Neuschwanstein Castle, perched on a rugged hill in front of the Alpine foothills near Füssen, in southwest Bavaria, Germany, viewed on July 31, 2007. Neuschwanstein was commissioned by Bavaria's King Ludwig II and designed by Christian Jank, a stage designer from Munich. Construction began in 1869, but it was only partially completed, with 185 interior rooms of a planned 200 left unfinished. (AP Photo/Christof Stache, File)
Ludwig II, born on 25 August 1845, was heir to the illustrious Wittelsbach family which ruled Bavaria from its capital, Munich. When Ludwig was thirteen, during the typically difficult childhood of a royal heir to the throne, his former governess wrote him describing a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin. The Crown Prince became enraptured with the composer’s music and writings. He attended a Munich performance of Lohengrin when he was sixteen. Wagner’s call for a prince who, by his patronage, would ensure the purity and survival of German art led Ludwig to vow that he would be that prince.
Ludwig ascended the Bavarian throne at the age of eighteen. He came to the throne with high hopes, aiming to preserve Bavarian independence while strengthening ties with the other countries of the German Confederation. Yet Ludwig soon became bored with the realities of governing. His confusion about his sexual orientation added to his feelings of inner turmoil. He formed a romantic liaison with Prince Paul of Taxis, his aide-de-camp.
Richard Wagner, bastard son of an actor, rebelled against any form of schooling. Laziness, sexual dalliances, and political activity sidetracked his dream of becoming a composer. Almost everything he did struck against the norms of society. He felt the world owed him a living for his talents. Debt became his nemesis. Yet, the dream became reality as his musical works achieved production.
One of Ludwig’s first acts as King was to summon Richard Wagner to Munich. Ludwig hoped to promote a cultural renaissance in Munich through Wagner’s presence. Wagner and his music pervaded Ludwig's private life. The "Great Friend," with a "great" ego to match, became Ludwig's greatest challenge in his Kingship, and eventually the young king's greatest accomplishment. To imagine Ludwig without Wagner is as unlikely as imagining the earth without the sun. Ludwig and Wagner were inextricably linked together in life and inseparable in death. In Wagner's life, Ludwig's importance lies in his great act of patronage: he gave Wagner the means, almost one million marks, to complete his life's work, his later music-dramas and the establishment of Bayreuth as the center of his work. In his patronage of Wagner, Ludwig pursued two independent courses and, in doing so, displayed enormous courage and strength of mind in the face of criticism, malicious gossip, and the overwhelming temptation to abdicate--to throw his crown aside. In befriending what he saw to be the greatest figure in contemporary art, he displayed the hereditary traits that led his father and grandfather to patronize painters, sculptors, architects, poets and scientists. In Wagner, he found confirmation of his inner beliefs.
Wagner's rescue by Ludwig has all the charm and unreality of a fairy tale: Wagner and the Bavarians, generally, regarded King Ludwig as the personification of the romantic ideal of kingship. He was tall, strong and handsome; indeed a veritable Prince Charming.
The older Wagner could not foresee the King's future of pathetic and unhappy relationships with a succession of equerries, soldiers, and actors, but he probably realized that the young king had an unusual sensitivity, an emotional nature that would require delicate and careful handling.
The tragedy of the king's life was not caused by Wagner, but by the conflict between his own ideal world of imagination and the real world in which he had to live and rule. His lonely path, his growing isolation, and his tragic death in the cold, dark waters of Lake Starnberg were ultimately the result of the total failure of the court camarilla, the politicians, the journalists, and the gossips, to understand either man correctly.
Politics and war had no appeal to Ludwig. His instinct was to try and avoid engagement in such affairs altogether. He often fled to his retreats at Castle Berg or Hohenschwangau, leaving the affairs of state to his court officers. He loved to be alone, to read and wander through his beloved Bavarian mountains.
Succeeding years in Bavaria were marked by continuing political turmoil. The normal governmental procedures of the Bavarian constitutional monarchy were bypassed, and important decisions undertaken without royal assent.
Ludwig, freed by the court’s assumption of power, became a nocturnal creature. His psychological detachment from his position as Bavaria’s political leader was perhaps most clearly embodied in a bizarre flight of fancy. Ludwig’s troubled state of mind was reflected in a secret diary. Its often cryptic entries refer with anguish to Ludwig’s sexual encounters with stableboys and young soldiers, which are followed time and time again by solemn oaths to refrain from what Ludwig regarded as moral turpitude: “...I swear today...that what took place yesterday night was the last time forever; atoned for by the Royal Blood—the Holy Grail. Absolutely the last time under penalty of ceasing to be King.”
