A tribute to the knights of Germanic legend, the castle of Neuschwanstein represents the fusion of the dreams and wealth of King Ludwig of Bavaria and the artistic vision of the composer Richard Wagner. The fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein, perched above the rugged gorge of the River Pollat in the Bavarian Alps, is the world’s most magical castle. Against a backdrop of dark green fir trees, its ivory towers seem to hang in the air. Neuschwanstein, conceived and constructed by King Ludwig II (1845-86) looks more ‘medieval’ than anything built in the Middle Ages. One man’s dream transformed into reality by limitless wealth, Neuschwanstein is the epitome of theatrical design.
The roots of Ludwig’s dream lay in his childhood. The young prince loved play acting and dressing up and, according to his grandfather Ludwig I, by the age of six he was constructing ‘astonishingly good buildings’ with toy bricks. Family summers were spent at Hohenschwangau, the ancestral seat of the lords of Schwangau, which Ludwig’s father, Maximilian II, had purchased in 1833. Something of a romantic, Maximilian had employed a stage designer rather than an architect to draw up the castle’s ‘restoration’ plans. He had also indulged his taste for medieval legend, and the walls were painted with scenes from various tales, in particular the story of Lohengrin, the Swan Knight, who was reputed to have lived at Hohenschwangau.
With this stimulation, it is small wonder that in 1861, when Ludwig, who was shy, sensitive and had a vivid imagination, heard his first opera, Lohengrin, he was overwhelmed. He asked his father to summon the composer, Richard Wagner (1813-83), to re-stage the production just for him. This was the start of a relationship that lasted for the rest of Ludwig’s life. When Maximilian died and Ludwig ascended the Bavarian throne in 1864 at the age of 18, he wasted only five weeks before sending for Wagner and establishing him in a Munich Villa. He saw their association not just as one of artist and patron but as one of joint creators. Although Ludwig was not musical, he offered money, advice, criticism and inspiration. Through his works Wagner, in return, gave a measure of reality to the dreamworld in which Ludwig preferred to exist.
The impulse that attracted Ludwig to Wagner’s music also lay behind his desire to construct fabulous palaces, where his dreams could be enacted. The first and finest of these was Neuschwanstein. In the spring of 1867 Ludwig visited the Gothic castle of Wartburg, near Eisenach in Thuringia. It appealed to his love of the theatrical and romantic, and he wanted one exactly like it. On a crag just north of Hohenschwangau was a ruined watchtower. This Ludwig decided, was to be the site of Neuschwanstein, his ‘new home of the swan’, and on 5th September 1869, the foundation stone of the main block, or Palas, was laid.
Following his father’s practice, Ludwig commissioned Christian Jank, the scenic artist at the court Theatre, to design the castle’s exterior. Jank provided the king with fantastic sketches from which a host of painters and craftsmen built when amounted to a series of sets for Wagner’s operas Lohengrin, Tannhauser and Parsifal.
Neuschwanstein is essentially Lohengrin’s castle. Plans for the Palas, which was originally conceived as a three-storey Gothic fortress, were gradually modified until it became the five-storey Romansque structure Ludwig thought most appropriate to the legend. Inspiration for the courtyard came from the design of the Antwerp castle courtyard in Act II of an actual production of Lohengrin.
The inspiration for the Singers’ Hall came from the opera Tannhauser. Tannhauser was a 13th century German poet who, according to legend, found his way into the Venusberg, a subterranean world of love and beauty that was presided over by the goddess Venus. One scene of Wagner’s Tannhauser was set in the Singers’ Hall at Wartburg, so Ludwig commissioned Jank to reproduce it at Neuschwanstein. Ludwig also wanted to create a spectagular “grotto of Venus’ at Neuschwanstein, but a suitable site could not be found and he had to be content with a small, indoor version, albeit complete with a cascading waterfall and an artificial moon. (The outdoor grotto was built some 15 miles (24km) to the east of Neuschwanstein at Linderhof, once a hunting lodge, but transformed by Ludwig into a miniature Versailles-style chateau).
As the king grew older, he increasingly identified with Parsifal, Lohengrin’s father, a knight of the Round Table who was given a sight of the Holy Grail. The castle of Lohengrin and Tannhauser now became the Grail Castle of Parsifal. Ludwig’s designs for a Hall of the Grail (conceived as early as the mid 1860s) became a reality in the Throne Room at Neuschwanstein. The room is dominated by a flight of marble steps leading to an empty platform – it never held a throne. In 1883-84, a year after Wagner’s Parsifal – his last work – was premiered, scenes from the opera were added to the walls of the Singers’ Hall.
Ludwig spared no expense in creating his fantasies, and the finest craftsmen, painters, sculptors and woodcarvers were employed at Neuschwanstein and elsewhere. His building projects drained the state treasury and caused him to neglect his official duties. When news of Ludwig’s increasingly eccentric behavior – he had begun to take regular midnight rides in a glided sleigh and once invited his horse to dine with him – reached his ministers, they hatched a plot to declare him insane and depose him. In 1886 the king was taken from Neuschwanstein and imprisoned in the castle of Berg on Lake Starnberg. Two days later his body and that of his doctor were found floating in the lake.
Ludwig wrote to Wagner, “When e two are long dead, our work will still be a shining example to distant posterity”. The lasting allure of Neuschwanstein is the dramatic proof of the truth of his prediction. Inspired by King Ludwig’s passionate involvement with operatic productions, Neuschwanstein castle has served in turn as the inspiration for hundreds of ballet and stage designs. And as the most magical castle in the world, it seems only fitting that it should have been the model for the princess’s palace in Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.