Zwinger: A Palace for Porcelains

Augustus the Strong (1670-1733), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, was an ambitious man who sought to surround himself in the trappings of wealth and power. Perhaps for this reason, he became an avid collector of porcelains from China and Japan, precious and rare in Europe at the end of the seventeenth century, a definite sign of wealth.

Japan had taken over from China as the premier producer of fine porcelain by the mid-seventeenth century, aided by political instability in China and the export ambitions of the Dutch traders whose trading port in Nagasaki made them the only Europeans with access to Japanese-produced goods. When it came to porcelains, these traders often provided designs and feedback to the potters in Saga and other parts of Kyushu where porcelains were being produced. Some designs directly emulated Chinese models, while others were specifically tailored to European tastes. The pieces ranged from dishes and figurines to massive pots and vases.

Augustus amassed a substantial porcelain collection, said to be the largest in Europe, and wanted to show it off. He built his showplace palace, Zwinger, in Dresden beginning in 1710, and made plans to exhibit his collection in galleries there. He famously expanded his collection in 1717 in a trade with Frederick William I of Prussia: a dragoon of 600 soldiers for 151 pieces of Chinese-made porcelains.

Perhaps then realizing he needed more space for his collection than the Zwinger could provide, from the early 1720s, August began to construct a Japanisches Palais in Neustadt, on the opposite side of the Elbe from the Zwinger. His plan was to create a porcelain palace, in which every surface was covered with porcelain. Augustus died before his vision could be fully realized and his son had other uses for his money. Today Japanisches Palais contains Dresden’s natural history museum while Augustus’s famed porcelain collection is back in the Zwinger, in the Porzellansammlung there.

Arita in Saga Prefecture, the center of production of Japanese porcelain and especially for a large part of Augustus’ famed collection, has acknowledged Augustus’ passion for porcelain and the Zwinger’s role as a porcelain showplace by constructing a replica Zwinger at the Arita Porcelain Park (sorry, their page is only in Japanese). This Zwinger also contains a porcelain museum.

Augustus not only collected Chinese and Japanese porcelains, he is also credited with being the first to produce porcelain in Europe. As the story goes, Augustus engaged an alchemist named Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719) to produce gold to increase Augustus’ wealth (alchemy was then all the rage). While Böttger, like every other alchemist, was never able to produce gold, in 1708 he instead discovered the secret of “white gold”, namely the soil and mineral compounds that could produce porcelain. Armed with this knowledge, Augustus sponsored porcelain workshops and kilns in Meissen, just 20 kilometers from Dresden. Meissen became the first major porcelain production center in Europe and the name Dresden became synonymous with high quality European porcelain, a reputation that continues to this day.

The display of Augustus’ collection at the Porzellansammlung is organized to show off the prized Chinese and Japanese pieces Augustus first acquired and also to show how porcelain evolved after Meissen production began. Perhaps fortunately not all of the 20,000 pieces in the collection can be displayed at once.

One entire gallery is given over to his blue and white porcelains from both China and Japan. The smaller pieces are arranged on special display shelves thought to emulate those actually used during Augustus’ time while larger pieces sit on pedestals on the floor. Many are not even behind glass, making it easier to examine the colors and glazes.

In another gallery, the displays are more chronological, enabling visitors to see artistic developments as production moved from China to Japan and, eventually, to Meissen.

Perhaps in keeping with the European stylization of porcelain as white gold, there is an entire gallery of large figurines that are predominately white.

In another gallery, visitors can gain an appreciation of the intricate detail of Meissen figurines and the delicate flowers that were produced in Meissen workshops.

The Zwinger replica at the Arita Porcelain Park also contains a porcelain museum that focusses on the history of porcelain developments and exchanges between Europe and Japan. There is a wing of European porcelains as well as galleries displaying the best of the porcelains produced in the Arita region since Korean potters discovered kaolin, the secret ingredient of porcelain, in this area in the late sixteenth century. A particularly prized item is a vase standing 1.82 meters, displayed at the 1873 Vienna World Exhibition.

Visitors to the Arita Porcelain Park can also see a well-preserved climbing kiln and, with advance reservations, try their hand at throwing a pot on a wheel or painting a raw dish, to be glazed, fired and sent to them at home as a keepsake of their visit. The park is also popular with cos-players and has been used as a location for filming movies, too.

The Arita Porcelain Park in Saga is open daily from 9:00 to 16:00 (17:00 on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays). Admission to the park is free; admission to the Zwinger museum is JPY600.

The Porzellansammlung is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 to 18:00; admission is EUR6.

© 2022 and Vicki L. Beyer
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