Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Ludwig and Schloss-Manie: Magnificent Obsessions I

There are obvious dangers when the divine right to rule falls to one who shows signs of mental abnormality, but like Hui-tsung, our next monarch was a great patron of the arts, and an enthusiastic creator of architectural fantasies. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about his eccentric rule is that it occurred in the last quarter of the 19th century. Ludwig's extravagant, unstoppable building programme, which was to lead to his countries economic ruin, can be seen as one of the last grand gestures of European monarchic autocracy.


In 1885, in the twenty-first year of his reign, 'Mad' Ludwig of Bavaria instructed one of his stable workers to proceed forthwith to Persia and attempt to locate a mysterious and 'fabulously rich man' who, when he heard of the Kings predicament, would come to his aid. In reality this figure only existed in Ludwig's fertile imagination, but by this time his need to raise funds was real and urgent enough. After years of profligate spending the King had reached the end of his financial rope. Other servants were sent on similar, and equally futile, missions. One went to England to contact the Duke of Westminster, another was sent to the King of Sweden. The Sultan of Turkey received a call, as did the President of Brazil.

Apart from the fact that none of these missions were at all successful, we can only speculate on the upshot of these ventures. How were the King's emissaries received? How did they convey their master's requests? What adventures befell them on their journeys? Were, indeed, the orders actually carried out? By this time Ludwig's staff had plenty of experience with his eccentric behaviour and his occasional bizarre orders. That he was unhappy in his role was equally well known. He had, after all, let it be known that he would like to sell Bavaria and buy some other, finer place, for which purpose he had sent a Privy Councillor on several long (and again unsuccessful) voyages.

When it became clear that his appeals were failing to bear fruit Ludwig conceived the madcap idea of robbing the Rothschild Bank in Frankfurt, and began to conscript a gang for the purpose. In the event this scheme had no more success than any of his other attempts to raise money. When his ministers, alarmed at his mounting expenditure, had informed him that there was nothing left in the exchequer, his characteristic response was to immediately demand a further 20 million marks. But by this time the King's financial crisis was matched by that of the Bavarian economy, which, as a result of his own incredible extravagance, was utterly bankrupt. The cause of this parlous state of affairs was the King's obsession with castle-building - no ordinary castles either, but an extravagant and fantastic architecture derived from the jumbled mixture of medieval, mythical and romantic notions that had completely taken over Ludwig’s imagination.

Since early youth Ludwig had inclined towards private fantasy. He was highly-strung and painfully shy, and his emotionally deprived upbringing only increased his sense of isolation. As heir to the 700-year-old Wittelsbach line he was subjected to quite unique pressures (particularly at this time, when the very independence of Bavaria was in question). But the combination of his rigidly spartan upbringing (his parents' idea), together with the constant company of flattering, obsequious servants, did little to encourage a healthy mental outlook. In spite of this Ludwig was, apparently, a bright and creative child. His interest in architecture and the theatrical appeared at an early age. He loved playing with his toy bricks and was particularly good at building churches and monasteries. He also loved dressing up. But the shadow of mental instability was present from a young age. He had always been drawn to private fantasy, but by the age of fourteen there were indications that he was subject to mild hallucinations, hearing voices in his head. This was very worrying since other family members had been afflicted by mental illness. Most recently his aunt, the Princess Alexandra, laboured under the delusion that she had swallowed a grand piano made of glass. In later years Ludwig’s own younger brother Otto was terribly affected by a serious mental disorder.

Ludwig unexpectedly acceded to the throne at the age of nineteen, after the sudden death of his father in 1864. At this time he was tall, handsome and immensely charming, and despite his lack of experience, made a favourable impression on his ministers. There were great hopes for his reign. This period was a sensitive one, both for the continuity of the 700 year-old Wittelsbach line and for the continuity of an independent Bavarian state, since there were powerful forces working towards its absorption into a new German Reich under Prussian dominance. The Prussian Chancellor Bismarck, 'a man of blood and iron' (and a thorough-going neurotic himself), was the prime mover of this movement. Ludwig was, of course, well aware of the machinations of the latter and, insofar as he was interested in politics at all, was keen to maintain the independence and neutrality of his country.

Unfortunately he was not really up to the job of resisting Bismarck. Ludwig's dignified pose concealed a painfully divided nature. That he was sensitive and artistic was perfectly clear, but there was also a darker, unstable and autocratic side to his character that could lead to furious outbursts of temper. His most serious deficiency as a ruler, however, was his lack of any real enthusiasm for affairs of state. Soon after his accession his Minister of Justice, Eduard von Bomhard, described him as 'mentally gifted in the highest degree, but with the contents of his mind stored in a totally disordered fashion'. Despite all of this the early years of his reign passed peaceably and uneventfully. His great passion at this time was the work of Wagner, whom he had idolised since his first hearing of the composer’s operas. In fact this music had made a quite overwhelming impression on the young prince.

