Alpha and omega. Das A und O, as the Germans say when they wish to emphasise the elementary importance of something. The essence, the crux. The beginning and the end.
We find ourselves in Bavaria seeking the alpha and omega of its deeply eccentric onetime ruler, King Ludwig II – the sites of his birth and of his death. This early autumn expedition takes us to a palace in western Munich and then to a lakeside location about 20 kilometres south of the city limits.
Like everything else in Ludwig’s life, its inception and cessation were veiled in mystery, accompanied by gossip and celebrated with a rich iconography. Ludwig – the “Swan King”, or less charitably the “Mad King” – famously created extravagant settings for the existence that fell between these poles. The most lasting products of his life (apart from the music of his idol Richard Wagner, which he helped to bankroll) were three historicist palaces in remote locations. The king was discomfited by public life, burdened by the business of ruling and far happier in Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee, where he communed with the spirits of French monarchs. His occasional tumbles with flesh and blood manservants caused the devoutly Catholic king to repent bitterly. If you are new to Ludwig you could watch these ten films real quick and catch up, or explore the manifold influence he and cousin Sissi exerted on similarly singular sensibilities.
Somehow it’s been 20 years since my last visit to Munich. For the majority of that time I have lived within easy reach in Berlin, and for the last five or so years the writers, thinkers and rebels of the city’s bohemian heyday around 1900 have staked out a large part of my mind. I always meant to make it back here, but something always came up. Now, staying with friends outside the city I am venturing into the Bavarian capital for the day. As my home borough in Berlin has Germany’s highest Covid infection rates at the time it would be illegal to stay in a hotel here. And because 2020 is the year that just keeps on giving I am not arriving via comfortable, efficient, low-emissions train, but by hire car. And you’d think the capital of car-crazed Bavaria would know how to keep traffic flowing at this distinctly non-peak mid-morning hour, but … nah.
Central Munich is cold and masked and anxious. At Nymphenburg Palace it is spitting rain. I didn’t make it here last time and based on the fact that it was the Bavarian royal family’s summer residence I had always imagined it to be comparatively dinky. But it is huge. While it doesn’t present the monolithic frontage of a Versailles, it just rambles on, and on, and on.
At the central block you can ascend to a terrace, look out at the expansive, rigorously arranged gardens and find yourself in cinema history. The famous garden tableau from Last Year at Marienbad was filmed here, although the palace facade in the film was shot a few kilometres north in Schloss Schleißheim. It is fitting that Alain Resnais’s enigmatic masterpiece should share this location with Ludwig, who once declared a wish to remain “an eternal mystery”.
For Ludwig, enigma was in die Wiege gelegt, or laid in his cradle, as the Germans refer to inherent and unalterable conditions. On a summer’s day in 1845, Princess Marie of Prussia gave birth to the future Bavarian king in her Nymphenburg quarters, still to be seen in their original Empire decor today (it was Napoleon who had raised Bavaria to kingdom status). We can probably rule out the possibility that Ludwig was himself laid in a coroneted cradle by green-winged angels, but a painting depicting just such an allegorical scene was recently rediscovered. Franz Xaver Nachtmann’s portrayal was riffing on the concept of the divine right of kings; if it be God’s will that they should wear the crown, might sovereigns – like pennies – fall from Heaven?
A picture within the picture hints at further mysteries. A pious pair gaze up in adoration at the Virgin and Child enthroned aloft. On the right we have Saint Teresa of Avila, a gesture to Ludwig’s grandmother Therese, who gave her name to Theresienwiese, the field on which Oktoberfest is emphatically not taking place this year. She is joined by Saint Louis (Louis IX of France), alighting here in honour of the infant’s grandfather Ludwig I, who was named for the saint’s ill-fated descendant Louis XVI. And wouldn’t you know it, little Ludwig was born on big Ludwig’s birthday.
Except … court tattle had it that Ludwig was born a few days prior to August 25, with the news held over to cheer up the old man on his special day. And then there’s the question of paternity. Officially the father was Marie’s husband, Prince (later King) Maximilian. But as you pass through Ludwig I’s famous gallery of beauties two rooms over, you may notice Princess Marie (along with Lady Jane Digby, later joined by Lola Montez). Munich, notorious at the time as a particularly gossip-hungry city, buzzed with rumours that Marie’s father-in-law was actually the father. Ludwig I never could keep it in his lederhosen.
