What must it be like to have so much money you can build your own fantasy world? I suppose the people who come closest to this dream are film directors like Peter Jackson or George Lucas who spend most of their adult lives immersed in a green screen universe of robots and goblins. In the 19th century King Ludwig II was able to immerse himself not in a green screen parallel world, but the real thing.
Brought up on a diet of mythology and folklore Prince Ludwig lived a relatively sheltered life and was slowly consumed by the tales of Tannhauser and Lohengrin. He would eventually come to meet Wagner, but he wanted more, so he emptied the court coffers and started building.
His first project was built on a rock not far from his childhood home, Castle Hohenschwangau. The castle, Neuschwanstein, became an icon which influenced Walt Disney and a thousand jigsaw manufacturers. Cruikshank unearths early photos showing the castle under construction, hidden by an unfathomable lattice of timber scaffolding. When it was finished Neuschwanstein was a salute to all the mythical scenery Ludwig had encountered as a child. Murals, paintings, sculpture, the lot. Of course the whole thing was a veneer, as Cruikshank demonstrated by inserting himself behind the walls and above ceilings to reveal the rough brick and metal support structures holding the whole thing up.
The engineering in some ways reflected Ludwig’s life; a flamboyant make believe exterior hiding the more pragmatic and ugly business of the day. Ludwig was forever trapped between the interminable wars and conflicts involving Prussia, Austria, Bavaria and France. Conflicts which raged against Ludwig’s natural love and appreciation of beauty and harmony.
Following Neuschwanstein (and I have to tell you that’s a real buggar of a name to keep typing) Ludwig built the slightly less grandiose Linderhof palace, all gleeming renaissence lines and meticulous landscaped gardens. Once every powerful state in Europe had been given a good hiding by Prussia the game was up for Ludwig’s Bavaria. He was reduced to the puppet ruler of a puppet state, bankrupt and only kept afloat by a treasury that could and would pull the financial plug at any time.
His final building, the Herrenchiemsee palace was modelled on Versaille, but as Cruikshank revealed, was never completed. Parts of the palace are still empty, unadorned, consisting of vast bare faced brick walls waiting for the magic plasterers and divine decorators. Ludwig’s younger brother Otto had been diagnosed as insane, so family madness was an easy way of turfing Ludwig out of power and out of the limelight. His body was found dead floating in Lake Starnberg, aged forty.