Meanwhile, Wagner worked to complete the last two operas of the Ring cycle. He had settled on the town of Bayreuth, in the northern part of Bavaria, as the location of his ideal theater designed specially for the production of his work. Ludwig contributed substantially to Wagner’s vast undertaking. In 1876 Ludwig twice attended complete performances of all four Ring operas. His enthusiastic reaction was reflected in a letter to Wagner, calling him a “god-man who truly cannot fail.” Ludwig and Wagner quarreled in late 1880 over a performance of the Parsifal prelude and did not meet again, though when Wagner died in 1883 Ludwig commanded that every piano in his castles should thereafter be draped in black as a monument to the composer.
Ludwig turned his creative energies toward vast architectural projects. Neuschwanstein Castle was meant as a magical paradise that would bring the imaginary world of Wagner’s operas to life. When Ludwig died in 1886, Neuschwanstein was only half finished. His second project, Schloss Linderhof, was an ornate central structure Ludwig surrounded by strange and wonderful pavilions. Ludwig’s final project was the Palace of Herrenchiemsee, fifty miles southeast of Munich, intended as a partial copy of the Palace of Versailles.
Even for a king, such expenses had their toll. By the end of 1885 Ludwig was some 14 million marks in debt. He sent his officials on bizarre journeys in search of loans, and some of these officials only pretended to take the journeys they knew in their hearts were hopeless. His financial quandary was a disastrous embarrassment to the Bavarian government—a scandal which could only be avoided if the King were removed from office.
His government appointed a commission to find the king insane. The commission accumulated a mass of evidence that was deliberately biased against Ludwig. It declined to examine any evidence to the contrary, and declared that Ludwig was mad, that his madness was incurable, and that he was now, and would be for the rest of his life, incapable of exercising the powers entrusted to him. After some maneuvering by Ludwig, he was at last seized and taken to Castle Berg, where he was to be imprisoned. His apartments had been specially modified to permit spying on the King and to prevent his escape. Dr. Gudden, head of the insanity commission, was there to look after the monarch. On his first evening there, Gudden took Ludwig for a walk along the shore of Lake Starnberg. When they had not returned by 9:00 p.m., a general search of the grounds was ordered. Ludwig’s and Dr. Gudden’s bodies were found in the lake. What had happened remains unknown and unknowable. Was it suicide, assassination, or merely an escape attempt?
King Ludwig II, age 22, in 1867, only three years after he ascended the Bavarian throne following his father's death. Though he was young and inexperienced, Ludwig was a popular king among Bavarians. (Joseph Albert) #
Ludwig put his Neuschwanstein on a hilltop not for defensive reasons, but simply because he liked the view. The castle, which is about as old as the Eiffel Tower, is a textbook example of 19th-century Romanticism. After the Middle Ages ended, people disparagingly named that era "Gothic" — meaning barbarian. Then, all of a sudden, in the 1800s, it was hip to be square, and neo-Gothic became the rage. Throughout Europe, old castles were restored and new ones built, wallpapered with chivalry.
The lavish interior, covered with damsels in distress, dragons and knights in gleaming armor, is enchanting. Ludwig had great taste — for a "mad" king. Germany became a single united country only in 1871. As if to bolster its legitimacy, the young nation dug deep into its murky, medieval past. These heroes and legends inspired young Ludwig in decorating his fanciful castles.
Sitting at the foot of the hill, Hohenschwangau Castle is more lived-in and historic, offering an excellent look at Ludwig's life (with fewer crowds). Originally built in the 12th century, it was ruined by Napoleon. Ludwig's father rebuilt it, and you'll see it as it looked in 1836. The walls of the beautifully painted rooms are slathered with the epic myths and exotic decoration of 19th-century Romanticism.
King Ludwig's legacy
Inspired by Wagner to recreate a mythical, medieval past, the lonely King Ludwig II built fantastical retreats across Bavaria. His profligate spending cost him his throne, and his freedom, but over time has proved a brilliant investment. Autumn, says Adrian Bridge, is the best time to explore the enigma.
