For someone who was so shy and reclusive in life, King Ludwig II has achieved remarkable and lasting popularity in death. Born at Schloss Nymphenburg in 1845, he had spirited good looks not unlike those of his cousin, the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, and cut quite a dash when he came to the Bavarian throne in 1864 at the age of 18. Ludwig was fascinated with the French royal dynasty, the Bourbons, to which his own family was related. This developed into a fixation with the most illustrious of the Bourbons, Louis XIV, whose absolute power contrasted so starkly with the relative powerlessness of the Bavarian monarchy after its defeat alongside Austria in the 1866 war against Prussia. Seemingly overcompensating for this political impotence, the king retreated increasingly into an extravagant fantasy world, becoming steadily more eccentric and – towards the end of his life – rather corpulent.

He was a patron of Richard Wagner, whose fantastical operas fired the king’s own vivid imagination, and though he disapproved of Wagner’s anti-Semitism he continued to support the composer financially, even planning a lavish festival theatre to host the composer’s operas in Munich, which was to remain unbuilt. A political reactionary but at the same time a romantic, Ludwig devoted his attention to fabulous but ruinously expensive projects to realize his fantasies in built form: a castle straight from the age of chivalry at Neuschwanstein, a homage to the Sun King at Herrenchiemsee and an eclectic but breathtakingly opulent “villa” at Linderhof. Eventually his spending caught up with him, as foreign banks threatened to foreclose. Ludwig’s refusal to react to this crisis in rational fashion prompted the Bavarian government to act unconstitutionally, declaring him insane and removing him from the throne. He was interned at the castle of Berg on Starnberger See, where he and his doctor were discovered drowned in mysterious circumstances on June 13, 1886. Very shortly afterwards his palaces – which had been intensely private places during his life – were opened to the paying public.

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