surfing the stardust

DRESDEN – 1747 TO 2014


On February 13th and 14th, 1945, The US and English air forces joined together to bomb one of the most beautiful and historic cities in the world into smithereens. Our forces ran multiple sorties with over 700 heavy bombers and dropped some 1,800+ tons of bombs. The bombs were both high explosive as well as incendiary. This is the bombing of the city center itself – not the industrial area outside the city. The records are not totally agreed upon but most estimate we killed 25,000 people – the vast majority of which were non-combatant men, women, and children; we wounded and injured another 75,000; and destroyed 90% of the buildings. Probably the emotional bulls-eye of this hail of TNT was the beautiful Baroque center of the old city, the “NeuerMarkt” Square. This was twelve weeks before Germany gave its Unconditional Surrender to the allies.


In the summer of 2014, while lying in bed in the Hotel de Saxe, on the main plaza of Dresden, I realized that there is a wonderful triangle with 3 of the most beautiful squares of Northern Europe that one might do. That is an elongated triangle based on 3 wonderful old cities:

1.  Prague     2.  Krakow     3.  Dresden

Prague is a short 87 miles from Dresden, Krakow a longer 4 hour drive of 277 miles from Prague. Krakow 300 miles from Dresden. Both Prague and Dresden are on the upper reaches of the Elbe River (known as the Vltava/Moldau in Prague) while Krakow is on the Vistula…both of these rivers form in the western reaches of the Carpathian Mountains which forms a low veil between them. A tour of these three city centers would show the most wonderful combinations of Baroque and Gothic, architectures in palaces, churches, castles, museums, and opera houses.  The 3 squares have a lot in common (all based on one or more magnificent churches) but most especially are place to languish with ice cream, pastries, cappuccinos, beer, or wine.  They are surrounded by fine museums and narrow colorful streets and ancillary smaller squares. Anyone who enjoys the good life should try it – you’ll like it!

Dresden was the last square for Margo and me to get to, having gone to Krakow and Prague in 2008 in a long train trip from Berlin to Sorrento. I was blown away by Krakow, somewhat due to an ignorant lack of expectations. I think Prague pretty much met my expectations, although there is a surprising lack of cafe variety. Plus it was chilly anyway. The Black Tyn Church certainly is the most dramatic building on any of the squares. Certainly Prague could argue that it is the most beautiful of the three, although I don’t know that I’d agree – anyway – who’s ranking?

By the way, as implied, any comments regarding beauty and squares have to be qualified as “outside Italy” since Italy certainly has the most lovely squares in the world starting with Sienna and Piazza Navona…but then again it may be the gelato and prosecco getting to me. Of course Salamanca could give them all a run for their money.

Anyway, I had been yearning to go to Dresden for the last decade after reading several articles about how the citizens of the bombed out treasure had done a magnificent job in rebuilding the square with a very close visual replication of the ancient one. This was completed in 2004 with the completion of the absolutely beautiful FrauenKirche. That is the main subject for this essay. But, by the way, I was also interested, as I would read articles from time to time about Dresden, that it has the questionable distinction of being the center for the German right wing political movement which butts pretty close to the neo-Nazi’s. I wondered if this would be visible.

I should say before going any further that the main square, while the centerpiece, is surrounded by a magnificent array of delights. They include several other lovely churches starting with the baroque Cathedral next to the beautiful Semper Opera House, a unique park plaza that is surrounded on 3 sides by the lovely Zwinger Palace in Neoclassical and Rococo styles – said palace housing three museums. There is the old Kings of Saxony home at Dresden Castle with several magnificent museums of treasure and craft. And there are lovely old streets connecting these replete with cafes and restaurants. This is a great intro site: . This is the best site for most of the museums: It is an atmospheric and comfortable city center to soak in, dine around, and admire beautiful art. But the NeuerMarkt square is the jewel in the crown.


