MUNICH, Germany — Of the innumerable palaces that dot the Bavarian lands, few, in my opinion, are as bizarre and delightful as the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich.
Situated on what was once the western outskirts of the city, the palace was begun in 1664 and expanded and redecorated for two centuries. It is dominated by, for lack of a better description, a stretched out cubic Italianate edifice which is in turn flanked by wings that are capped by smaller cubes. Pyramid roofs of red-orange top each of the cubes, contrasting nicely with the cream and periwinkle grey walls. Its Baroque grounds are famed for its swans as well as the show-stopping Amalienburg Hall of Mirrors. The Rococo and Neoclassical interior is no less stunning, most notably the lavish Great Hall.
But one room in particular should not be missed as it is not only a unique window into the past, but holds within it a love affair that brought down a king—Ludwig I’s Gallery of Beauties.
This otherwise unremarkable cream-colored room, dimly lit by crystal chandeliers, is the repository for three dozen portraits of women deemed exquisite beauties. The subjects were selected by none other than King Ludwig I himself. What sets this collection apart from the Hampton Court Beauties, the Windsor Beauties, or Max Emanuel’s Gallery of Beauties on the other side of Nymphenburg Palace is not only the quantity of portraits, but that these were women from all social classes and were contemporaries of Ludwig I.
Ludwig I, like his grandson Ludwig II, considered himself a connoisseur of beauty. Godson and namesake to France’s Louis XVI, he was born on Aug. 25, 1786 in Strasbourg. In 1810 he was married to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, and their wedding was the first Oktoberfest. In 1825 he ascended to the throne. His reign would be notorious for his architectural and artistic legacy, as well as being marked throughout by civil unrest, which would eventually culminate in his abdication after the 1848 revolutions. It was Ludwig who gave the Residenz its famous facade inspired by the Pitti Palace in Florence, and for dotting Munich with Neoclassical buildings. His work there gave it the nickname of “New Athens.” After he abdicated, Ludwig would live for another 20 years. His son Maximilian would assume the throne in Bavaria, and his other son, Otto, would take the newly created one in Greece.
But his obsession with beauty was not merely relegated to the fine arts. In Ludwig’s time (as if he needed an excuse) beauty was considered a reflection of inward moral purity, and so there was some justification for being a rich king collecting portraits of females. From 1827 until 1850, the court painter Joseph Stieler painted 36 portraits, one of which was lost. In 1861 the painter Friedrich Dürck added two more.
The two most famous are the “Schöne Münchnerin" (the Beauty of Munich) Helene Sedlmayr, and the infamous Lola Montez. Sedlmayer, who was a shoemaker’s daughter, came to symbolize the ideal Bavarian beauty. Montez, however, was one of the 19th century’s more intoxicating and curious figures.
Born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Ireland in 1821, she went with her parents to India as an infant as her father, a captain in the army, had been ordered there. However, a couple years in, her father died of cholera. For the next decade Gilbert would grow up all over, spending significant parts of her formative years in Scotland, London, Paris, and Bath.
Her scandalous life began at the tender age of 14 when she found out she was betrothed to a wealthy Nabob in India and instead eloped with a soldier and became Mrs. James. Sadly for Gilbert, when her new husband was sent to India he deserted her and eloped with another woman. Lola returned to Calcutta to her mother where she was reportedly kept locked up. Upon her return to Europe shortly after, she took to the stage with the intention of becoming a dancer, and her first performance was a success. Her mother “chose to regard her as dead from the moment she stepped on the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre.”
But Gilbert, now known as Lola Montez, the “Spanish” dancer, went on to Paris where her interest in the stage waned as her interest in politics increased. She became engaged to the editor Alexandre Dujarrier, but he was killed in a duel just a few days before the wedding. Alexandre Dumas once said of her that, “She has the evil eye and is sure to bring bad luck to anyone who closely links his destiny with her.”
