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Extract SIGHTGEIST / Category: Art & Architecture

The Beauty of Precision

Technical Wonders from Past Centuries

Just one nudge of the globe and the countries of the world go spinning past. Stop it by putting your finger on a random location to choose where to spend your next vacation. Five hundred years ago, however, globes were not simply decoration, but important instruments used by geographers and sailors to determine their position or measure distances. They only became fashionable status symbols when rich merchants began following the sailors’ routes and, in discovering the world, were able to eliminate more and more blank spots on the map.
One of the world’s oldest globes, made in the 13th century in present-day Iran, can now be seen in Dresden together with other technical feats of past centuries, such as clocks, telescopes and chronometers. After six years of renovation, the Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments (Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon) in the world-famous Dresden Zwinger reopened in April 2013. Whether precision instruments for the mining industry, astronomical devices for maritime navigation or ballistic machines for military deployment, Elector Augustus and his descendants only added objects of the highest quality to this collection, which dates back to 1560. State-of-the-art tools and scientific instruments were acquired mainly from the imperial cities of Nuremberg and Augsburg. At the same time, the exhibits had to satisfy the extremely high artistic requirements of a prestigious royal collection: Gilt instruments that made use of mathematics and mechanics to survey the heavens and the earth and to explore other mysteries, also served as symbols of the wealth and status of court society. These natural history collections are now on display again in the Zwinger.
Opened as early as 1728 as a “Palais des Sciences” under Augustus the Strong, the collections were accessible to an amazed public for many years and often helped scientists and instrument makers in their work.

Exquisite Treasures
On entering the spacious Grottensaal, visitors are swept away by the splendour of the past. The exhibition space comprises various subject areas with exhibits that were among the most complex machines of their time. The Langgalerie, for example, presents automatons, such as a drumming bear, and astronomical models of the world, such as an astronomical clock from the 16th century. The Festsaal on the upper floor is home to the Physical Cabinet with highlights that include burning mirrors by Ehrenfried-Walther von Tschirnhaus, a vacuum pump and huge telescopes. The observatory built in 1777 was in operation here until 1928, and set the official time for Dresden’s clocks.
The collection of timepieces in the Bogengalerie is among the most significant in the world. It ranges from renaissance tabernacle clocks and precious pocket watches to early attempts at displaying time precisely. This part of the exhibition tells the history of precision watchmaking in Saxony and the origins of watch manufacturing in the now famous town of Glashütte. With just a sketchbook full of ideas under his arm, Ferdinand Adolf Lange established the industry here in 1845. A talented pupil of Saxon court watchmaker Johann Christian Friedrich Gutkaes, he decided to start up a cottage industry making watches in the economically depressed town of Glashütte to compete with the precision watchmaking industries in England and Switzerland. His sons Richard and Emil followed in their father’s footsteps after 1868 and made A. Lange & Söhne world-famous. Thanks to their success and that of other watchmakers who set up business here over time, Glashütte today is synonymous with the highest quality, precision and luxury “made in Germany”.
Sheltered from daylight, a new exhibition space in the ramparts of the Zwinger presents a fascinating collection of globes. Made primarily from hand-painted paper that is extremely sensitive to light, these globes present the world as it was known at the time. The exhibits also include celestial globes, a lunar globe and even one depicting Mars. But these globes should not be set spinning!

Christiane Schwarzbach

Photo: (c) Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon/Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

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