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Louis (Ludwig) II (1845-1886)

 


Louis (Ludwig) II, King of Bavaria

Mad King of Bavaria, Dream King, the Swan King, the Recluse of the Alps  Ludwig II, a legend already in his own lifetime. He patronized the revolutionary Richard Wagner, built exotic castles in the mountains, the decadent poet Verlaine called him "le seul vrai roi de ce siècle" (the only true king of his century), and Robert de Montesquiou collected momentous of his aesthetic hero. The French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans is thought to have based his hero Des Esseintes in À Rebours (1884) partly on Ludwig and partly on Mostesquiou. In Thomas Mann's novel Doctor Faustus (1948) the narrator Serenus Zeitblom has a discussion in the chapter XL whether Ludwig was mad.

"I wish to remove for ever from your shoulders the lowly cares of everyday life and to give you the peace that you long for, so that the mighty wings of your genius can unfold in the pure ether of your art!" (Ludwig II, in a letter to Wagner, The Swan King: Ludwig II of Bavaria by Christopher McIntosh, 2003, p. 42)

Louis (Ludwig being the German form of Louis) II was born in Nymphenburg Palace, Munich, the oldest son of King Maximilian II of Bavaria, and his wife Princess Marie, niece of King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia. Maximilian, devoted to learning and culture, was not an affectionate father and once said: "What am I supposed to talk to the young man about? Nothing that I deal with interests him." Much of his early years Ludwig spent in the ancient castle of Hohenschwangau and was given a thorough education. From childhood, he showed special interest in buildings, churces, monasteries and the like. Easily frightened by physical ugliness, Ludwig always turned his eyes away when he saw an unattractive person. He loved swans, drew pictures of them, and sometimes sealed his letters with a swan and a cross.

Dominated by his mother and the memory of his scandalous grandfather King Ludwig I, who abdicated the throne because of his liaison with the actress Lola Montez, Ludwig II rose to the throne at the age of 18. In this role Ludwig became a confirmed conservative  he admired the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, and believed in autocracy. He had no real knowledge of government affairs or what his responsibilities were; something his mother voiced concern about.

During the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 Ludwig sided with the Austrians against the German confederation created by Otto von Bismarck. The Austrians lost during the Battle of Sadona in July 1866 and Ludwig signed an alliance with Prussia. When Napoleon suggested a Franco-Austro-Bavarian alliance against Prussia, Ludwig refused and joined the Prussian forces in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71. Bismarck's renewed suggestions for a unified Germany in 1870 was treated coldly by Ludwig, who was concerned about a possible diminished role Bavaria would play in the confederation.

Disturbed by his loss of prestige and the fervor sweeping across Bavaria, Ludwig gradually withdrew from politics. His marriage to his cousin Sophie was cancelled in 1867 and Ludwig spent more time with young officers and actors. He felt a special attachment to Richard Hornig, his chief equerry, who served him for eighteen years. Ludwig's few close relationships included Empress Elisabeth of Austria, his cousin, better known as "Sissi" and Prince von Hohenlohe. From his self-imposed exile Ludwig communicated with his government through messengers and by telegrams  when he was not listening to verses being recited or rowing in his boat, that resembled a large seashell, in his electrically illuminated grotto. Towards the end of his life he became interested in numerology and was obsessed by a prophecy attributed to Nostradamus, which was believed to relate the Bavarian royal family.

After travelling incognito in France and visiting Verseille, Ludwig began plans for his palace projects, in which he spent most of his money. By the 1880s he had retreated from royal society altogether and indulged himself by building and expanding extravagant castles: Neuschwanstein, the gothic fairytale palace, which was provided with electric light, Herrenchiemsee, a replica of Verseille and Linderhof, a Rococo style pavilion in an icicle-draped park. That was the only large building finished during his lifetime.

At the age of 15 Ludwig attended a theater performance of Lohengrin. He was deeply affected by this legend and identified with this lonely knight. Richard Wagner, who in 1864 was almost destitute in his struggle with poverty and critics, was saved by Ludwig, who asked him to come to Munich. Richard Wagner resumed his work on Siegfried, some 11 years after he last worked on the opera. Ludwig lent the composer vast amounts of money over the years and believed that it was their joint mission to revive the German culture. On the day after their first meeting Ludwig wrote to Wagner: "Unknowingly you were the sole source of my joy from my earliest boyhood, my friend who spoke to my heart as no other could, my best mentor and teacher." Wagner read his works to him, saying in a letter that Ludwig "shows deep involvement and great powers of comprehension, his attentiveness is often staggering, and his beautiful features register deep sorrow or great joy depending on how I affect his mood." Noteworthy, Ludwig's piano teacher had concluded after five years of lessons, that he had no talent for music. Tristan premiered in June 1865. To mark the occasion, Ludwig granted an amnesty to those who had been condemned for taking part in the revolution of 1848-49.