It so happened that when Ludwig came to the throne Wagner was in serious financial difficulties, and the King was able to come to his rescue. He cleared the composer's debts and provided him with a regular salary and a house in Munich. For the world of music this intervention was particularly timely, since it enabled Wagner to complete three his major operas, The Ring, Parsival and Tristan. Ludwig became completely enthralled both by the composer himself and his works. Wagner later described their meeting as 'an unbelievable miracle'. In reality, though, Ludwig had a rather poor ear for music and it was the fantastic, romantic world evoked by the operas that really captivated his imagination. Wagner, who was forty years older than the King became something of a father figure to Ludwig and was, unfortunately, inclined to take advantage of the King's generosity. Eventually the composer over-reached himself in his attempts to interfere in Bavarian politics, and he was eased out by politicians who resented his meddling.

For Ludwig, however, the mythical world of Wagner's operas had left an abiding impression, and his first great venture into castle building, at Hohenschwangau, was conceived as a 'Grail Castle'. It was to be located in a place that Ludwig described to Wagner as 'one of the most beautiful that one could ever find, sacred and out of reach, a worthy temple to a divine friend'. In effect it was intended as a shrine to the composer, and to embody the spirit of Lohengrin and Tannhauser. It was also destined to become one of the most fantastic examples of 19th century architecture.

Hohenschwagau is a pastiche medieval castle, with towering battlements, spiky irregular turrets and elegant Romanesque windows. Its interior decoration carried on the Grail theme, with masses of carved wood panels and murals. The overall impression is that of a castle from a children’s book illustration. Its general appearance owed much to Ludwigs instructions, which were rendered into somewhat romanticised sketches by a theatrical scene-designer, Christian Jank. These drawings were then passed on to the King's architects who were given the task of turning them into reality. The task was an enormous challenge, and Ludwig was far from being an easy client. The King maintained a close interest in every stage of the construction and was forever coming up with new ideas, to the architects' endless frustration. The end product, however, is a weird but spectacular building. All that one can say is that, ultimately, the end results do justify the anguish that Ludwig must have put his architects through.

Work had barely begun on this castle when Ludwig felt the need for another, more private place - 'Oh how necessary it is to create for oneself poetic places of refuge, where one can forget for a little while the dreadful times in which we live'. The new palace, at Linderhof, although its decoration was even more extravagant than the Grail Castle, was on a less forbidding scale. This palace was intended as an act of homage to Ludwig's latest obsessional hero-figure, Louis XIV, and was inspired by his palace at Versaille. The exterior of Linderhof is pure wedding-cake baroque in white stone. It is exuberant to say the least, but its outer appearance is relatively modest compared to the interior, which can only be descried as utterly unrestrained rococo. It is positively crammed with gilt and mirrors, tapestries and cut-glass candelabra. There are numerous paintings, of variable quality, some of which, unfortunately, fall into the 'garish' category. All the fireplaces are of fine marble, and a great deal of lapis lazuli and malachite is splashed around the place. In common with most of the Kings other projects, the scheme is so extravagant, so kitsch, that it almost transcends taste. As with the Grail-castle, Ludwig took a detailed interest in the architectural and design work at every stage of the project, and was savagely critical of any aspect that fell short of his expectations. In fact Ludwig became far more involved with the construction of his castle than with his official duties, which were seriously neglected.

The King's architectural ambitions were not limited to castles. The gardens at Linderhof in particular were graced with several other structures in which Ludwig gave full reign to his fantasies. The most impressive of these was a huge artificial grotto that contained its own internal lake and waterfall. The interior of this folly bristled with artificial stalactites, and the lake itself was stocked with swans. Ludwig enjoyed drifting around the lake in a whimsical cockleshell boat (designed by himself), while its surface was gently ruffled by an elaborate concealed mechanism. The entire grotto was warmed by the lake itself, whose temperature was maintained by furnaces that operated around the clock. Not that such details, or their cost, concerned Ludwig - 'I don't want to know how it works, I just want to see the effects'.

This temple of kitsch also housed a stage, which was set up with scenery from the first act of Tannhauser, the whole of which was illuminated with electric lighting (the first of its kind in Bavaria). In addition to the more conventional lighting Ludwig had devised a sort of early light-show, which projected an elaborate play of colours onto the backdrop, culminating in an artificial rainbow. There were other follies scattered about the gardens at Linderhof, included a 'Hunting Lodge' - where Ludwig and his friends would dress in bear skins and drink mead - and a Moorish Kiosk that was gaudily decorated in an extravagant melée of Turkish and Arabic styles.