In 1721 in Venice a boy named Bernardo Bellotto was born to the sister of the famous cityscape painter of Venice, Canaletto. This fellow, studying under his uncle, became himself a fabulous painter of cityscapes throughout Europe. The style is called “veduta” and connotes a large scale, highly detailed vista scene. To capitalize on the “Canal” family reputation Bellotto himself began to call himself “Canaletto” in Northern Europe. From 1745 until he died in 1780 he lived and painted venduta throughout Germany and Poland. (These included 14 venduta of Rome which were painted in Poland from etchings). In 1747 Bellotto did a series of paintings of Dresden for the “Elector of Saxony”. This fellow was also The King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Prussia, Kiev, and ten other dukedoms, while going by an assortment of different names. In Dresden he is known as Friedrich August II. I will call him the King of Saxony, Frederick Augustus II.

At that time, the height of “The Enlightenment” ,  Johann Sebastian Bach was 62 years old and living 53 miles away in Leipzig, Goethe was two, George Washington fifteen, Ben Franklin forty-one. The French and Indian wars were going as was the War of the Spanish Succession which had all of Europe fighting each other. Isaac Newton had been dead twenty years. Mozart would not be born for nine more years. If you walk through the formal elegance of the Zwinger garden amidst the imposing Baroque palaces and terraces you will go to the Old Masters Picture Gallery (Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister) where you will find Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” and Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window”. Go to the top floor and find the wonderful Dresden verduta of Bellotto. Here you will see this ( CLICK ON IT AND HOPEFULLY IT WILL BLOW-UP):

Canaletto_-_View_of_the_Neumarkt_in_Dresden_from_the_Jüdenhofe_-_Google_Art_Project This is the “New Market Plaza” (NeuerMarktplatz) of Dresden in 1747 as seen by Bellotto.

It is a wonderful vista, full of life with dogs, children, painted carriages, horses, water wells, drummers drumming, soldiers atattention, etc. etc., etc. A genre masterpiece in soft yellow, brown, gold and white under a gentle blue grey and pinkish purple sky. Soaked in architectural versatility, it exudes happiness, comfort, fun, intelligence, and capability. It was painted in the late middle of the Enlightenment and you can imagine Kant and Hume and Voltaire walking in such a square and stopping to talk in the coffee houses and restaurants – perhaps they did. You can almost hear the Saint John Passion coming from the Frauenkirche. The painting evokes a sense of a high point in the development of Western Civilization.

On February 12, 1945 we, the Allies, bombed this and the surrounding blocks into a state of virtually complete destruction – arguably with no strategic purpose.


The following analysis is not meant to place some type of blame on Churchill, Truman, Eisenhower and our Allied leaders. To me the meaning of the reconstruction of Dresden is all about the indomitable spirit of man. Margo and I wandered in front of each plane of buildings, stopping for coffee or ice cream. We sat on benches and sketched a half dozen steeples you will see in the surround. We circumnavigated the church and went to a lovely concert one day and again one evening. Our hotel windows looked out from the niche of buildings on the right of the Bellotto painting – behind the dusty brown building with the Flemish gable and arched entry – where the light bathes a woman in a red dress behind her two children. We were supremely happy that the people of Dresden had gone to what must have been a tremendously trying and sad process to decide and then rebuild their treasure. The amazing and unique thing that you may do here, like no other place, is to trace the square from its initial flowering of completeness (in 1747), through its maturity (in mid-20th century), then its destruction in February 1945, and now its reconstruction in largely the original state (as of 2008) – a period of over 250 years. I will try and do that here ( the numbers correspond to the annotated picture sets – “zoom in” to read the captions better; occasionally you can click on the slides # 3,4,7,8,10,11 and they will “blowup” – I haven’t the foggiest why the others don’t – technology!! ):

1.  Here is the basic view of NeuerMarktSquarewhich we will refer to as described above.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 7.32.08 AM2. Here are some of the basic landmarks on the square 250 years ago.  Many of them existed on the square at the time ofScreen Shot 2015-03-04 at 7.37.50 AM the painting.  Particularly notice the Frauenkirch, the Johanneum (now a transportation museum – then the riding academy and stables), the angled front of what I will call the “Stadt-Berlin” Hotel, and Landhaus Strasse ( a major entry way coming from the Saxony State Paliament building [Landhaus] off the canvas). They are all still there today.Also notice the wide 3 story building called the “headquarters of the “Old Town Guard” and the fact that there are no fountains or statues in the square.