Basically the king had no fortune, and his patronage of Wagner had to be financed from the Civil List, which caused indignation among Ludwig's cabinet officials. Wagner was never entirely happy with the arrangement since he was completely dependent on Ludwig's whims. However, Wagner completed Die Meistersinger in 1868. Die Goetterdaemmerung was first performed in Bayreuth in 1876, followed by Parsifal in 1882. On November 12, 1880 Wagner conducted a private performance of the Parsifal prelude for Ludwig. This was their last meeting and the king retreated further and further into his dream world of legends and castles.

The horrified government, aware of Ludwig's scandalous orgies and his demands on the treasury and most of all concerned by his nationalistic stand against Prussia, declared him insane and placed him under arrest. On June 13, 1886 the king and his psychiatrist Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, were found in Lake Starnberg where they had presumably drowned. It is possible that Ludwig had tried to kill his doctor and then attempted to escape by swimming away from his prison at castle Berg. According to another theory they both were murdered. Because the king's brother Prince Otto was also insane, their uncle Prince Luitpold became Prince Regent of Bavaria.

Ludwig left behind revealing diaries and personal letters of his colorful dreams, some of which became true. Transcripts from the so-called 'Secret Diary,' which he kept between December 1869 and June 1886, was published in 1925. The name of the editor, Edir Grein, was an anagram of the surname of Erwin Riedinger, who was the stepson of Johann von Lutz, Prime Minister at the end of Ludwig's reign. During WW II the diaries were destroyed in an air raid. Ludwig's behavior, his seclusion, his mood swings from friendliness to extreme anger, point to schizophrenia/manic depression. Another theory is that he suffered from syphilis, like his cousin Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria. The Bayreuth festival originated from Ludwig's love for music and Richard Wagner's operas, not from insanity.

Essentially Ludwig was a talentless, eccentric man, who had a lifelong struggle not just with mental illness but homosexual leanings  as well. Like a character in a Greek tragedy, Ludwig was destroyed by divine madness. His grandiose Neuschwanstein castle, situated on a craggy mountain, capped a building boom that nearly bankrupted Bavaria, but now draws a steady stream of tourists to the Allgaeu region.  

Ludwig's Wagnerland and especially Neuschwanstein provided stimulus for Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty (1959) and for Disneyland. While traveling in Europe after WWII, Disney visisted  Neuschwanstein. The life of the eccentric ruler, who carried his royal duties as madly as George III of England (1738-1820), have inspired many playwrights and filmmakers. Luchino Visconti's  Ludwig (1972), starring Romy Schneider (Empress Elisabeth of Austria), Helmut Berger (Ludwig II), and Trevor Howard (Wagner), completed his trilogy of 'German decadence,' following The Damned and Death in Venice. Original version runs 246 minutes, other versions 231 (video) and 173 or 186 minutes. Ludwig looks unhurriedly at the life and premature death of the king. The film was shot in the Bavarian locations and castles. During the production, Visconti lost his health. Moreover, the film became for him a great artistic failure: it was not released in its original length. Visconti starts from Ludwig's crowning ceremonies and continued how his visions are shattered by political realities. The score utilizes themes of Wagner  especially Tristan  Schumann and Offenbach. The musical Ludwig II - Longing for Paradise, opened in 2000 in the valley below Neuschwanstein Castle.

For further reading: Ludwig II. König von Bayern, sein Leben und seine Zeit? by Gottfried Böhm (1924); Ludwig II. König von Bayern by Werner Richter (1939; The Mad Monarch, 1954); Bavarian Fantasy by Desmond Chapman-Huston (1955); The Dream King: Ludwig II of Bavaria by Wilfrid Blunt (1970); Er war ein König by Ludwig Hollweck (1979); Castles, Mystery and Music: The Legend of Ludwig II: A Pictorial History of the Life of Ludwig II of Bavaria by Anton Sailer (1983); Wagner by Howard Gray (1990); Ludwig II: Mad King of Bavaria by Desmond Chapman-Huston (1990); Ludwig II and His Dream Castles by Ludwig Merkle (1995); The Mad King by Greg King (1996); The Swan King: Ludwig II of Bavaria by Christopher McIntosh (2003) - Other famous art patrons: Elisabeth of Russia, Louis XIV, Cosimo de' Medici, Lorenzo de' Medici, Otto I the Great, Francesco Sforza, Ludovico Sforza, Sixtus IV, Suleyman I the Magnificent, Mohamed II the Conqueror, Chandragupta II - art students/practitioners: Frederick the Great,  Leopold I, Prince Eugen of Sweden and Norway, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill

Works:

  • Tagebuch-Aufzeichnungen von Ludwig II. König von Bayern, 1925 (edited by Edir Grein)
  • König Ludwig II. und Richard Wagner. Briefwechsel, 1936-39 (5 vols., edited by Otto Strobel)


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