"For true devotees of Ludwig, Neuschwanstein remains the ultimate expression of his vision and a genius bordering on insanity" Photo: ALAMY
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"You can still see the bedroom in Nymphenburg Palace where Ludwig entered the world, furnished in the dark green hues favoured by his mother, Marie of Prussia" Photo: ALAMY
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"The splendid building that is home to the Bavarian State Opera in Munich is where, at the age of 15, Ludwig saw his first opera - Lohengrin, by Richard Wagner" Photo: ALAMY
"The Venus Grotto, where Ludwig liked to be rowed across the water and transported rapturously to another world" Photo: ALAMY
"His plan for the Herrenchiemsee was to create a replica of Versailles and the world inhabited by Louis XIV" Photo: ALAMY
King Ludwig II of Bavaria would have been in his element. Instead of having to rub shoulders with the swarming masses below, he would have enjoyed soaring high in the skies in a balloon above his greatest creation – Neuschwanstein, a castle perched incredibly on rocks amidst some of the most striking scenery in Europe.
The king, who dreamed of journeying to Neuschwanstein by balloon, would have purred as he approached those fabled turrets and towers, a fantastical neo-Gothic construction that since his untimely (and mysterious) death 125 years ago has become a symbol for all those seeking escape from the harsher realities of life.
He might have reflected on the cruel irony of it all. That castle and other extravagant follies like it cost him his life as those controlling Bavaria’s purse strings sought to rein him in by declaring him insane. Today, however, it is one of the biggest tourist attractions – and revenue earners – in Europe.
Perhaps he would have been tempted to jump — Ludwig wanted to enjoy those castles alone, not to share them with the hoi polloi. But then again, he might have considered all that revenue coming in and thought, what the hell, it’s time to build another.
Photographer Joseph Albert, posing with his equipment in front of Hohenschwangau Castle, near the present site of Neuschwanstein Castle, around 1857. At this time, Ludwig was a 12-year-old Crown Prince, living with his family, headed by his father, King Maximilian II. Ludwig spent much of his youth in living in Hohenschwangau, exploring the surrounding lakes and Alpine foothills. (Joseph Albert) #
Hohenschwangau Castle, Ludwig's family home, near Füssen, southern Germany, viewed from Neuschwanstein Castle on August 10, 2010. (Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images) #
The hill that would hold up Neuschwanstein Castle, seen around 1860. The ruins of two medieval-era castles, Vorderhohenschwangau and Hinterhohenschwangau are visible among the trees. Shortly after he came to power in 1864, Ludwig II made plans to build a new, grand castle in this location, replacing the smaller. older ruins. (Joseph Albert) #
Scaffolding surrounds the walls of Neuschwanstein Castle as it is being constructed, seen about 1875. In 1868, Ludwig had written to his friend and inspiration, composer Richard Wagner: "It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau near the Pöllat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights' castles, and I must confess to you that I am looking forward very much to living there one day." (Joseph Albert) #
A view of the upper courtyard of Neuschwanstein Castle, still under construction, as it appeared in 1886 -- the year of Ludwig's death. (Joseph Albert) #
An aerial view of Neuschwanstein Castle, near Füssen, Bavaria, seen on July 1, 2007. The castle was completed in 1886, and was opened to the public only seven weeks after the death of King Ludwig II. Ludwig himself was only able to live in the castle for a total of 172 days. (Joerg Koch/AFP/Getty Images) #
Ludwig II and his fiance, Duchess Sophie in Bavaria in 1867. Though the two were engaged throughout most of 1867, Ludwig later canceled the engagement, and never married. Studies of his diaries suggest the King, a devout Roman Catholic, struggled with his sexual orientation throughout his adult life. (Joseph Albert) #
Linderhof Castle, near Oberammergau in southwest Bavaria, viewed in a photochrom print (color photo lithograph) dated around 1900. Linderhof was the smallest of Ludwig's castles, and the only one which he lived to see completed, in 1876, though some work continued there until his death in 1886. (Library of Congress / Detroit Photographic Company) #
An outside view of Linderhof Castle, seen during a night time opening on August 25, 2008. The "long night" at Linderhof Castle, with illuminations, guided tours and chamber concerts remembered the 163rd birthday of the monarch. (Johannes Simon/Getty Images) #
