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Friday, October 19, 2012

Mad King Ludwig

King Ludwig II of Bavaria,
1865, Ferdinand von Piloty
I suppose quite a few of us, having been nurtured in childhood on fairy tales and stories of kings, queens, knights, and their ladies, etc., have fantasized about being a king or queen...master of all we surveyed, waited upon hand and foot, ensconced in some magnificent Baroque palace or Medieval castle with nothing to do all day but play at being King or Queen. Although royalty down through the ages have enjoyed variations of such a life, one man in particular, actually lived this fantasy existence. He's come down through history with the moniker "Mad King Ludwig." He was not an artist, but definitely a connoisseur of quite a number of arts from architecture to music, opera, poetry, and interior design. As for his being mad, he was certainly eccentric, probably psychotic to some degree at least, extremely shy, homosexual, an insomniac, and egocentric to the extreme. Had he not been a king, he would probably have been left alone in his eccentricities to live out a simple, solitary existence in some remote hovel in Germany. Had he lived today, he might well have been in the entertainment industry, and thus in his eccentricities, immune from persecution. As it was, he was the wrong man, in the wrong job at the wrong time. His story is as tragic, as it is amusing, and as odd as it is fascinating.

Ludwig II and Sophia, 1867,
a marriage that was not to be.
This poor, unfortunate man was born a prince, the son of Maximilian II, the Crown Prince of Bavaria, in 1845. A shy, sensitive child from birth, he was largely raised by his mother once his father ascended the throne and was quite busy being king. He was deeply religious, bookish, slender, attractive, and fond of the outdoors, especially the Alpine Mountains of Southern Bavaria (now Germany) where he grew up. He came to the throne upon his father's death in 1864 at the tender age of eighteen. In 1867 he was engaged to marry his cousin, the lovely Sophie. The wedding was postponed three times. Finally, her father forced a showdown with the trouble young king and to everyone's relief, the engagement was broken off. It was about this time that the young ruler found a new love--building.

Schloss Herrenchiemsee, 1878-92 (unfinished)
In 1869, work was begun on his first of three castles, built simultaneously, that were to occupy his attention for the next seventeen years. Only one, Linderhof, was ever completed. Neuschwanstein atop a mountain, and Herrenchiemsee, on an Island in a lake, were both unfinished at his death in 1886 (supposedly a suicide but probably murder). Each is a grand, megalomaniacal work of art. Herrenchiemsee was a Versailles rip-off. Only the central structure was completed but its Hall of Mirrors was actually larger than that at Versailles. Neuschwanstein is probably the best known and by far the most beautiful. Created by a set designer, Christian Jank, in conjunction with royal master-builder Eduard Riedel, it is Romanesque in design with Gothic influences, enormous in scale, and boasts a killer view. One of its "keeps" soars nearly 100 feet from the top of the mountain. Yet only 9 of its projected sixty some rooms were ever finished inside. The chapel and tallest tower were never even started. Hey, kings can have money problems too. And the throne room, strangely, has no throne. After the king's death, the order for it was cancelled.

Schloss Linderhof, 1878
Linderhof seems to have been his favourite. Built on a farm just a few miles from Neuschwanstein in an elaborate, Baroque style, it's impressive from the outside; made even more so by the fountain out front which blasts water straight up 100 feet into the air. But it's inside that Linderhof draws gasps of awe. Most notable among its pretentious wonders is the Venus Grotto, a concrete "cave" complete with arc lighting, swirling warm water, a wave machine, central heat, all manner of sculpted nymphs and satyrs, real misty rainbows, even a table that rises through the floor from the kitchen below so the king might be served a snack apart from the prying eyes of servants. Based upon a fantasy scene from Richard Wagner's Tannhauser, it would seem to be a setting for every man's wildest sexual fantasies.

Ludwig II and Richard Wagner
Speaking of Wagner, no discussion of Ludwig would be complete without mention of the king's other obsession. It began in his childhood; and even though Wagner was more than a generation older than Ludwig, the king's love for both the man and his great operatic masterpieces permeated every artistic endeavour in his life. All three royal residences have many rooms named and decorated for Wagnerian operas. Ludwig promoted, inspired, and supported Wagner for much of the latter part of the composer's life. Several of his late works would not have been written under any other circumstances. In fact, Neuschwanstein was as much designed as a music hall as royal residence even though Wagner was never performed there until 1933.

Neuschwanstein, 1869-1892 (unfinished)
Today, Ludwig's mad masterpieces bring millions of tourists to the area each year and millions more deutsche marks to the German economy. Estimates are the "Mad King" spent about thirty-one million marks his country could ill-afford at the time to fulfil his architectural obsessions. And three more castles were in the planning stages when he died (one even larger and more grandiose than Neuschwanstein). As royal residences, they were a horrendous waste of money. Ludwig lived at Neuschwanstein only about 180 days before his death; even less than that at Herrenchiemsee. But as tourist attractions, it was money very well spent. Neuschwanstein has been open to the public since 1889. Among its visitors in this century was a tourist with similar tastes in fantasy architecture. He's even gone old Ludwig one better. He's built five such castles (so far), each influenced by Ludwig's towering design; one in California, one in Florida, one in France, another in Japan, and yet another in Hong Kong, with a sixth castle planned for Shanghai, China (2016). He's done all right attracting tourists to his too.
Neuschwanstein from the air.
The Chapel and the castle's tallest tower were never completed.

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