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The Dream of a King

August 24, 2013

Ludwig II of Bavaria

Ludwig II (Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm) (25 August 1845 – 13 June 1886) was King of Bavaria from 1864 until shortly before his death. He is sometimes called the Swan King and der Märchenkönig, the Fairy tale King . Additional titles were Count Palatine of the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria, Franconia and in Swabia.

De_20_jarige_Ludwig_II_in_kroningsmantel_door_Ferdinand_von_Piloty_1865Ludwig is sometimes also called “Mad King Ludwig”, though the accuracy of that label has been disputed. His younger brother and successor, Otto, was considered insane, thus the claim of hereditary madness was convenient. Because Ludwig was deposed on grounds of mental incapacity without any medical examination, questions about the medical “diagnosis” remain controversial.

Adding to the controversy are the mysterious circumstances under which he died. King Ludwig and the doctor assigned to him in captivity at Berg Castle on Lake Starnberg were both found dead in the lake in waist-high water, the doctor with unexplained injuries to the head and shoulders, the morning after the day Ludwig was deposed.

One of Ludwig’s most quoted sayings was “I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others.”

Ludwig is best known as an eccentric whose legacy is intertwined with the history of art and architecture. He commissioned the construction of two extravagant palaces and a castle, the most famous being Neuschwanstein, and was a devoted patron of the composer Richard Wagner. King Ludwig is generally well-liked and even revered by many Bavarians today, many of whom note the irony of his supposed madness and the fact that his legacy of architecture and art and the tourist income they generate help to make Bavaria the richest state in Germany

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Childhood and adolescent years

buena - 24 325Born in Nymphenburg Palace (today located in suburban Munich), he was the elder son of Maximilian II of Bavaria (then Crown Prince) and his wife Princess Marie of Prussia. His parents intended to name him Otto, but his grandfather, Ludwig I of Bavaria, insisted that his grandson was named after him, since their common birthday, 25 August, is the feast day of Saint Louis, patron saint of Bavaria. A younger brother, born three years later, was named Otto.

Like many young heirs in an age when kings governed most of Europe, Ludwig was continually reminded of his royal status. King Maximilian wanted to instruct both of his sons in the burdens of royal duty from an early age. Ludwig was both extremely indulged and severely controlled by his tutors and subjected to a strict regimen of study and exercise. There are some who point to these stresses of growing up in a royal family as the causes for much of his odd behavior as an adult. Ludwig was not close to either of his parents. King Maximilian’s advisers had suggested that on his daily walks he might like, at times, to be accompanied by his future successor. The King replied, “But what am I to say to him? After all, my son takes no interest in what other people tell him. Later, Ludwig would refer to his mother as “my predecessor’s consort”. He was far closer to his grandfather, the deposed and notorious King Ludwig I, who came from a family of eccentrics.

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Ludwig’s childhood years did have happy moments. He lived for much of the time at Castle Hohenschwangau, a fantasy castle his father had built near the Schwansee (Swan Lake) near Füssen. It was decorated in the Gothic Revival style with many frescoes depicting heroic German sagas. The family also visited Lake Starnberg.

As an adolescent, Ludwig became close friends with his aide de camp, Prince Paul, a member of Bavaria’s wealthy Thurn und Taxis family. The two young men rode together, read poetry aloud, and staged scenes from the Romantic operas of Richard Wagner. The friendship ended when Paul became engaged in 1866.

During his youth Ludwig also initiated a lifelong friendship with his cousin, Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria, later Empress of Austria,”Sissi” They loved nature and poetry; Elisabeth called Ludwig “Eagle” and he called her “Dove”.

Early reign

Crown Prince Ludwig had just turned 18 when his father died after a three-day illness, and he ascended the Bavarian throne. Although he was not prepared for high office, his youth and brooding good looks made him popular in Bavaria and elsewhere.

One of the first acts of his reign, a few weeks after his accession, was to summon the composer Richard Wagner to his court in Munich. Wagner had a notorious reputation as a revolutionary and a philanderer and was constantly on the run from creditors.

