Dresden: the Saxon one percent

Upstairs in the Royal Palace of the Kings of Saxony is a spectacular collection of Ottoman weaponry, from the days when the Turks had Hungary and threatened Vienna. Downstairs, the so-called Green Vault: two floors of unbelievable and unnecessary trinkature for the upper classes. The most extreme is this depiction of the court of the 17th century Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, which cost more than the construction of an entire palace building:


And this jewel-encrusted obelisk designed to convince someone or other (not the poor, surely?) that the Saxon king was in the direct line of, and capable of standing in the same company as, the Roman emperors:


Then there is the Dresden green diamond, a huge translucent green rock (some geophysical process, apparently) set in a tangle of regular diamond crystals that spangle with an otherworldly brilliance in all the colours of the rainbow (not that you get that from this photo – you really have to be there):


It’s no wonder that a peasant encountering these might have felt they were in the presence of someone touched by God.

These artifacts intersperse with many less spectacular but still incredibly valuable ones, ranging from the pretty to the drab to the vulgar, all superb examples of craftsmanship – and all presented with hardly any clue as to the financial circumstances of the day. When all these unimaginable sums were being spent on trinkets by the one percent of their day, what was life for regular people? Were they reasonably comfortable, or were they starving in the streets? The one fact we do learn is that there are only three pieces left of the original silver collection, because it was all melted down in 1772 to help pay the outstanding bills of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). They say that the debts of that war were a substantial cause of the French Revolution – I guess, as a tottering monarch in those days, melting down the family silver must have seemed a small price to pay…

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