THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
The Versailles Knock-Off That Cost a King His Throne
Ludwig II was hell-bent on creating the most beautiful palaces in Europe—including a replica of Versailles on an island. It was an obsession that would cost this king his crown.
MUNICH — It’s a question I think we all should ask ourselves from time to time: What would you do if you were a mentally unstable, sexually repressed king infatuated with Louis XIV?
If you’re Ludwig II, King of Bavaria from 1864 to 1886, the answer is to deplete nearly nine centuries of accumulated family wealth trying to build a replica of Versailles on an island in a lake in eastern Bavaria.
Ludwig II, also known as the Swan King, was one of the most famous royals of 19th-century Europe. He left a decent legacy in the realms of arts and politics—he was a patron of Wagner and signed the Kaiserbrief, which ceded Bavaria’s independence to the new German empire under Berlin. But what the world best remembers him for is his fairytale castle Neuschwanstein, immortalized by Walt Disney as the Sleeping Beauty chateau.
Neuschwanstein and the neighboring jewel-box palace of Linderhof have made Ludwig a household name and, along with Oktoberfest, turned the nearby city of Munich into a major tourist destination. But the Swan King also built a third, often overlooked palace that cost more than the other two combined. It was Ludwig’s pet project, one of the most extravagant examples of 19th-century historicism, and its construction created a financial crisis that eventually forced the young king from the throne. Located on Herreninsel (Men’s Island) in Chiemsee Lake, it was called Neue Schloss Herrenchiemsee.
It is hard to capture in words just how bizarre Herrenchiemsee is. It is located in the center of a forested island for men (for a monastery of Augustinian monks, there is also a women’s island), set in a lake with beautiful Bavarian mountains as a backdrop about an hour by train from Munich. It’s clear from the exterior that the palace was left unfinished—that something is palpably off. The sylvan setting creates an atmosphere in opposition to that of its inspiration, Versailles. Whereas Versailles dominates its surrounding gardens and countryside, one almost stumbles upon Herrenchiemsee. Even its baroque gardens end abruptly at the shoreline a few hundred meters from the western edifice.
“At Herrenchiemsee the pomp and magnificence were essentially for the King alone,” writes Christopher McIntosh in his seminal biography of the monarch, The Swan King: Ludwig II of Bavaria.
Whereas Louis XIV, the Sun King of Versailles, was a grandiose ruler who kept all of France enthralled at his glittering court, young Ludwig was an imaginative and solitary young man. He ascended to the throne in 1864 at the age of 18, in an era of diminished monarchical power. Just two years into his rule, Bavaria found itself on the losing end of the Austro-Prussian War; that conflict and the following Franco-Prussian War left him emasculated as a ruler.
Even as a young child, Ludwig II had found solace in imaginary worlds, particularly those with medieval themes. He wished to be transported to a time and place of strong kings and heroic deeds. Unable to actually rule like a king of the past, but endowed with the bank account of the Wittelsbachs (the family that ruled Bavaria from 1180 until 1918), Ludwig chose to create his dream world in operas composed by Wagner and in his palaces.
He was obsessed with Louis XIV, and almost named the palace at Linderhof “Meicost Ettal,” an anagram of the French monarch’s famous declaration “l’état, c’est moi.” His fascination with Louis and the French court bordered on the unhealthy. Ludwig dressed up as Louis XIV and tried to imitate the Sun King’s gait—which led to mockery over his stilted way of walking. He adored Marie Antoinette, and was known to caress the cheeks of her statue in the gardens at Linderhof. He would also hold imaginary conversations with members of past French courts while he dined alone. Once, he was overheard declaring to himself in French, “Really, there are times when I wouldn’t swear you are not mad.”
Later in his life, Ludwig became fascinated by the eastern concept of reincarnation. According to McIntosh, in the Wittelsbach secret archive there is an order Ludwig wrote to himself on Feb. 24, 1880. He signs his name as “Louis” and describes the date as “of our fifth reign”—placing himself as the direct descendent of Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI, and Louis XVIII.
“If he thought he was Louis XIV reborn, either literally or in spirit,” writes McIntosh, “then Herrenchiemsee becomes more than just a copy of Versailles.”
Ludwig had other peculiarities. He abhorred seeing anything ugly in his presence. Even as a child, McIntosh writes, “if a servant with an unattractive face entered the room the boy would turn his eyes to the wall.” He was known to banish servants he deemed ugly from his presence, and was determined to build palaces whose interiors lived up to his exacting aesthetics.
While historians disagree about the extent to which he acted upon his sexuality (The New York Times wrote that Ludwig had multiple male sexual partners late in life), it is generally accepted that Ludwig was gay. While there were countless whispers about the roles his valets and cavalrymen may have played in his romantic life, there is one scene from his youth that I believe captures Ludwig’s fantastical romanticism best.
It is a scene recounted by Ludwig’s biographer Desmond Chapman-Huston, who writes that while the king was out hiking, “Ludwig in particular was attracted by a handsome young woodworker… the month was September, the weather mild and perfect and, as is the custom, the lad would be working almost naked—the brief leather shorts concealing but little of his muscular legs, the torso exposed to the light, sun and air, the head also bare… Ludwig never forgot… and, later, sought to have his peasant immortalized in a work of art.” Chapman-Huston managed to obtain full access to Ludwig’s diary and other parts of the Wittelsbach archive for his famous 1955 biography of the monarch—however I could not find said work of art.
