Pagodas, pearls and porcelain Oriental influences along the Saxon Wine Route

G oethe expressed it succinctly in the West-östlicher Divan (West-Eastern Divan): “Knowing ourselves and others / We recognise here / Orient and Occident / Can no longer be distinguished.” Infatuation with the exotic goes back even further. The travelogues of the Venetian Marco Polo had aroused curiosity about East Asia which became even more pronounced in the 17th and 18th centuries with the growth of overseas trade. This fascination has also left visible traces in Saxony – in architecture, in horticulture and in the art collections of the Saxon monarchs. To illustrate how East inspired West, we make a journey along the Elbe from south to north, from Zuschendorf to the hillside vineyards near Meissen.

21. May 2019

Schloss Zuschendorf

Breeding plants of East Asian origin such as camellias, azaleas, hydrangeas and rhododendrons has a long tradition in the parks and gardens of Saxony. They are also strongly represented in the botanical collection of Zuschendorf, a stately home near Pirna.

View of Schloss Zuschendorf.

Here, the big attraction is actually the smallest: the bonsai. Originally from China and subsequently nurtured by the Japanese, these miniatures initially became known in Saxony by their representation on paintings and porcelain. The ‘dwarf trees of the Japanese’ received their first major exposure at the international horticultural exhibition in Dresden. That was in 1907, but it was another seventy years or more before gardeners and breeders began cultivating and collecting bonsai in Dresden. When the East-West German border opened in 1989, two of these collections came to Zuschendorf, where the park was gradually replanted in a crossover Saxon-Chinois style. The collection, which has been continuously expanded ever since, contains an immense biodiversity within a small area and provides a small-scale dendrological tour from Europe via America to Asia. At the heart of the collection, however, are the trees native to Central Europe. Astonishment and wonder are guaranteed when wild apple or pine trees are encountered in miniature.

Schloss Pillnitz

Something on a much larger scale awaits the visitor a few kilometres down the Elbe. From mid-February to April, the Pillnitz camellia is covered with tens of thousands of crimson flowers. It has now reached a height of almost nine metres and swelled to a diameter of eleven, which is why visitors can view it from ground and gallery level. A mobile shelter also provides the necessary warmth in winter, thereby ensuring that cuttings from this Asian tea plant are available for purchase every year.

The age of this ‘old lady’ can only be roughly estimated, but it is somewhere around the 230-year mark. Whatever the truth of its longevity, the camellia from Japan has been growing in Pillnitz Castle grounds since 1801. And appropriately so, as the palace overlooking the Elbe River is considered to be an outstanding example of 18th-century chinois. Augustus the Strong also played a role, of course. He had actually wanted it to be constructed in the ‘Indian’ style, a term which at that time designated anything originating from the Orient, i.e. East Asia.

The roofs and cornices of the Water Palace and numerous chinoiseries leave no doubt what was meant; even though the idea of ​​“constructing the oriental pleasure palace to be built at Pillnitz in porcelain” was not carried through, the concept was implemented elsewhere.

Chinese Pavilion at Pillnitz

But let’s stay a bit longer in Pillnitz, where the Chinese fashion also flourished in a later era. In 1804, a Chinese pavilion was erected in the northern part of the castle grounds and is now considered to be the finest European replica of an enclosed East Asian structure. The interior was decorated with Chinese landscape paintings, which attracted the attention of the Dresden romantics a few decades later.

The pavilion could so easily have turned out to be Italian themed, however. Prince Johann, who had translated Dante’s Divine Comedy under the nom de plume Philalethes convened his ‘Dante Committee’ in the summer months amid the Chinese splendour. He was later to become King of Saxony, but at that stage, his committee members included literary giant Ludwig Tieck. Carl Gustav Carus recalled seeing the “King of Romanticism seated in the old-fashioned ornate comfortable garden room, surrounded by sunny-cheerful flowerbeds, listening to verses by a prince of poetry translated into German by a royal prince”. Confusingly, Carus refers to the pavilion as Japanese.

The Chinese Pavilion in Pillnitz is considered a masterful copy of East Asian originals.

Chinese Pavilion at Weisser Hirsch

More recent by a century than the Chinese pavilion in Pillnitz is the one at Dresden’s district Weisser Hirsch. The story behind this building is even stranger. The year was 1911, China was ruled by the last emperor, and Dresden was hosting the first International Hygiene Exhibition, an initiative of Karl August Lingner, the Odol mouthwash millionaire.

Among the countries represented was China which contributed a three-story pagoda and a pavilion where more than 1,000 exhibits went on display. Built in Shanghai, the parts were shipped to Germany and reassembled in the Grosser Garten. When the exhibition came to an end, the buildings were gifted to the city. The pavilion was bought by the local council of Weisser Hirsch, and the classic Chinese wooden structure was transported to the garden of the town hall. It became popular with guests at the Lahmann sanatorium. The pavilion served as a reading room and café as well as a tap room for the famous Gebrüder Pfund dairy. Several political dynasties later, it became the first Chinese restaurant in post-GDR Dresden.

Sadly, though, it was gutted by fire in August 1997. In 2005, a voluntary association began restoring the pavilion. It has since been used for cultural, economic and scientific exchange with China.

The Chinese Pavilion at Weisser Hirsch was prefabricated in Shanghai in 1911, shipped to Germany in parts and reassembled in Dresden.

