Supplementary Appendix: The Dresden Antiquities Collection

Concerning the Antiquities Collections in Dresden.

The Dresden antiquities collection, begun essentially in 1560, was expanded significantly under subsequent prince electors, especially Augustus the Strong, under whom Dresden became the first German city with an extensive antiquities collection after the Italian model (here a rendering of the building from 1839; frontispiece to Constantin Karl Falkenstein, Beschreibung der Königlichen öffentlichen Bibliothek zu Dresden [Dresden 1839]):


The bulk of the collection during the time of the Romantics had come together with the acquisition of marble collections in Paris and Rome, especially in 1728 from the estate of Prince Agostino Chigi in Rome (160 pieces) and from the collection of Cardinal Allessandro Albani (34 pieces). (See below concerning those acquisitions.)

Between 1729 and 1747 the collection was housed in the palace in the Grand Garden in Dresden and then amplified by acquisitions from the estate of Prince Eugene of Savoy. It was during this period that Johann Joachim Winckelmann acquired his initial acquaintance with actual works of classical antiquity, an acquaintance coming to expression in his subsequent publications, especially his Geschichte der Kunst des Altherthums (Dresden 1764).

An additional 833 casts were acquired from the estate of Anton Raphael Mengs in 1783, and that collection quickly grew to ca. 4500 casts (largely of works from Greco and Roman antiquity). As such, the collection — along with the Royal Art Gallery — was an extraordinary and singular experience for visitors at the time, and it is no accident the Jena Romantics were so drawn to Dresden.

Concerning the acquisition of the most important parts of the collection, see Hermann Hettner, Die Bildwerke der Königlichen Antikensammlung zu Dresden (Dresden 1856), 3–12; illustrations from Hettner, albeit reflecting neither Hettner’s running text here nor the collections in 1856, but representative of the statuary Caroline and her companions would have viewed at the end of the eighteenth century:

Preliminary Historical Remarks

The antiquities collection was founded essentially simultaneously with the painting gallery, occurring during the reign of King August II.

Earlier the collection had only modest individual bronzes, and usually of a more recent provenance. During the years 1723–26, August II then acquired from Friedrich Wilhelm I, king of Prussia, the most significant monuments of what was known as the Brandenburg Collection, which had been made famous by Lorenz Beger’s scholarly Thesaurus Brandenburgicus (Berlin 1696). That same year, a series of Roman emperor busts was acquired from the estate of Canon J. P. Bellori, who had died in Rome in 1696.

The most important acquisitions, however, were made in 1728.


The antiquities collections of Prince Agostino Chigo [1466–1520] and Cardinal Allessandro [1692–1779] had been put up for sale in Rome, and Hofrath J. W. von Berger, professor of ancient studies at the Saxon university in Wittenberg, was charged with providing an expert opinion on these collections, which he had seen in person.

In his report, dated “Wittenberg, 15 March 1728,” still preserved in the archives of the Royal Art Collections (cap. IV, no. 10), he supports especially the acquisition of the Chigi collection because it was not only the more significant, but also relatively the cheapest. The original price of 40,930 Roman scudi, he says, had already been dropped to 40,000, though it would likely drop yet another 10,000, “not least because cash laughs even more loudly in Italy than in Germany.”

Whereupon Baron Le Plat, an art connoisseur and engineering officer, royal architect, and later director of all the art collections, was dispatched to Rome to enter into preliminary negotiations with Prince Chigi. For friends of the arts it is important to note that this collection was not housed in the Chigi palace at Corso, which even today remains famous for its Venus of Troas, but rather in the Palace Odescalchi, appended at the time to the Chigi house and near the church of the Apostles. . . .

The Royal Saxon archives have preserved a portfolio of files with the title Lettres du Baron Le Plat pendant son voyage pour Italie concernant l’achat des statues à Rome. s.l. n. 236. These files provide sufficient insight into the course of the negotiations.


Le Plat received his instructions on 28 August 1728 fixing the price of the Chigi collection at 40,000 scudi, though 70,000 scudi were transferred to his account to cover travel and transport costs.

In his first letter from Rome, on 2 October, Le Plat reports that he offered 30,000 scudi, being convinced that the collection could be acquired at that price. After several weeks, the purchase was concluded for 34,000 scudi, or 51,000 Thaler in our currency. The initial mediator was the cavalier Ghezzi, who, however, proved unreliable; he was replaced by Francesco Ficoroni, who received 300 scudi “for his efforts.”

In the meantime, negotiations with Cardinal Albani had also been initiated. In the letter mentioned above, Le Plat reports that the cardinal was in dire need of money.


The cardinal was demanding 31,750 scudi for his collection of thirty pieces. Le Plat had their value assessed on 4 October; the estimate was 21,300 scudi. The cardinal was also offering two other statues located on the steps but not otherwise part of the actual collection. One was an alleged statue of Alexander the Great (probably no. 356 in our index), the other a statue of Antoninus Pius (no. 380). The cardinal was asking 2500 scudi for each, while Le Plat was willing to pay only 3000 scudi for both.