Ludwig never married. He was engaged at one point to Duchess Sophie Charlotte, the sister of his close friend Empress Elisabeth of Austria—but he called it off. Instead of children, his legacy would be his palaces. Unlike Neuschwanstein, Herrenchiemsee was never intended to be inhabited. Indeed, Ludwig only spent 10 days in his entire life in the palace. Instead it was more of a museum in which the king could be transported completely to the court of Louis XIV and Louis XV. There is nothing even remotely Bavarian about the palace, as it boasts not a single emblem or portrait of anybody from the Wittelsbach dynasty. There are plenty of pictures of French monarchs, though—from a life-size copy of a portrait of Louis XIV whose original now hangs in the Louvre, a copy of an elaborate clock made just for the Sun King, and a copy of Louis XV’s famed Bureau du Roi.
Schloss Herrenchiemsee cost 60 million marks to build—an astronomical sum at the time. Construction began in 1878 based on plans by Georg Dollmann, but just seven years later it was stopped due to a lack of funds.
The palace as it now stands is in the shape of a horseshoe—the base facing the formal gardens with the arms of the shoe creating a courtyard on the opposite side. While the three-story garden-facing side resembles Versailles, Ludwig tossed out the Louis XIII style of the Versailles Marble Courtyard and chose a simplified version of the style facing the gardens.
Like Versailles, there were to be two additional wings. One, the north wing, was partially completed but later torn down so as to give the palace its current symmetry. As it stands today, only one-third of the building remains, and only 20 of the completed building’s 70 rooms were realized.
But what blinding magnificence can be found in those 20 finished rooms. Peasants welcomed into the palace 10 years after the king’s death apparently went weak at the knees at its grandeur. A tour of the palace begins in the entrance hall, a kaleidoscopic array of stucco marble painted blue, blood orange, purple, and orange with gold trim. The entrance hall is a copy of the Escalier des Ambassadeurs, the entrance to Louis XIV’s public apartments that Louis XV had destroyed. Herrenchiemsee, therefor, is the only opportunity to see them.
Next comes the Swiss Guard Room, painted in elaborate shades of blue and red. The public rooms, modeled after the style of Louis XIV, are even more lavish. The royal bedchamber took seven years to complete, and a total of 30 women worked for all seven of those years on the scarlet drapery, embroidered with gold, that adorns the room. The bed, which looks like Midas just held an orgy on top of it, was never slept in. It was the most expensive room built in the 19th century, and cost an estimated $1 million—nearly $30 million today. Another room of white and gold houses a gargantuan Boulle cabinet of tortoiseshell and brass.
The most iconic room is Herrenchiemsee’s Hall of Mirrors, modeled (of course) off of the one in Versailles. While the hall designed by Mansard in Versailles is 240 feet long, Ludwig’s is 330 feet in length. It contains 35 of the palace’s 50 chandeliers, which held 2,200 candles and took 42 servants to light. Indeed, Ludwig’s hall is so much larger than the one at Versailles that the replica ceiling paintings had to be resized. And, as one 19th-century critic noted in The New York Times, “it must be owned that most of the rooms in Herrenchiemsee are improvements on the Versailles models. The Hall of Mirrors for instance is… wider and loftier, while the mirrors are much larger and finer than those which the French King obtained from Venice.”
The private rooms are dedicated to Louis XV, and are largely in a neo-Rococo color theme of white and gold. The king’s personal bedroom has royal blue drapery, as that was his favorite color. It also features a nearly seven-foot-tall gold leaf spire topped by a giant blue glass globe that apparently served as a nightlight.
In Ludwig’s dining room—which had a table that could be lowered into the rooms below so he didn’t have to see his servants—hangs the most expensive chandelier in the palace, one made of Meissen porcelain. It was one of the company’s biggest chandeliers ever and was delivered in pieces and assembled in the room. Ludwig was so obsessed with it he ordered that all plans and models of it should be destroyed so no copies could be produced. Even more impressive is the vase of flowers in the center of the table below. The lifelike blooms, some full, some wilting, are entirely made of porcelain with leaves of green silk.
The remainder of the palace is unfinished, but includes a dramatic brick hall mirroring the first entrance hall and a bathroom with a tub that could hold 60,000 liters of water.
By 1886, Ludwig had become unhinged in his frenzy to build his beautiful palaces and fund his lavish private performances of operas and plays. Just as one should never get involved in a land war in Asia, one should never risk one’s finances imitating Versailles. Largely due to the Ludwig’s refusal to come to grips with his financial situation (creditors were threatening to seize his palaces) and his dereliction of duties of state, a plot was hatched by his uncle, the Crown Prince Luitpold, and other top ministers to dethrone Ludwig. He had long been an erratic ruler, often choosing the solitude of his palaces instead of governing with a strong hand—although historians disagree over whether he was truly mad.
Nevertheless, Ludwig was declared insane by Dr. Bernhard von Gudden without ever being examined in person. On June 12 of that year, Ludwig was seized from Neuschwanstein by Dr. Gudden, his assistant and five orderlies from the asylum and brought to Lake Starnberg near Munich. Just a day later, his body, and that of the doctor who declared him insane, were both found floating in a nearby lake. It remains unknown what happened that day out on the lake—and theories range from murder or murder-suicide to just a freak accident.
Ludwig never came close to completing his vision for Herrenchiemsee, and there has never been much discussion about completing it. As a visitor, it’s hard not to get swept up in Ludwig’s idealistic romance for a bygone time. Yet for the young king—a man with financial means and an inherited title, but hemmed in by a changing society and isolated by his personality and his sexuality—his nostalgia for another era was more than passing romance. It became a crippling force that destroyed his life. Ludwig famously declared, “I want to remain a mystery to myself and others.” He is still shrouded in that mystery, a tragedy of epic proportions only hinted at by his unfinished palace deep in the woods.