Ludwig had admired Wagner since first seeing his opera Lohengrin at the impressionable age of 15, followed by Tannhäuser ten months later. Wagner’s operas appealed to the king’s fantasy-filled imagination.

On 4 May 1864, the 51year old Wagner was given an unprecedented 1 hour, 45 minutes audience with Ludwig in the Royal Palace in Munich; later the composer wrote of his first meeting with Ludwig, “Alas, he is so handsome and wise, soulful and lovely, that I fear that his life must melt away in this vulgar world like a fleeting dream of the gods.”

The king was probably the saviour of Wagner’s career. Without Ludwig, it is doubtful that Wagner’s later operas would have been composed, much less premiered at the prestigious Munich Royal Court Theatre, now the Bavarian State Opera House.

A year after meeting the King, Wagner presented his latest work, Tristan und Isolde, in Munich to great acclaim. But the composer’s perceived extravagant and scandalous behaviour in the capital was unsettling for the conservative people of Bavaria, and the King was forced to ask Wagner to leave the city six months later, in December 1865.

The greatest stresses of Ludwig’s early reign were pressure to produce an heir, and relations with militant Prussia. Both issues came to the forefront in 1867.

Love in his life

Ludwig became engaged to Duchess Sophie Charlotte in Bavaria, his cousin and the youngest sister of his dear friend, Empress Elisabeth of Austria. The engagement was publicized on 22 January 1867, but after repeatedly postponing the wedding date, Ludwig finally cancelled the engagement in October. A few days before the engagement had been announced, Sophie had received a letter from the King telling her what she already knew: “The main substance of our relationship has always been … Richard Wagner’s remarkable and deeply moving destiny.” After the engagement was broken off, Ludwig wrote to his former fiancee, “My beloved Elsa! Your cruel father has torn us apart. Eternally yours, Heinrich” (the names Elsa and Heinrich came from characters from Wagner operas) Ludwig never married, but Sophie later married Prince Ferdinand, Duke of Alençon.

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Throughout his reign, Ludwig had a succession of close friendships with men, including his chief equerry and Master of the Horse, Richard Hornig (1843–1911), Hungarian theatre actor Josef Kainz, and courtier Alfons Weber (born c.1862). He began keeping a diary in which he recorded his private thoughts and his attempts to suppress his sexual desires and remain true to his Roman Catholic faith. Ludwig’s original diaries from 1869 were lost during World War II, and all that remains today are copies of entries during the 1886 plot to depose him. These diary entries, along with private letters and other surviving personal documents, show Ludwig’s lifelong struggle with his sexual orientation. (While homosexuality had not been punishable in Bavaria since 1813, the Unification of Germany in 1871 under Prussian hegemony changed this). Some earlier diaries have survived in the Geheimes Hausarchiv in Munich and extracts starting in 1858 were published by Evers in 1986.

After the creation of the greater Germany, Ludwig increasingly withdrew from politics, and devoted himself to his personal creative projects, most famously his castles, where he personally approved every detail of the architecture, decoration and furnishing.

Ludwig’s castles

Ludwig_II_WappenLudwig was notably eccentric in ways that made serving as Bavaria’s head of state problematic. He disliked large public functions and avoided formal social events whenever possible, preferring a life of seclusion that he pursued with various creative projects. He last inspected a military parade on 22 August 1875 and last gave a Court banquet on 10 February 1876 His mother had foreseen difficulties for Ludwig when she recorded her concern for her extremely introverted and creative son who spent much time day-dreaming. These idiosyncrasies, combined with the fact that Ludwig avoided Munich and participating in the government there at all costs, caused considerable tension with the king’s government ministers, but did not cost him popularity among the citizens of Bavaria. The king enjoyed traveling in the Bavarian countryside and chatting with farmers and labourers he met along the way. He also delighted in rewarding those who were hospitable to him during his travels with lavish gifts. He is still remembered in Bavaria as Unser Kini, which means “our cherished king” in the Bavarian dialect.