3. Now here is an overhead B&W photo of the square from sometime between 1930 and 1945. Probably 1943. As you can see the “Old Town Guard” building has been removed. This view shows a large domed building behind the Frauenkirche which is the Kunstakadamie Art School built in 1894 (Gerhard Richter is an alumnus).

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 7.39.48 AM

Also you can discern in the center of the square a couple of smudges that actually are two monument statues (Luther and Frederick) and a fountain.

You may also see an important street called Munzgasse which runs from the square to a tunnel under the riverside, elevated terrace, to the Elbe River bank itself.

4. Here is a shot comparing the 1747 look by Bellotto with a different angle from an arial photo from 1930-45.   Please pay particular attention to what is called the Peace Fountain – probably built and added in the mid-1890’s. It is just in front of the twin “Imperial” staircase leading up to the Johanneum entrance.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 7.40.11 AM

Also look closely at the riverbank area between the Frauenkirch and the Kunstakademie. Perhaps you will discern a streetfront connoted by a light colored building front running perpendicular to the river – marking a line between the river terrace and the Frauen Kirch – this is  Munzgasse street







5 & 6. So you might ponder over the disappearance of the rather handsome building in the center of Bellotto’s painting of the “Old Town Guards” headquarters (5).

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 7.40.33 AMDuring a siege of the city in the Seven Years War (1754-1763) the building was badly damaged and hence demolished in order to open up the views of the beautiful FrauenKirche (6). Incidentally this second Bellotto painting is also in the Zwinger and is made from about the view that you have from the sidewalk cafe in front of the Hotel de Saxe (Seigenberger). A statue of “King Frederik Augustus II was added in late 19th century in front of the Hotel de Saxe.Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 7.40.51 AM










7. Another monument, added sometime in the late 19th Century, was a fountain now called “ Peace Fountain” I was not able to find out much about this other than it features the “figure of Irene, who trod the war-god Mars under her foot. Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 8.37.45 AM  This lovely goddess of peace, whose single act was to make war on her arch-enemy, now stands in …in front of the Johanneum and she – or her pedestal – now celebrates the triumph of the victors of 1683; while the fountain springs to-day in praise of the martial Johann Georg III. Thus frothy is the play of history” Mary Endell, Dresden History, 1908. The statue of “Irene” faces towards the FrauenKirche and center of the square with a spear and banner held up by her left arm. This view is important in evaluating the bombing devastation.




8. Now hopefully we have set the stage and you are oriented to the beautiful “music box” square and are able to get an overview glimpse of the terrible destruction which the Allies brought on Feb 12 & 13, 1945.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 8.38.09 AMThe basic view after the bombing is an arial shot from the southwest over the Landhaustrasse, through the remaining pillars of the Frauenkirche, and along Munzgasse to the tunnel under the terrace to the river.








We now will show 3 slides of devastation from the street level – all are able to be oriented by the 3 monuments, to wit, the Luther statue, the Frederick statue, and the Peace Fountain.


9. Centered around the Peace Fountain and its goddess Irene,

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 8.38.28 AMthis compares an east view and a west view after Feb 13 to an eastward view today after the reconstruction.









10. This compares 2 views of the Martin Luther Monument Statue (postcard from ~ 1903 and arial from 1943) to two photo’s of the stature:   one knocked off its pedestal and the other having been reset sometime after the close of the war..

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 8.39.00 AM

11. Here are several views of our old friend Landhausstrasse,

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 8.39.20 AMwhich debouches into the square next to our very comfortable Hotel de Saxe, as well as the two statues of Luther and King Frederick Augustus II.








12.     The final slide compares the 250+ year difference from Bernardo Bellotto’s veduta to what you would see today.     Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 8.39.46 AM  Considering the travails of the citizens of Dresden, WW1, Weimar, Nazi-ism, WW2, the February bombing, then Soviet occupation, then 40 years behind the iron curtain in the DDR, I believe the comeback is inspirational.


