‘d been to the Green Vault, she said, "What? To see that kitsch?" Hmm, are the artefacts kitsch? Useless they are, all of them, never has a cup or goblet been used for drinking, never has a flower been put in a vase, no plate has ever been eaten from, they‘re all ‘dust collectors‘ as the Germans call the thingies people put on their sideboards and yet, there‘s a difference between the mass-produced plastic Venetian gondola from Hong Kong and the artefacts in the Green Vault and that is the admirable craftsmanship. I can stand in front of something which I find ugly from an aesthetic point of view and yet admire the workman who was able to produce it.