In the words of the historian Timothy Garton Ash, Germany is "a nation in its perennial condition of becoming.'' From a traveler's perspective, it is all the more fascinating for that; the joy of a trip like ours was its blend of today's problems and achievements with the treasures of yesterday and the day before.
As the seat of the Saxon court, Dresden accumulated its artistic treasures in much the same way that Berlin, home of the Prussian rulers, and Munich, where the Bavarian princes lived, built their fine collections. The Zwinger, one of the greatest of all Baroque creations, was designed by Pöppelmann as a "pleasure ground'' for the enjoyment of the royals, with six linked pavilions--one of them a carillon whose bells are made of Meissen porcelain--surrounding a vast esplanade dotted with pools and fountains. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner looked at it and exclaimed, "What exultation in these rocking curves, and yet what grace! It is joyful but never vulgar; vigorous, boisterous perhaps, but never crude.'' Outside, the buildings are adorned with gods and goddesses, nymphs, flora, and garlands; inside, the royal collections are displayed. The pride and joy of the Sempergalerie is Raphael's luminous Sistine Madonna, but there are also masterworks by Van Eyck, Vermeer, and Veronese, plus views of Dresden as it looked in the eighteenth century, painted by the Italian Bernardo Bellotto (who rather confusingly used the same pseudonym, Canaletto, as his more famous uncle, Antonio Canal). Other rooms hold the world's best collection of Meissen, the first European porcelain successfully to imitate that of China.
The Albertinum is another great museum, a fifteen-minute stroll away, down by the Elbe; you can get there by way of the Brühlsche Terrasse, overlooking the river. Four rooms of the Albertinum's Green Vault are crammed with bibelots created by goldsmiths, silversmiths, and jewelers from Dresden and elsewhere, mostly in the eighteenth century. Worked in pearls, rubies, emeralds, diamonds, rock crystal, enamel, tortoiseshell, gold, platinum, and silver in unimaginable quantities, they bear witness to the era's taste for wretched excess. Yet the best of them, such as the Court of the Great Mogul, a minute evocation of an Indian birthday party, transform what might be a mere curiosity into art. The 137 golden figures of this piece took the Dinglinger brothers of Dresden, the Cellinis of their day, seven years to make. Older pieces, including Luther's ring and Ivan the Terrible's drinking bowl, are also on view.
Even if you can't get a ticket for the opera, you should take one of the tours of Gottfried and Manfred Semper's wonderful, ennobling theater. We saw it in the company of a charming old man named Gerd Straumer, the chief of the house's guide service. He had stayed up all night brushing up on his English, a language he had not spoken, he said, since high school half a century ago. He did fine, and when I blushed as he recounted the details of the 1945 attack, he protested gently, "But Hitler started the war, not the Americans, and you are not Bomber Harris"--the British commander who sent the planes to Dresden. Twice burned and twice rebuilt, the opera seats 1,323 people in an elegant nineteenth-century ambiance of gold, burgundy, beige, and white. A 1.9-ton brass chandelier hangs in the center, inscribed with the names of Wagner, Gluck, Mozart, and Meyerbeer, among others. But much here is unobtrusively modern, too--wooden panels have been replaced by plaster replicas as a precaution against fire, and the stage is a technological marvel, with sixteen square platforms that can be raised, lowered, or tilted, plus a revolving circular platform in the rear, all controlled by the latest in electronic devices.