There is no doubt that the Dresden is an incredibly enjoyable city, full of art and architecture.  The old nickname for Bruhl’s Terrace, the Terrace park along the banks of the Elbe, was “The Balcony of Europe”, and all came to admire it and the cities treasures.  The reconstruction has restored an elegant yet approachable ambiance which will grow in fame and popularity.  The array of music available in the churches and Opera houses compliments the visual bonanza. But still the fundamental question remains: Were the allies, on the verge of obtaining an unconditional surrender, justified in leveling the ancient and beautiful domestic heart of the “Jewel Box” city, killing 25,000 civilians and injuring 75,000 (or more) in two days?  “The inhabited city center was almost wiped out, while larger residential, industrial and military sites on the outskirts were relatively unscathed” (wiki)

Perhaps as important as soaking in the magnificent treasures of architectural and art is coming to grips with that fundamental question which many, many people, scholars, historians, and politicians have been trying to answer, and debating, many passionately, since the February days in 1945 when the bombs hailed down and the city was destroyed.

It is beyond my capablity to argue persuasively one side or the other of this question.

– On the one hand fighting continued for another 3 months (the Battle of the Bulge had ended only 2 weeks prior) and thousands of allied fighters were killed. Perhaps the destruction of the city center helped end it a few days sooner.

– On the other there was no one in the Allies’ leadership that, at that time, believed that the war was not essentially won. And there is lots of evidence in The Blitz that the “unhousing” of masses of civilians did not break British morale.

– Yet  “The United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that the bombing was not stiffening (German) morale but seriously depressing it; fatalism, apathy, defeatism were apparent in bombed areas. The Luftwaffe was blamed for not warding off the attacks and confidence in the Nazi regime fell by 14 percent. Some 75 percent of Germans believed the war was lost in the spring of 1944, owing to the intensity of the bombing” (Ian Kershaw)

– by this time, per Kershaw above, the vast majority of the populace believed the war was lost.

I believe, but could not defend, the idea that it was done as a last message to the Germans to never do it again. Yet by this time, according to the National Archives of the UK, there were 25 major German cities that had more than 50% of their centers destroyed – seems like they would have definitely gotten that message before Dresden. (

…Margo and I wondered how the citizens would depict this tragedy. After being in the city less than an hour, after a short drive from Bach’s home in Leipzig, (itself worth a few days stay), we immediately started our 4 days in Dresden with a visit to lovely City Museum located on Landhausstrasse a mere 2 minutes from Bellotto’s scene of the Old Town Guard Barracks.

They have a very nice display of the Elbe area, the initial villages, and development of the city, all dating back to 400AD.  It starts on the lowest floor and goes up.  It is not until the very last that the display, the only display, on the bombing sits inside a black curtained plywood structure in the center of a room.  Its walls, while 10 feet tall do not extend up to the ceiling; it is about 20 feet by 10 feet and consists of only one thing.  It is a large flat panel that shows a several minute long loop of clear B&W still pictures of bombed out ruins of cities. Initially on each picture there is no name identifying the image.  At first I assumed this was just another “display of horror”. Then after a delay of 10-15 seconds the name of the city appears on each slide.  The pictures are all pictures of London, Rotterdam, Warsaw, Coventry, Birmingham, York, and other allied cities. Cities that were bombed by the Nazi’s.  The only German city shown are two pictures of Dresden. This moving display conveyed at least responsibility, if not remorse.  It seemed to say “here is what we did to these other cities so we own responsibility for what they did to us”.  I am sure there can be other interpretations but that’s what I felt.

So back to Canaletto – Bellotto’s 26 verduta paintings of Warsaw were also used to reconstruct it after its WW2 devastation. It would be fun to try and track Poland’s loyalty to the 17 & 18th Century aesthetic. In fact you can do that because Warsaw has set up weather proof displays throughout the city with reproductions of the Bellotto verduta in situ of the current state…! Here is a website of another Canaletto fan: and here is a painting of Warsaw done by Canaletto in about the same time:




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2 thoughts on “DRESDEN – 1747 TO 2014

  1. What an absolutely thorough, loving and thoughtful account of Dresden. Thank you for the link.


    • thanks Meg, been to Queensland and NSW a few times – dived off of Townsville as well. you have nice posts! and love your buddies beadwork with your pebbles. We too had and attack cat – now he lives in th warehouse where my son works!


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