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Ludwig II of Bavaria: The Kitsch King’s Palaces Get a Facelift


On the night of June 12, 1886, a group of psychiatrists drove up the dark road to Neuschwanstein, the fairytale castle in Bavaria on a mission to take the lord of the manor, King Ludwig II (1845-1886), into custody. When they got there, they encountered a bloated man weighing 120 kilograms (260 lbs.), ravaged by the constant use of the soporific chloral hydrate, his teeth ruined by sweets.

A short time earlier, Ludwig, sensing his impending doom, had asked for potassium cyanide. “Hurtling downward from the highest levels of life into nothingness — that is a lost life, and I cannot bear it,” he wrote.

The king was not “incurably” mad, as the medical experts claimed at the time. At most, he was nothing more than a quirky eccentric. The real reason for his arrest was that he had lost control over his finances, and had amassed 14.5 million marks in debt. More than 100 creditors, including foreign banks, were threatening foreclosure. He was arrested to spare the Wittelsbach dynasty the humiliation of having its assets seized.

The money was consumed by a singular ensemble of elaborate, phantasmagorical structures built against the Alpine backdrop of southern Bavaria — a magical array of fantasy castles, oriental kiosks and Indian mogul palaces, decorated with an exuberant mix of styles drawing on the Renaissance, Gothic and Rococo eras.

Ludwig kept hundreds of upholsterers, wood carvers and gilders busy, along with engineers and Siemens technicians. He had his artisans design submarines and “peacock carts” that glided through the air, as well as a hunting lodge with a Turkish great hall at an altitude of 1,866 meters (6,122 feet). There, the king smoked water pipes — but never went hunting.

The value of his largely frivolous legacy remains a matter of dispute to this day. Some see Ludwig as the grand master of kitsch. Others, like Peter Gauweiler, a politician with the center-right Christian Social Union in Bavaria, celebrate him as the “precursor of Andy Warhol” and the person who perfected the stylistic era of historicism.

But everyone agrees on one thing: Almost 150 years after they were built, many of his monuments are in poor condition and now require extensive restoration.

Dust Everywhere

Everywhere there are signs of neglect. Mice have eaten the upholstery and tapestries exude the smell of mothballs. To protect them from carpet beetles, textiles used to be treated with lindane and DDT. Today, conservators have to wear protective masks while cleaning.

The situation in Neuschwanstein is especially worrisome. The regent wanted his castle built “on the lofty heights, breathing the air of heaven.” Today about 1.5 million visitors tour his private chambers on the fifth floor every year. As a result, the furniture and brocade draperies have become smeared with dirt and there are dark spots on the wooden paneling. There is a large crack in the wall of the throne room with its 15-meter (50-foot) ceiling.

And there is dust everywhere. “Tourists bring in dust from the stones outside on their shoes,” explains Heinrich Piening, the deputy director of the restoration center. “They stir up fibers from their clothing and bits of carpet fuzz, along with hair, dandruff and droplets of oil from ointments and makeup. All of this combines with soot and rubber particles from car tires to form a sticky film, which settles on the Late Romantic archetype like tar. Vandalism is also a problem.

The Bavarian agency charged with maintaining the state’s palaces has launched a renovation project to restore the site to its former glory. All of the magnificent, historic rooms in the palace are to undergo a thorough cleaning next year.

Cornelia Bodenstab of the building authority in the town of Kempten used a 360-degree laser to survey 93 rooms at Neuschwanstein. Some 355 pieces of precious furniture, 65 paintings, 185 murals and color schemes, along with clocks, ovens, canopy beds in the late Gothic style and swan-shaped faucets were also surveyed.

The cleaning of the valuable furnishings is a difficult task. Ludwig II was a master of deception. He had steel beams coated in plaster that resembles marble. He combined gold with animal glue, tested Asian lacquer techniques and had dining tables made of porcelain and parquet floors of South American rosewood.

Before the experts can repair bumps and cracks, they must first test the exotic materials. Some 45 specialists — surrounded by mountains of microscopes, gas chromatographs and X-ray fluorescence instruments — work in the central laboratory in Munich.

Only after the testing is complete will the team begin to cautiously repair and polish materials, using foam cleaners and secret tinctures. Piening reveals that “iron brushes and Coca-Cola” were used to remove rust from a carriage.

Glitter Cave and Shell-Shaped Boat

The conservators’ biggest challenge is currently the Venus Grotto in the gardens at Linderhof Palace. The artificial limestone cave is 40 meters long and looks neglected. There are holes in the wire-plaster stalactites and the underlying iron girders are rusted.