It is quite clear that Ludwig's immersion in the world of his own fantasies was his way of escaping from the harsh 'realities' in which he was supposed to be engaged, the world of state business and political intrigues. His official duties, particularly those that required him to appear in public, became ever more onerous, and he became positively phobic about being stared at by thousands of people. The demands made on him by the rigid conventions of the time became almost unbearable - 'I can't stand having to smile and bow a thousand times, and having to ask questions of people who are nothing to me, and listen to answers that bore me'. Under these pressures his behaviour grew increasingly erratic. He became increasingly capricious in his dealings with his courtiers, and his servants were ordered not to look him in the face. Any perceived disobedience was likely incur some ludicrous punishment. His minions were ordered to crawl on all fours, or kneel with their heads on the ground. There was a great deal of concern, particularly among his Ministers, at Ludwig’s profligacy and increasingly eccentric behaviour - not least with the scandal of his continual affairs with handsome young men.

A turning point in his life came when his beloved younger brother, Otto, after years of mental distress, was finally declared incurably insane, and was deprived of his liberty. Ludwig’s reaction to this tragedy, characteristically, was to immerse himself in further, and even more fantastic, castle projects. By this time he had become thoroughly obsessed with the life of Louis XIV and his court at Versaille, indeed at times he seems to have believed himself to be among their company and held conversations with them. His new castle, Herrenchiemsee, was to be closely modelled on Versaille and was intended as the most sumptuous of all his buildings. Ludwig had visited Versaille in 1874, and greatly impressed the guides with his extensive knowledge of the place. Naturally the new building would surpass the original; its Mirror Gallery, for instance, was to be some 90 feet longer.

In this, as with his all his previous architectural schemes, Ludwig constantly interfered with the work in progress and his demands by now had a distinct tinge of mania. He drove his architects to near despair with a continuous flow of new ideas and demands for alterations to those that had already been agreed. At one stage he decided to have a waterfall cascading down one of the principle staircases, and the architects had great difficulty in persuading him against this idea. He also came up with an ambitious plan for a cable car, which was to be suspended from a gas balloon, as a link between Herrenchiemsee and the mainland, an elevation of some 4,000 feet. This project too was abandoned, with great reluctance. Despite these constraints, Ludwig's expenditure was mounting alarmingly. Herrenchiemsee finally cost some 16 million marks, an astronomical sum. But even while this castle was being constructed Ludwig was laying plans for two more. Falkenstein was intended as a vast Gothic/Byzantine edifice that sat on a mountaintop, whose pinnacles and towers would 'overlook the world'. The other was to be a Chinese Palace on the shores of the lake Plansee. Ludwig's plans for each of these was well advanced - at least in his imagination. They were to be themed. In the former Ludwig and his courtiers would dress and conduct themselves in a Byzantine style, in the latter everything would be Chinese.

However, Ludwig’s reckless extravagance and increasingly erratic behaviour was becoming generally unsupportable. The Bavarian economy was in a deplorable state and there was a feeling that, politically, it was drifting rudderless. The problem was that Ludwig was an absolute monarch, he showed no inclination towards abdication, and as things stood it was extremely difficult to remove him. The King had been receiving 4½ million marks annually from the Civil List, but by the spring of 1884 the Royal Treasury was 7½ million marks in debt. Although he was informed of the position Ludwig ordered that his building programme be continued, even stepped up, and demanded a further 20 million marks. By the following year the Treasury debt had risen to nearly 14 million marks. The Minister-President and his Cabinet were forced to take action; they decided, in secret session, that Ludwig would have to be declared insane.

A specially constituted Commission was drawn up, and discretely began to acquire evidence of Ludwig's mental instability. There was, of course, no shortage of material. Even so it was a tricky business, since the Commission was open to the charge of Treason. Eventually, however, they declared Ludwig to be in 'such an advanced state of insanity that he is incapable of exercising government'. Plans for a coup d'etat were mounted (which received the tacit approval of Bismarck), but there were still difficulties. When the rumour of his impending arrest leaked out most of his lackeys abandoned him, but when a party of Commissioners arrived to apprehend the King they found that a loyal servant had forewarned him, and they themselves were arrested. Fortunately for them Ludwig's orders that they be starved, flogged and blinded were ignored - and after a few anxious hours they were all released. But the King was badly shaken by these developments. He had finally been confronted with the harshness of a reality that he had spent a lifetime denying.

The Commission finally managed to detain Ludwig, and he was placed under close confinement 'for his own safety'. His 65 year-old Uncle, Luitpold, reluctantly accepted the Regency. Unfortunately the King's mental condition had markedly deteriorated by now, the shock of arrest and detention pushing him to the end of his tether. Despite the vigilance of an attendant he managed to commit suicide, in June 1886. Bavaria was incorporated into a Prussian-dominated Germany a little over a decade later.

Ludwig was a great patron of the arts, he was unilaterally responsible for an arts and crafts revival in Bavaria, and he loathed politics and the military. The great irony of his career is that his architectural follies have now become great national assets. By contrast, the legacy of Bismarck, Ludwigs polar opposite, and the very epitome of a forceful, ambitious politician, was a belligerent nationalism that was to have the most devastating consequences for Europe.