Ludwig also used his personal fortune to fund the construction of a series of elaborate castles. In 1867 he visited Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s work at Pierrefonds, and thePalace of Versailles in France, as well as the Wartburg near Eisenach in Thuringia, which largely influenced the style of their construction. In his letters, Ludwig marvelled at how the French had magnificently built up and glorified their culture ( architecture, art, and music) and how miserably lacking Bavaria was in comparison. It became his dream to accomplish the same for Bavaria. These projects provided employment for many hundreds of local labourers and artisans and brought a considerable flow of money to the relatively poor regions where his castles were built.

History of the origins of Neuschwanstein Castle

Ludwig II, King of Bavaria since 1864, addressed the following lines to the man he so greatly admired, Richard Wagner:

buena -16 325«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 (in 3 years); there will be several cosy, habitable guest rooms with a splendid view of the noble Säuling, the mountains of Tyrol and far across the plain; you know the revered guest I would like to accommodate there; the location is one of the most beautiful to be found, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world. It will also remind you of “Tannhäuser” (Singers’ Hall with a view of the castle in the background), “Lohengrin’” (castle courtyard, open corridor, path to the chapel); this castle will be in every way more beautiful and habitable than Hohenschwangau further down, which is desecrated every year by the prose of my mother; they will take revenge, the desecrated gods, and come to live with Us on the lofty heights, breathing the air of heaven».

Almost all the aspects of Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein are mentioned here.

In 1868, Ludwig commissioned the first drawings for two of his buildings. The first was Schloss Neuschwanstein, or “New Swan on the Rock castle”, a dramatic Romanesque fortress with soaring fairy-tale towers situated on an Alpine crag above Ludwig’s childhood home, Castle Hohenschwangau (approximately, “High Swan Region”). Hohenschwangau was a medieval knights’ castle which his parents had purchased. Ludwig reputedly had spied the location and conceived of building a castle there while still a boy.

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Ideal design for Neuschwanstein Castle by Christian Jank, 1869

Building history

Work on the future building site began in the summer of 1868 with up to 8 metresof stone outcrop removed to make way for the foundations. In June 1869 the new access road was completed. The foundation stone was laid on 5 September 1869 with the building plan, portraits of Ludwig II and coins from his reign incorporated in it in accordance with the tradition established by Ludwig I. The latest building techniques and materials were used in the construction of the castle. The foundations were cemented and the walls built of brick with light-coloured limestone used merely as cladding.

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The Gateway Building was completed first, which had its topping out ceremony on11 June 1872 and was ready for occupation at the end of 1873; for years Ludwig IIused the upper floor as provisional accommodation when he visited the site. Building of the Palas commenced in September 1872; for structural reasons the latest technology was required in order to incorporate the large Throne Hall subsequently requested by the king, which was built as an encased steel construction. The topping out ceremony was on 29 January 1880. The decoration and technical fittings of the interior were only completed in mid 1884, though without all the final details. Ludwig II only ever saw his new castle as a building site; the Bower and the Square Tower, simplified versions of the originally planned buildings, were not completed until 1892.


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Interior and modern technology

Neuschwanstein illustrates the ideals and longings of Ludwig II more vividly than any of his other buildings. The castle was not designed for royal representation, but as a place of retreat. Here Ludwig II escaped into a dream world – the poetic world of the Middle Ages.

The picture cycles of Neuschwanstein were inspired by the operas of Richard Wagner, to whom the king dedicated the castle. The pictures were not however directly modelled on Wagner’s works, but on the medieval legends that the composer had also taken as the basis for his works.

The pictures on the walls of the castle deal with love and guilt, repentance and salvation. Kings and knights, poets and lovers people the rooms. There are three main figures: the poet Tannhäuser, the swan knight Lohengrin and his father, the Grail King Parzival (Parsifal). These were Ludwig’s models and kindred spirits.