In Ludwig’s day, the ceiling of the cave, made of cement mixed with glitter, resembled a sparkling night sky. There was a waterfall with a rainbow projector. Twenty-four arc lamps bathed the grotto in blue, red and green light, the electricity provided by generators Werner Siemens had just invented. It was Bavaria’s first electricity plant.

In his leisure time, the king boarded a shell-shaped boat and pretended he was Lohengrin, the Swan Knight of Medieval German legend, in the grotto lake, which could be heated to a temperature of 28 degrees Celsius (82° Fahrenheit). Now the iron scaffolding of the grotto is in danger of collapsing. Construction manager Wolfgang Eichner attributes the problem to “serious water penetration from the hillside.”

To repair the damage, the romantic cavern will be closed to visitors starting Oct. 15. Excavators are already on site and are removing the upper layers of earth. The renovation is expected to take at least six years.

The Venus Grotto is considered a masterwork, the epitome of Ludwig’s fanciful spirit and limitless quest for beauty. By “creating such paradises,” he wrote, he had sought to escape “earthly suffering.”

As crown prince, Ludwig perceived his childhood as a “series of humiliating torments.” He was fed by a wet nurse and later kept on a tight rein by strict tutors, forced to wake up at 5:30 a.m. and study mathematics, religion, Greek and Latin until 7 p.m. Despite his “amiability,” there was something “uncanny” about the boy, said his philosophy teacher.

A 6’3″ teenager, he became a tailored-suit dandy, smoking with a cigarette holder and wearing his hair in a stylish quiff. At the University of Munich, he attended lectures by chemist Justus von Liebig. Shakespeare and Schiller were among his favorite poets.

Then came the sudden death of his father. On March 10, 1864, heralds rode through Munich in a snowstorm, proclaiming the 18-year-old as Bavaria’s new king.

Unhappy Ruler

He struggled with his role as ruler from the very beginning. “He is repulsed by his family and the entire court, hates the army and soldiers, finds the nobility ridiculous and despises the masses,” an acquaintance revealed. When 400,000 soldiers went to battle in 1866 in the “war of brothers,” as the Austro-Prussian War is known, His Highness lingered at Lake Starnberg and had his servants dress as Emperor Barbarossa in the moonlight. During court dinners, which he found tedious, Ludwig usually hid behind large bouquets of flowers piled in front of his plate. He “intentionally had the loudest music” played, so as to hinder conversation, a contemporary recalled.

The king also hated the contradiction he encountered from the Bavarian State Diet. Ludwig saw himself as the chosen one, a “genuine believer in the Medieval doctrine of divine right,” says historian Oliver Hilmes.

The young pretty-boy was vain and arrogant. In paintings, he is depicted wearing a white ermine coat. To make a dignified impression, he tried out important-seeming gestures in front of a camera, resulting in nothing but silly grimaces. He pulled his knees up to his chin when he walked, which he referred to as the “king’s gait.” His favorite animal was the peacock.

His sexual orientation also made him an outsider. Ludwig’s “chamber commands” — a collection of orders and personal notes — show that the king was interested in pretty stable boys and grooms early on. In 1865, he was officially suspected of being a “spinach poker,” or gay, in the lingo of the day.

Despite claims to the contrary, however, he long remained abstinent, overcome by feelings of shame and guilt. He even fought a predilection for masturbation, with doctors prescribing opium and bromine preparations to combat his urge for self-pleasuring. He also chilled his penis and introduced ice water into his urethra.

In light of such adversity, the soul of the unhappy king was filled with longing and the quest for salvation. He was captivated upon hearing Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin” at the age of 15 and, upon acceding to the throne, he brought the composer (“Oh holy one, I worship you!”) to Munich, where he rented a villa for Wagner and showered him with gifts. The “Ring of the Nibelung” would never have been created without Ludwig’s support. But even Wagner said that the king was “not right in the head.”

Ludwig’s castles feel like stone and mortar versions of Wagner’s music. The king planned Neuschwanstein as a “worthy temple to the divine friend.” Its design was based on the stage directions for the second act of the opera “Lohengrin” and the latest technology was used in its construction. Explosives experts removed part of a mountain near the town of Füssen, a steam-operated crane lifted the stones up to the site and the castle itself was a precursor of the steel skyscraper. Inside, it had a telephone and forced-air central heating. The king had meals brought up to the dining room with an elevator.

The machinery is broken today, as are many other features of the castle. Its rooms are aired out by opening the windows; there is no ventilation system. Sensors are installed to measure humidity levels, which are usually too high.

Saddened by Prussia’s Rise

Other palaces are also in poor condition. The massive Herrenchiemsee complex, which looks like a clone of Versailles with its 98-meter mirror gallery, is plagued by the fog rising from the lake.