Japanese Palace

So nothing had come of the Pillnitz ‘pleasure palace in porcelain’, but on the other side of the River Elbe, there was the Holländisches (Dutch) Palais. Augustus the Strong acquired the stately home in 1717 and used it to store his extensive collection of East Asian porcelain and items from his Kunstkammer (Chamber of Art).

A few years after the wedding celebrations of 1719 for the Crown Prince of Saxony, renovation and new construction work began which, according to the plans of the Prince Elector, was intended to result in a “porcelain castle”. This not only referred to the collection it contained but also implied porcelain-covered roofs and china-clad walls. The pulpit, altar and organ pipes of the chapel were to be made of porcelain, and Augustus even envisioned a throne of white porcelain. This project also came to naught, but the Japanese Palace, with its Far Eastern roof shapes and Asian-style figures on the exterior and in the courtyard, still does justice to its name.

Later, the largest chinoiserie in Europe became a “museum for public use”, first housing the library of the prince elector, then the regional library and now a museum. The Damascus Room also is a gem of Ottoman interior design.

The striking roof shapes inspired by Japanese architecture gave the palace its name.

Porcelain collection in the Zwinger Palace

Augustus the Strong and porcelain – it’s a never-ending story. In his own words, the Prince Elector was afflicted by a “maladie de porcelaine”, an obsession for collecting the ‘white gold’ from East Asia. The collection, which expanded to include the porcelain from the Meissen manufactory founded by him, has since moved from the Japanese Palace to the Zwinger. However, only the most beautiful and significant of the 20,000 pieces from China, Japan and Meissen are on display there.

The fanatical passion of the ruler went so far that he agreed with Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia to exchange six hundred of his soldiers for white-and-blue Chinese lidded vases from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Incidentally, the passion of the Dresden monarch for Asian porcelain did not go unnoticed in Japan where, to this day, a copy of the Dresden Zwinger can be admired in the porcelain park of the city of Arita.

Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault)

Now on to the Dresden Residenzschloss (Royal Palace). Porcelain from Asia was not the only type of treasure that found its way into the Kunstkammer of Augustus the Strong. And impressions of Asia are not only to be found in architecture. One of the most splendid items in the Green Vault is the miniature Der Hofstaat zu Delhi am Geburtstag des Grossmoguls Aureng-Zeb (The Royal Court of Delhi on the Birthday of the Grand Mogul Aureng-Zeb), which was created at the beginning of the 18th century according to a design by Johann Melchior Dinglinger.

It took the jewellers six years to recreate the glittering feast of the legendary Grand Mogul. And, at the same time, the representation of absolute monarchy, because Aureng-Zeb ruled for almost fifty years on the Indian subcontinent. Augustus’s power never became as great, but he did at least have the consolation of owning this glittering vision in gold and silver. And it didn’t come cheaply either, because the 5,223 diamonds, 189 rubies, 175 emeralds, 53 pearls and much more besides which adorned the Indian court had its price, even in those days.

Fasanenschlösschen (Pheasant Castle)

No price was too high for a monarch intent on making his dreams come true. In the hunting grounds near Moritzburg, a minister of the royal court of Saxony redesigned the entire landscape. Although the lighthouse near the hunting lodge is somewhat Nordic in appearance, the lake on which it stands is where the Saxon court entertained Russian guests with a re-enactment of the Battle of Chesme, in which the Turkish fleet was beaten by the Russians in 1770.

The location is still called Dardanelles in memory of that occasion, but it essentially remains a Saxon lake and an illusion, just like the Yenidze in Dresden, which is not a mosque but a former cigarette factory. Its products were sold under brand names such as Salem Gold or Orient. Adjacent to the Moritzburg lighthouse is the Fasanenschlösschen. This bijoux country house has been crowned since the end of the 18th century with a Mandarin weathervane, who nods his head as if in affirmation of all the chinoiserie along the Elbe.

Pagoda in Proschwitz

Finally, a look into the future. The invention of European porcelain and its production shaped the history of Meissen, as is evidenced by the twinning in 1979 with Arita, the city with the strongest claim to being the home of Japanese porcelain manufacture. But Meissen is also a town renowned for wine.

Sketch for a multi-level pagoda in the Proschwitz vineyards.

There have been rumours that, after buying up numerous vineyards in France, rich Asian investors are beginning to take an interest in the winegrowing estates of Saxony. Or maybe the rumours should be consigned to the realm of fable. Because if sometime soon a Japanese pagoda should appear high up on the Katzenstufen overlooking Meissen, then an idea that the Prince of Lippe had for the Schloss Proschwitz estate will have become a reality. The castle, built at the beginning of the 18th century, has a Chinese pavilion, but planned Japanese-style restaurants and conference buildings along with the central pagoda (four smaller pagodas are also planned) will afford a splendid view of the Albrechtsburg castle and the cathedral of Meissen – a lasting testimony to the friendship between these two traditional homes of porcelain manufacture.

Author Jens Wonneberger comes from the small town of Ohorn in Saxony and now lives in Dresden. Since 1992, he has been literary editor of the SAX city magazine. Wonneberger has written numerous novels, stories, poems and non-fiction books. His most recently published work is a novel – Sprich oder Stirb (Speak or Die).