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A further leitmotif of the interiors is the swan.The swan was the heraldic animal of the Counts of Schwangau, whose successor the king considered himself to be. It is also the Christian symbol of the “purity” for which Ludwig strived.

Religious and political ideas were involved in the planning of the castle. This can be seen in particular in the Throne Room. The paintings here show how Ludwig saw kingship “by the Grace of God”: as a holy mission, with powers that the Bavarian king had never possessed.

Modern technology in medieval guise

In Neuschwanstein the Middle Ages were only an illusion: behind the medieval appearance of the castle the latest technology was in operation and every comfort was ensured.

The rooms of the Palas, the royal residence, were fitted with hot air central heating. Running water was available on every floor and the kitchen had both hot and cold water. The toilets had an automatic flushing system.

The king used an electric bell system to summon his servants and adjutants. On the third and fourth floors there were even telephones.

Meals did not have to be laboriously carried upstairs: for this purpose there was a lift.

The latest technology was also used for the construction process itself. The cranes were driven by steam engines, and the Throne Room was incorporated by means of a steel construction.

One of the special features of Neuschwanstein is the large window panes. Windows of this size were still unusual even in Ludwig II’s day.


The picture cycles of Neuschwanstein were inspired by the operas of Richard Wagner. The pictures were modelled on the medieval legends that the composer had also taken as the basis for his works.

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Parzifal y Tristan and Isolde 

Tann y Lohen

 Swan Knight

 erkerIn Neuschwanstein the late romantic concept of restoration, which makes a further appearance in 1883 in Ludwig’s plans for Falkenstein Castle, is combined with the idea of a new castle of the swan knight Lohengrin. The knight’s heraldic animal, the swan, had already featured as a leitmotif in the castle built by Ludwig’s father, a building which had had a substantial influence on the development of Ludwig’s artistic tastes. The swan was also the historic heraldic animal of the knights of Schwangau. Maximilian saw himself as their successor and adopted their coat of arms. His son followed suit, and the swan thus also features as a heraldic animal in Neuschwanstein; it is sometimes used in combination with the medieval coat of arms of the Pfalzgraf bei Rhein, a title still held by Ludwig, and the lozengy of the royal coat-of-arms of Bavaria.

Oriel in the bedroom; stained glass windows with the Wittelsbach,Bavarian and Schwangau coats of arms, upholstery embroidered with crowns, lions, swans and lilies.

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Ludwig II had been familiar with the Lohengrin legend since he was a child from the murals of his father’s castle.

He was introduced to Wagner’s “Lohengrin” on 2 February 1861 in the Munich Court Opera House and was captivated.

Thus, in the course of time, Ludwig II came to see himself in typically romantic fashion as both a real knight of Schwangau and the fictitious swan knight Lohengrin, while always remaining fully conscious of himself as the ruling king of Bavaria.


Lohengrin’s arrival (in Brabant). Mural in the Salon, August von Heckel, 1882/83


Lower Hall

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On the walls are illustrations of the Sigurd saga from the Old Norse saga “Edda”, a collection of sagas, songs and sayings.

Sigurd corresponds to the Siegfried of the Middle High German Nibelungenlied.

Marble portals open into the Throne Room on the west side and the royal apartments on the opposite side.






Throne Hall



This sumptuous, church-like hall with its massive, four-metre high chandelier occupies the third and fourth floors and the entire west section of the Palas.

The Throne Hall was inspired by Byzantine churches and in particular the All Saints Court Church in Munich.

In the northern apse there was to be a throne in place of the altar, but this was never constructed after the death of the king.




This combination of church and throne room illustrates Ludwig’s interpretation of kingship: he saw himself not just as a king by God’s grace, but also as a mediator between God and the whole world.

This idea is also expressed in the cupola, which is decorated with stars, and the floor mosaic beneath it, which shows the earth with its plants and animals.

Beneath the cupola are representatives of pre-Christian kingdoms. The pictures in the apse area show Christ, the Twelve Apostles and six holy kings, while the deeds of the kings and other saints are illustrated on the walls.

