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The Wettin Rulers of Saxony and Their Dresden Palace (6:22)

Dresden, Germany

Dresden’s museums reveal the treasure of the powerful Saxon rulers (particularly Augustus the Strong) from their extensive armory to their porcelainware, amber-carved art, and precious gems — inside their extravagant palace complex called the "Zwinger."

Complete Video Script

The Parade of Nobles is a mural painted on 24,000 tiles of local porcelain. It was built to soothe the pride of Saxony after it was incorporated into the newly formed country of Germany in the 1870s. It celebrates Dresden’s Saxon heritage and its Wettin family dynasty. The artist carefully studied armor and clothing, accurately tracing the evolution of weaponry and fashions through the centuries.

Way up at the very front of the parade, an announcer with a band and 12th-century cheerleaders excitedly heralds the arrival of this wondrous procession. There are commoners — from miners and farmers to carpenters and students. And, ahead of them, the royals, with 35 names and dates marking 700 years of Wettin family rule. At the year 1694 stands Augustus the Strong, the most important of the Saxon kings.

The Saxon ruler was one of the most powerful people in Germany — he was one of a handful of nobles who elected the Holy Roman Emperor. In the 18th century, the larger-than-life Augustus the Strong kicked off Saxony’s Golden Age.

His royal festival complex, called the Zwinger, is an example of how the king’s extravagance made Dresden a European capital of culture. Here, at the Nymphs’ Bath, aristocrats relaxed with royals among cascading waterfalls.

Today the Zwinger is filled with fine museums. The Mathematics and Physics Salon features scientific gadgets from the 16th to 19th century. Finely crafted, and incorporating new discoveries with exuberance, the instruments are displayed like dazzling works of art.

Imagine whipping out your pocket sundial in the year 1700, or a newfangled pocket watch in 1760 — with a risqué painting. This calculator from 1650 — claiming to be the oldest surviving mechanical calculator — could carry the tens.

European royal families aspired to have their own porcelain works. And the Wettin family had one of the best, at nearby Meissen. In those days, a king portrayed in porcelain was a happy king.

Augustus the Strong was obsessed with the stuff — he liked to say he had “porcelain sickness.” Here you can enjoy some of his symptoms, under chandeliers in elegant galleries. You’ll see fine table settings. He had a veritable porcelain zoo of exotic animals and beautiful birds. According to legend, for 151 of these Chinese vases, Augustus traded 600 soldiers — complete with horses — to Prussia.

And here at the Zwinger, it just makes sense that the glockenspiel comes with 40 bells made of Meissen porcelain. The delightful chimes are far sweeter than your typical bell.

In the nearby Royal Palace — the official residence of Saxon rulers since 1485 — is Dresden’s Historic Green Vault. This glittering Baroque treasure collection is the sightseeing highlight of the city.

The collection was begun by Augustus the Strong — featured here surrounded by ancient Roman emperors on the base of an obelisk. It grew into the royal family’s exquisite trove of ivory, silver, and gold treasures, displayed in rooms as opulent as the collection itself. Its purpose? A synthesis of the arts as an expression of wealth and absolute power.

The Amber Cabinet shows off what you can do with fossilized tree sap — for example, this exquisite bowl from 1659. The Ivory Room does the same for elephant tusks, with some strikingly delicate carving. In this amazing ivory frigate, tiny sailors climb the gold wire-rigging — all supported by Neptune and his horses.

In the aptly named Hall of Precious Objects, amid mother-of-pearl, ostrich-egg, and snail-shell goblets, is the ultimate coffee service.

This golden coffee service from 1700 is pure gold, iced with enamel, crusted with thousands of precious stones, and crowned by a coffee pot filled with symbolism. Coffee was exotic and trendy back then, and this extravagant centerpiece, while never actually used to serve coffee, certainly made an impression.

This captivating ensemble depicts a Grand Mogul on his birthday. He ruled India when Augustus ruled Saxony. And, among earth’s rulers, he was the embodiment of absolute power and endless wealth. Like royal Legos on a silver stage, the figures, made of gold and glazed with enamel, were movable for the king’s pleasure.

And the finale, in a place all its own, is this dazzling green diamond — one of the largest ever discovered.

The adjacent Royal Armory fills a long room with centuries-old armor. The biggest space in the palace, this room was the scene of medieval war games. Today, its exhibits of jousting models recall those breathtaking pageants of the 16th century. Back then, jousting was something rich guys did when there was no war to fight. The collection offers an unusual chance to see armor not standing at attention, but displayed in action. This ensemble — designed for formal parades, not actual battle — is considered the prize of the collection. And the little princes needed their armor as well.