Or was it yet another Ludwig? Sumptuously named Bavarian general Ludwig Freiherr von und zu der Tann-Rathsamhausen was also rumoured to have sired the future king. Or perhaps it was an Italian servant? Eyewitnesses couldn’t even agree on the more readily observable events around Ludwig’s birth – was it a 25- or 101-gun salute which greeted the news?
An eternal mystery.
We fast-forward the next forty years and arrive at the eastern shore of Starnberger See, in a beech forest barely suspecting autumn, with snow-capped mountains just visible in the mist beyond the southern point of the lake. This is the town of Berg whose palace was well known to Ludwig. The young king spent time here after coming to the throne in 1864. Naturally he was expected to find a suitable mate, and it appeared that the tall, slim, handsome monarch may have found his perfect match just across the lake. Schloss Possenhofen, on the western shore, was the childhood home of Ludwig’s cousin and kindred spirit Sissi, but it was her younger sister Sophie who was sized up as a consort. She appears to have genuinely fallen for the young king vom anderen Ufer (literally: “from the other shore”, figuratively: gay). They were betrothed but it soon became apparent that Ludwig was not marriage material. The engagement was dissolved; commemorative coin makers were out of pocket and poor Sophie – she never could catch a break! – was briefly linked to the similarly unsuitable Austrian Archduke Ludwig Viktor and ended up dying in the fire at the Bazar de la Charité in Paris.
It was a far more rotund Ludwig who returned here in 1886, and not of his own volition. The Bavarian government was alarmed at the king’s profligate expenditure for unnecessary building works and his reluctance to actually do the less fun kingly stuff like rule the country. He was declared insane on spurious evidence, forcibly deposed and taken from Neuschwanstein to Berg. He would never leave.
Nothing in Ludwig’s life has left as many riddles as its conclusion, which came on 13 June 1886. A cross at splashing distance from the shore a short walk from the Schloss marks the spot where his body was found, along with that of physician Dr Bernhard von Gudden, in waist-deep water. The official version holds that Ludwig, determined to end his life, held Dr Gudden under water until he died, and then suffered a heart attack before he could drown himself.
A contemporary postcard shows an angel, darker of wing and graver of countenance than the seraphim that attended his birth; a finger to her lips counsels silence as she lays a ghostly coronet, perhaps the one that adorned his cradle, on the waters. At Ludwig’s funeral witnesses reported that the Munich church in which he was laid to rest was struck by lightning. But the rumble of rumour rolled on. Was the king shot on the secret orders of the Bavarian prime minister, or did it go all the way up to Chancellor Bismarck? Had his cousin Sissi organised help, and did Ludwig simply drown as he swam out toward a waiting boat, or was he shot in the endeavour by a policeman meant to protect the king but mistaking his identity? And did Dr von Gudden, horrified at the thought of being implicated in the monarch’s death, then simply kill himself? This is not even an exhaustive list of the conjectured circumstances of Ludwig’s death.
Over 20 years ago a secret society of monarchist Bavarian separatists calling themselves “Guglmänner” emerged, dressed in peaked black hoods similar to the ones worn by Spanish penitents. The group is particularly obsessed by Ludwig, and his demise, which they are convinced was the work of the Prussians (I delve into the bizarre world of the Guglmänner in a little more detail here). But the king also remains remarkably persistent in folk memory – I saw more Bavarian flags emblazoned with his likeness than German flags. Mourners in traditional costume still gather here every 13 June, just as the village of Oberammergau – best known for its Passion Play – still marks his birth every year with a bonfire.
At the shore a larger cross watches over the cross in the water, larger still on an incline looms the “Votive Chapel”, where Christ enthroned – all grown up now – holds a book with the letters: alpha and omega.
Let them eat kuchen
Sewell on Ludwig
Ludwig at the movies
An eternal mystery
Circles: Ludwig II/Sissi
First Dick on film
Pearls: Ludwig II
Meanwhile, on Starnberger See…
Ludwig der Zweite, König von Bayern