The Throne Hall was not intended for state occasions. It is an expression of Ludwig’s expectations of kingship.


St George killing the dragon. Mural inthe Throne Hall, W. Kolmsberger, 1884


Dining room

speisezimmer2The apartments of Ludwig II are entered through the oak-panelled anteroom on the third floor. An electric bell system was installed in 1885 so that the servant on duty here could be summoned from any other room.

Wolfram von Eschenbach and other minnesingers feature in the dining room murals, which are framed with oak panelling decorated with bas-relief carvings.On the dining table is a centrepiece in marble and gilt bronze, which shows Siegfried fighting the dragon.

As in all the king’s rooms, the textiles are very elaborate; here they are made of red silk with gold embroidery and trimmings.



As in all the residences of Ludwig II, the king’s bedroom is particularly sumptuous.

The leitmotif is the legend of Tristan and Isolde, and the two main characters feature not only in the murals, but also in the carvings on the door and the ceramic figures on the tiled stove.

The state bed in the neo-gothic style and the seat coverings are in blue silk, with embroidered and appliquéd lions, swans, crowns, lilies and the Bavarian coat of arms.




One of the most unusual features is the washstand, with a fountain in the form of a silver-plated swan. Small swans also decorate the washstand set – water jug, sponge and soap containers –


designed by Eduard Wollenweber.



The oratory adjacent to the bedroom is also in the neo-gothic style. The murals, glass windows and the middle picture on the altar feature Louis IX of France, the patron saint of the king. There was a further connection between Ludwig II and the ruling Bourbon family: King Louis XVI – a direct descendant of Louis IX – was the godfather of his grandfather King Ludwig I.

kapelle 500Dressing room

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The dressing room is decorated in the style of a garden hall with an illusionistic ceiling painting of a garden bower with a trellis of vines open to the sky.

The murals between the panelling show scenes from the life and poems of Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1170-1230) and Hans Sachs (1494-1576).

Above the arch leading to the oriel recess are half-length portraits of both poets.

The seat covers and the curtains are made of violet silk magnificently embroidered in gold with an elaborate design of leaves, tendrils and pairs of peacocks.

In the oriel recess is the king’s jewelry box.




wohnzimmerThe L-shaped salon has an alcove furnished with chairs and separated from the rest of the room by columns. The large oak cupboard is modelled on an item of furniture from the Wartburg and is decorated with scenes from medieval poems. The murals in this room show scenes from the Lohengrin saga,, which Ludwig IIidentified with in particular on account of the Grail Knight theme and the swan motif.




The swan was also Ludwig’s heraldic animal as a Knight of Schwangau. As in the bedroom, the curtains and coverings are made of blue silk and embroidered with swans and lilies. There is also a container for plants or flowers in the form of a large majolica swan by Villeroy & Boch.

Grotto and conservatory


Between the salon and the study is a room that would not normally be found in a royal apartment: a small grotto.

The set-designer August Dirigl created the artificial dripstone cave, which originally had coloured lighting and a waterfall. It was based on the idea of the Hörselberg in the Tannhäuser saga.

A glass door which opens by sliding down into the “rock” leads from the Grotto to the Conservatory.

Through the large glass panes there is an uninterrupted view of the Alpine foothills.

The small fountain in this room was intended for a Moorish Hall, which was not however completed.






The murals show the Tannhäuser saga.

As in the opera of the same name,this is linked with the Singers’ Contest on the Wartburg.

The king worked at the large table in the centre of the room, on which his writing set still stands.

The cupboard was used to store the castle plans and drafts of Neuschwanstein.

Elaborate carvings cover the beams and consoles of the ceiling.





Anteroom (adjutant’s room)






The oak-panelled anteroom or adjutant room is furnished with a table, chairs and a tiled stove, as well as a couch for the use of the servant waiting on the king at night.






Upper Hall

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From the upper hall on the fourth floor a marble portal on the west side leads to the gallery of the Throne Hall and two marble portals on the east side lead into the Singers’ Hall.