So Montez left town on a dancing tour. She “strutted her way across Europe,” wrote the historian Christopher McIntosh, “causing riots in Warsaw, tangling with the police in Berlin, [and] having a love affair with Franz Liszt in Dresden.” In 1846 she arrived in Munich for the first time. As The New York Times put it in her obituary, she managed to seduce King Ludwig, “a monarch who was willing to receive political consolation from lips so ruby.” He was 61 and she was 28. Shock among the nobility gave way to outright indignation and hostility as many believed the king was also now under her sway politically. Ludwig, who had previously been a repressive monarch not afraid to crack down hard on civil unrest, began to change course. At the same time, Montez was given the titles Baroness of Rosenthall and Countess of Landsfelt and gifted a palace and pension of twenty thousand florins a year. The king’s Cabinet resigned in response, and so Lola (her enemies claimed), undeterred, went about selecting a new Cabinet full of people from various socioeconomic stations. The king even went so far as to make a Protestant the head of his Ministry.
In a twist likely to be jarring for the modern citizen, the students filling the classes at the University of Munich were right-wing and ultra-Catholic and therefore strongly opposed to the king’s moves. During one of the riots, Lola marched out in front of the protesters and defended herself with her riding whip. In another, the king and Lola were attacked by university students and nearly pulled from their carriage. In response, the king shut down the university, which sparked a revolution. The king, tired of fighting the opposition, abdicated in favor of his son and left the monarchy weakened.
In an attempt to calm the public, the king also banished Lola and she fled, disguised as a peasant.
Montez would continue a life of scandal and fame, as her next romance did end in marriage but was blown up when it was discovered the soldier she’d previously eloped with was still alive and she was sued for bigamy. She eventually made her way to the U.S. where she made her mark everywhere from New Orleans to California (where she married, and divorced, again). Before spending her final years in New York giving lectures, Montez managed to fit in a trip to Australia, where she performed “with success” or so claimed The New York Times.
While Montez is surely the juiciest of the stories that fill Ludwig’s wall of Beauties, she is not the only interesting one.
Auguste Strobl was the daughter of Ludwig’s chief accountant. Hair filled with gold-trimmed red ribbons, she gazes back at the viewer with startling blue eyes that explain why Ludwig made her the object of many of his numerous (and often ridiculed) poems. The portrait that currently hangs in the hall was reportedly the second made of her, as Ludwig didn’t like her neck in the first.
Charlotte von Hagn was another actress, called the “concubine of two kings” by Franz Liszt. Multiple religions were represented in the Hall of Beauties. Nanette Kaula, for instance, was the daughter of a Jewish court agent and is dressed in a striking green velvet dress. Daughters of a meat dealer (Anna Hillmayer), Ludwig’s daughter-in-law Marie, Crown Princess of Bavaria, his half-sister Princess Sophie of Bavaria, and his daughter Alexandra are all included. So is Lady Jane Digby, the English aristocrat who had affairs with Ludwig I, his son Otto of Greece, and Felix Schwarzenberg, and died in Syria as the wife of an Arab sheikh 20 years younger than herself.
Some women, like Marianna, Marquesa Florenzi, were more than mere beauties. Marianna was a literary and intellectual icon of the 19th century known for her translations of major works, and promoting Northern European philosophers in Italy. Perhaps the most intriguing is Katharina Botsaris, a Greek woman from Ioannina whose father was a well-known Greek military leader who died fighting for Greek independence from the Ottomans.
While standing in the room looking from portrait to portrait and furiously Googling each name to discover their stories, it’s hard to know whether or not one should appreciate or be disturbed by the scene. The collection (which is now, ironically, housed in a room next to what was the queen’s apartments) was open to the public during Ludwig’s reign, allowing (or forcing) the public to compare itself to these lofty beauties, who were clearly being objectified. But there is also something touching about yet another quixotic Bavarian king, channeling his obsession with beauty into such a specific and unique undertaking.