The negotiations were more vehement than in the case of the Chigi collection, and several letters from the cardinal to the Saxon Ministry, while fully acknowledging Le Plat’s specialized knowledge, nonetheless complain bitterly about his stubbornness. Le Plat offered only 20,000 scudi for the entire collection, including the two statues, i.e., 30,000 Thaler. On 1 November, the king authorized the purchase for this sum, and on 27 November Le Plat reports that Albani accepted the offer. Indeed, Le Plat was even yet hoping that two Egyptian lions might be added, lions now genuinely in our collection — proof that he was not deceived in his hope.

Immediately after the acquisition, both collections were shipped to Dresden by way of Livorno and Amsterdam. The state archives contain precise invoices for packing and shipping, though unfortunately no indication is given concerning the manner in which the collections themselves originally came about. That is, scholarly research lacks any information concerning the original provenance.


This acquisition provided the primary materials of the antiquities collection. Although several highly significant acquisitions were made later as well, such came about only in isolated instances. The most important was the acquisition of the Herculaneum female statues from the estate of Prince Eugene of Savoy, who died in 1736, though nothing precise is known about the price (estimates range between 6000 Thaler and 6000 Gulden.

In 1740, Count Wackerbarth brought several ancient pieces back from an Italian journey. The additions from the estate of Count [Heinrich von] Brühl are generally limited to modest modern bronzes. Over the past decades, several extremely valuable statuettes have been acquired from the [Otto Magnus von] Stackelberg and Rumohr collections, and a number of vases and terra cottas (which hitherto were almost entirely lacking) acquired from Italian art dealers.

What was likely a wholly external consideration put a stop to this acquisition zeal, namely, the simple lack of space for appropriately exhibiting the pieces. Once the Albani and Chigi collections arrived, they were housed in quite paltry surroundings in the pavilions of the Grand Garden. Winckelmann, in his Abhandlung von der Fähigkeit der Empfindung des Schönen in der Kunst, und dem Unterrichte in derselben (Dresden 1763), extols the Dresden collection as the grandest in all Germany, yet laments he is unable to describe the most exquisite of its beauty “because the best statues are kept in a wooden hovel packed together like herrings, able to be seen but not genuinely observed.”


The collection remained in this inferior location for some time, even during the Seven Years War, and that even though the Grand Garden had suffered greatly amid the storms of war. It was only by chance that the devastation affected more the marble pieces standing out in the open. An official report from Herr [Karl Heinrich] von Heinecke to Count Brühl on 16 August 1760, preserved in the archives of the Royal Art Collections (cap. IV, no. 2), reads: “It is a stroke of considerable good fortune that, given the chaotic circumstances in the Grand Garden, the antiquities were conserved and remained undamaged; one Prussian general had such love for the arts that at the ardent entreaty of the concierge he placed a guard before the building.”

Considerations were made concerning whether for the sake of safety the antiquities ought rather to be “transferred into town and for the time being stored in the cellar of the royal castle.” Although Count Brühl authorized this suggestion on 3 September 1760, it does not seem to have been implemented. Even after the war, however, the antiquities remained in their old location. The necessity of improved preservation and exhibition, however, became increasingly evident.

A report of Count [Heinrich] Vitzthum [von Eckstäd] on 11 May 1771 opines: “With respect to conservation, external propriety, and use by artists, there is certainly no need for any more lengthy presentation of the wholly ill and deplorable conditions amid which the rare antiquities are housed in the restricted and various pavilions of the Grand Garden.” Finally, in 1785, under the elector and subsequent king Friedrich August, the collection was transferred to the Japanese Palace.

[Ed. note: The Japanese Palais in Dresden (originally so-named because of its eastern-influenced roof) was restructured during the years 1782–86 into a museum usui public patens (museum for public usage), and it was here that the antiquities were exhibited during the period when the Jena Romantics visited Dresden. From 1786 the building also housed the royal library from which later the Saxon State Library emerged.

Here an illustration from ca. 1860 (Ludwig Lange, Original-Ansichten von Deutschland nach der Natur aufgenommen, vol 13 [Darmstadt 1862], plate 9):


Hettner continues:]

It was only in these expansive and bright rooms that the old treasures came into their own. The serene wall decorations in the most noble Pompeian style, carried out in 1836 under [Gottfried] Semper’s guidance, and especially the equally tasteful and expedient recent exhibition brought about by Hofrath Dr. W. H. Schulz, contribute not insignificantly to the purest and most delightful lighted overall effect. . . .


The Dresden antiquities collection was long, if not the only, then at least the most significant collection in Germany. Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Rafael Mengs, intimately acquainted founders of the entire more recent developments in the arts, acquired their initial stimuli here. Hence the Dresden collection, though surpassed today by this or that other collection, can nonetheless justifiably claim to be one of the historically most important collections in the world.

Related page: Concerning the Dresden royal art collections at this time, see the supplementary appendix Dresden Art Gallery.

Translation © 2014 Doug Stott