The murals illustrate the Gudrun saga from the Old Norse Edda, the continuation of the Sigurd saga.


Singers’ Hall

10 aThe Singers’ Hall was one of the king’s favourite projects and next to the Throne Hall the most important room in the castle. It occupies the whole of the fourth floor in the eastern section of the Palas and is a combination of two historical rooms in the Wartburg – the Festival Hall and the Singers’ Hall. The Singers’ Hall in the Wartburg was allegedly the location of the famous Singers’ Contest which is also featured in Richard Wagner’s opera “Tannhäuser”. In 1867 Ludwig II went at Wagner’s suggestion to look at the Wartburg.

On the short, western side is the Singers’ Bower, separated from the rest of the room by steps and three arcades, and with a small gallery above it. The murals in the hall do not however deal primarily with the Singers’ Contest but with the Saga of Parzival and the Holy Grail. The bower, which resembles a stage, is painted with a forest scene – the sacred forest that surrounds the Castle of the Holy Grail. Parzival’s son is the “Swan Knight” Lohengrin, with whom the picture cycle ends. Depicted on the high coffered ceiling are the signs of the zodiac.

parzival02Like the Throne Hall, this hall was also never used for large banquets or musical performances: it was Ludwig’s monument to the knights and legends of medieval times. Tannhäuser, Parzival and Lohengrin were the figures with whom the king had identified since his youth.

Running along the long, north side is a gallery, with Flayetanis and Kyot, the authors or translators of the Grail saga, depicted on the consoles.

Behind the retaining wall of the gallery is a passage with a coloured coffered ceiling painted with scrolls bearing the names of minnesingers.

On the opposite, window wall, the ceiling consoles are carved with figures and symbols connected with the Parzival legend such as the winged Lucifer, who during his fall lost a precious stone from his crown, from which the Holy Grail was later made.

Parzival fighting the red knight. Mural in the

Singers’ Hall, August Spiess, 1883/84







The kitchen was equipped with the latest technology of the day.

It included a large stove and a sideboard, a large and a small spit, a built-in roasting oven with a plate warmer, a baking oven, a mortar and a fish tank.

Adjacent to it are the pantry, with a built-in crockery cupboard and glass-partitioned room for the chef-de-cuisine, and the scullery.



Fantasy world

Ludwig II was possessed by the idea of a holy kingdom by the Grace of God. In reality he was a constitutional monarch, a head of state with rights and duties and little freedom of action. For this reason he built a fantasy world around him in which – far removed from reality – he could feel he was a real king. From 1875 on he lived at night and slept during the day.

Idealized designs by scene painters for a “New Hohenschwangau Castle” high above the tranquil Hohenschwangau of Ludwig II’s father, a “Byzantine Palace” and a copy of Versailles were already in existence by 1868. From the beginning, Ludwig’s fantasy world embraced several different epochs. The “New Castle” (subsequently Neuschwanstein), was based on Christian kingship in the Middle Ages, and the new Versailles, built from 1878 on the Herreninsel, recalls the baroque absolutism of the Bourbon King of France. Linderhof in the Graswangtal, built from 1869, imitates a variety of styles, with the help of the latest technology.

The latest technology was also used for the highly elaborate coaches and sleighs in which the king travelled at night, sometimes in historic costume.

noche Ludwig II on a night-time sleigh ride (R. Wenig)

Ludwig spent more and more time in the mountains and correspondingly less time in Munich. His fantasy world was further maintained by “private performances” in the Hoftheater: operas and plays performed for the king alone.

Neuschwanstein is a global symbol of the era of Romanticism. The palace served as a model for the Sleeping Beauty Castle of Disneyland and became a location for films such as Helmut Käutner’s Ludwig II (1955) and Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig (1972)

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The mystery of Ludwig is that of  a sensitive, unrealistic and romantic man, who had to play a misguided  part in a play in which he never wanted to appear.

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