How do you revive the spirit of a Renaissance fresco that no one knows exactly what it once looked like? This exciting question was the starting point for the restorer and building researcher Matthias Zahn in his work to restore the colourful paintings on the Altan – a four-storey loggia – of the Residenzschloss, Dresden’s Royal Palace. And it would take a lot of time and effort to find an answer.
Dresden Residential Palace as a symbol of power
But first things first: The history of the frescoes begins in the 16th century. Elector Moritz I of Saxony, like so many rulers and nobles of his time, had a soft spot for the Italian Renaissance. And after visiting the country in 1549, he brought capable artists and master builders to the Elbe. They were to transform Dresden Castle into the most modern residence north of the Alps, following the Italian model, and to let the Elector’s power shine through their work. The highlight of the imposing Renaissance building was the Altan in the Great Courtyard with its giant paintings 19 metres long and up to 5.70 metres high, which Moritz commissioned the brothers Benedict and Gabriel Tola from Brescia to create. For centuries, they were considered the Saxon wonder of the world.
Gigantic Renaissance fresco destroyed
But nothing had been seen of the original for a long time: A large part of the pictures was destroyed by the great castle fire of 1701, and another was simply painted over at the end of the 19th century. The little that remained was destroyed by the bombs in 1945.
But the frescoes, which covered an area of 250 square metres, were not irretrievably lost: Already in the 1970s there were initial plans to recreate the paintings. In 2015, Matthias Zahn, who had been involved in planning the reconstruction of Dresden Castle since 1988, was finally commissioned to restore the loggia.
Forgotten techniques had to be re-learned
Over several years, the restorer evaluated old models of the castle, studied historical engravings and oil paintings from the 17th century. Fortunately, some sketches by the Tola brothers for the Altan were found in the Kupferstichkabinett. A photo by the Dresden photographer Hermann Krone from 1865 also provided information about the motifs. But in which style did the artists paint? “Because the Tola brothers didn’t leave any paintings behind, we had to look for other role models,” reports Matthias Zahn.
This is what the frescoes on the Altan show
While the sgraffito depictions in the Great Palace Courtyard show scenes from Roman antiquity, the frescoes on the Altan are devoted to biblical themes. The first floor focuses on the conversion of Paul from the New Testament. The second floor shows Joseph and Mary with the baby Jesus and the Three Wise Men. The third upper floor features a scene from the Old Testament: The Queen of Sheba pays her respects to King Solomon.
The work on the upper two floors has since been completed and can be viewed.
With his team of seven, he visited villas, churches and palaces to study the frescoes of the 16th century. They travelled to Brescia and came across the workshop of Girolamo Romanino, a painter of the Italian High Renaissance. They researched contemporaries of the Tola brothers and discovered Lattanzio Gambara.
In the latter’s murals from Parma, they looked for clues as to what the frescoes in Dresden might have looked like. However, not only motifs and questions of style played a role in the restoration, but also the old technology. “. “We had to reinvent 16th-century fresco painting,” says Matthias Zahn.
Restorers worked on the Dresden Residential Palace like the old masters
The restorers were supported by art historians from Cologne and Italy and experts from the Dresden State Office for the Preservation of Monuments. Every year they discussed the Research findings. For example, that the masters used earth colours such as ochre, green and red. That they used blue glass powder, charcoal for the colour black, lime for the colour red. White. That they mixed the colour pigments with water as in watercolour.
But that was not all: the pigments were applied as so-called “al fresco painting” to a damp, thin layer of lime plaster. Particularly tricky: the substrate was not allowed to dry during the entire process. On the very next day, corrections were no longer possible without striking off the plaster again.
We were forced to work exactly like the artists in the 16th centurysays Matthias Zahn
For this, the right plaster mixture had to be developed anew.
They practised on a model on a scale of 1:10. Only when the result was right did the restorers place the motifs in their original size on cardboard and then directly on the façade.
Only small areas were created each day. In midsummer, they hung wet cloths over the paintings to keep the plaster moist. An enormous effort over the years that was never in question. The restoration work on the castle and the Green Vault had already specified the quality. “We don’t want any backdrop architecture. We are working with historical substance in Dresden,” emphasises project manager Holger Krause. The civil engineer enthuses about the charisma of the complex and the wow moment for visitors. “We give an impression of how to imagine the Renaissance.”
Two thirds of the frescoes are already completed
The frescoes on the top two floors have since been completed and can already be admired in all their glory. At the beginning of 2024, the scaffolding in front of the lowest floor will be removed to reveal the monumental, three-story work of art as a whole.