The restoration of the Peacock Throne in the park of Linderhof Palace, however, was completed in July. Conservators spent two years repairing the damaged fantasy divan made of red silk and flanked by three painted peacocks with 1,400 gems in their plumage.

“Ludwig always wanted the very best,” says conservator Piening. Money was of no concern to Ludwig, who believed that he was on an aesthetic mission. “I want people to know that beautiful things were created here merely for the sake of beauty,” he said. “There has to be someone in the country who doesn’t think only of what is useful to him.”

This makes it all the more difficult today to preserve the overly stylized and ornate decorative elements. Conservators, for instance, had to use tiny dentist-style scrubbing devices to reach the soiled nooks and crannies in the carvings on the king’s gilded carriage. The vehicle, weighing in at about two tons, is overloaded with tritons, nymphs and trumpeting cherubs.

Ludwig paid 184,000 guilders for the luxury carriage. In today’s monetary terms, the carriage is the most expensive vehicle ever produced in Germany. “Nevertheless, the carriage is a faulty design,” says Piening. While it was being cleaned, it emerged that it has the turning radius of a semi-trailer truck.

But the quirky king wasn’t much interested in practicalities: Decoration and artifice were enough for him. In his palaces, there are fireplaces without flues and beds that were never slept in. Entire floors were built solely for external appearances and were kept empty from the start.

He wandered through these ghostly hallways an increasingly disgruntled and lonely lord. The Bavarian never got over the humiliation that came with the unification of the German Empire and his loss of power to Prussia. Instead, he fled into a dream world.

He even considered emigrating and sent emissaries to Greece and the Canary Islands in the hope of buying an island to establish an absolute monarchy there.

The regent increasingly spent his days in the dark, going to bed in the morning and waking up at about 5 p.m. At times, he would climb into the world’s first electric-lit sleigh and speed through snow-covered Alpine valleys.

Still, the unsociable phantom kept his sanity. By candlelight, the king examined every detail of his construction plans, read vast numbers of books and corresponded with Chancellor Bismarck. When Wagner rejected the Jewish director of the court orchestra, he responded harshly, saying that nothing was “more disgusting and unpleasant” than anti-Semitism.

Increasingly Bad Moods

At home, though, he allowed his good manners to slip. He spilled food at the table, and he sometimes spit at his servants and poured tea over their collars. Around 1882, he introduced Chinese court etiquette, requiring footmen to bow to the soles of their feet. One footman was so acrobatic while kowtowing to the king that he was nicknamed “King-fu.”

By then, the king was giving free rein to his forbidden desires. He gave up his “more than 20-year platonic love for pretty young boys” and became “very energetic in his affection for the younger stable personnel,” diplomat Philipp zu Eulenburg wrote in a report to Berlin. Men danced in the nude for him during orgies and he had a special preference for hirsute men.

Ludwig wooed Jakob Brüller, an attractive groom, calling him and “angel” and stuffing him with goose liver. But he also berated him and issued the order to “take the strictest measures possible against this disgraceful screamer, this oaf and negligent scoundrel.”

The angry king allowed himself to be placated with fine meals and sweet liquors. His table was often set for three or four people, so that Louis XIV or Madame Pompadour could join him in spirit.

But the main reason behind Ludwig’s growing ill temper, his financial worries, did not disappear. In 1884, his debts amounted to 8.25 million marks, and another 6 million were added in the next year. The king had become increasingly detached from reality.

This is also evident in his plans to escape his financial dilemma. They included schemes to rob a bank in Paris and to borrow money from the Sultan of Constantinople. But because none of these came to fruition, he could do nothing except plan. In his latter days, the unhappy king was seen bent over designs for a robber knight’s castle near the town of Pfronten. He also devised plans for a Chinese palace to be built in Tyrol.

On June 13, 1886, four days after he was declared legally incapacitated, the king was found dead in Lake Starnberg. The body of the psychiatrist who had declared him insane was floating head-down next to him, with signs of serious injuries.

Many biographers have declared the drama at Lake Starnberg a mystery. But the details of the old anatomy report suggest that violence was involved. Ludwig apparently beat the doctor in a furious rage and pulled him underwater in a fight to the death.

The idea that the king was a murderer is much too harsh for Markus Söder, Bavaria’s home affairs and finance minister, who is responsible for €3.5 million in annual funding for the renovation of Ludwig’s castles. He prefers to praise the man as the “James Dean of the Wittelsbach dynasty” and a “popstar among kings.”

And for Bavaria, Söder considers King Ludwig II’s buildings to be one thing above all: an extremely reliable source of revenue.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

  • The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 40/2016 (October 1st, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.

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