The Venus Grotto of Linderhof Castle, seen on Sept. 21, 2008. The room was built to illustrate the first act of Richard Wagner's "Tannhäuser". Electrical wiring and lighting (a novelty in the 1880s) were used to change the colorful scenery and set differing moods. (AP Photo/Christof Stache) #
A snow covered Linderhof Castle, about 100 km south of Munich, seen on November 17, 2005. (Reuters/Michaela Rehle) #
The "Maurische Kiosk" (Moorish Kiosk), a structure on the grounds of Linderhof Castle, is illuminated during a night time opening on August 25, 2008. (Johannes Simon/Getty Images) #
An aerial view of Herrenchiemsee Castle, built on an island in the middle of Bavaria's largest lake, the Chiemsee. Ludwig commissioned this castle as a tribute to one of his idols, the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, and his elaborate Palace of Versailles. Herrenchiemsee Castle was only partially completed, and Ludwig was only able to spend a few days there in September of 1885. (Hansueli Krapf/CC BY SA) #
Interior of Herrenchiemsee Castle, the Hall of Mirrors, containing 77 chandeliers, also modeled after the Palace of Versailles. (AP Photo) #
An employee looks at a portrait of King Ludwig II in Herrenchiemsee Castle, as part of an exhibition called "Gotterdaemmerung. King Ludwig II and his time", on May 11, 2011. (Dapd) #
Bavarian Finance Minister George Fahrenschon shows the fully restored state bedroom of King Ludwig II in Herrenchiemsee Castle, on April 12, 2011. The cost of the restoration was put at 284,000 Euros, or about $400,000 USD. (Dapd) #
Neuschwanstein Castle is now a world-famous tourist attraction. Criticized by many as wasteful and extravagant at the time of their construction (despite the King using his own money, not state funds), Ludwig's castles have paid for themselves many times over in the years since his death. Photo taken on May 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader) #
Snow covers Neuschwanstein Castle on March 20, 2007 near Füssen, Germany. (Johannes Simon/Getty Images) #
The ornate ceiling of the throne hall in the south Bavarian Neuschwanstein Castle, seen on May 11, 2005. (Reuters/Alexandra Winkler) #
An aerial view of Neuschwanstein Castle and the surrounding area near Schwangau, about 120 km (75 mi) south of Munich, on October 4, 2006. (Reuters/Alexandra Beier) #
Castle Berg, on Lake Starnberg, in a photograph taken in 1886, the year Ludwig II died -- his body found floating in Lake Starnberg. Ludwig had been accused of insanity by his cabinet of ministers, was arrested at Neuschwanstein Castle on June 12, 1886, and transported here, to Castle Berg. On June 13, 1886, around 6:00 pm, Ludwig and a psychiatrist named Dr. Bernhard von Gudden left the castle for a walk around Lake Starnberg -- that was the last time anyone saw either man alive. Both of their bodies were found late that night, Ludwig was floating face-down in waist-deep water. Ludwig's mysterious death was officially ruled a suicide, but theories have existed since that day that the death was an assassination. (Joseph Albert) #
The final photograph of King Ludwig II, as his body laid in state in the royal chapel at the Munich Residence Palace in June of 1886. In his right hand he held a posy of white jasmine picked for him by his cousin the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. #
A plaster death mask of King Ludwig II, viewed in Herrenchiemsee Castle, as part of an exhibition called "Gotterdaemmerung. King Ludwig II and his time", on May 11, 2011. (Dapd) #
Members of the "Guglmaenner" secret society transport a crucifix to the site where Bavarian King Ludwig II died, on June 6, 2006 in a boat on Lake Starnberg. The "Guglmaenner", who annually commemorate the king's death, are of the opinion that Ludwig II was killed for political reasons. (Johannes Simon/AFP/Getty Images) #
Wearing traditional Bavarian costumes, supporters of the Bavarian King Ludwig II attend an open-air Mass at the Gedaechtniskapelle on Lake Starnberg, commemorating the 125th anniversary of the King's death, on June 13, 2011. (Dapd-Text) #
Duke Franz of Bavaria (center), current head of the royal Bavarian Wittelsbach family, attends an open-air Mass at the Gedaechtniskapelle on Lake Starnberg, commemorating the 125th anniversary of the King's death, on June 13, 2011. (Dapd-Text) #
A crucifix near the shore of Lake Starnberg near Berg, southern Germany, marks the site where Bavarian King Ludwig II is believed to have died 125 years ago. Photo taken on June 6, 2006. (Johannes Simon/AFP/Getty Images) #