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The Kingdom of Bavaria existed from 1806 to 1918.  Although the region had longstanding cultural, religious, and political differences from the rest of Germany, its existence as an independent kingdom was a direct result of Napoleon’s great wars of conquest.  The French emperor redesignated the former duchy as a sovereign nation (under the Emperor’s control of course) and suddenly Duke Maximilian Joseph (a Francophile who had even served in the French army) became King Maximilian I.  Maximilian had a majestic royal regalia created to go with his new throne, but he never wore his crown in public or even arranged a coronation series (he was known as a somewhat avuncular monarch with some of the eccentricities which marked his descendants).  Maximilan’s first wife died before Napolen made him a king, however his second (Protestant!) wife Caroline of Baden became Queen Consort.  This crown was made for Caroline (Karoline?) in 1806.  It is one of my favorite of the Napoleonic era crowns both for its classical 8 arched shape (which always reminds me of a regal octopus sitting on someone’s head) and for its huge magnificent natural pearls.  The crown of the Queen of Bavaria survived the dissolution of Bavaria as a kingdo (at the end of World War I) and today it is kept in the Bavarian treasury in Munich.   For a landlocked nation, it is one of the most ocean-themed crowns out there, and if it just had some shells and flounders and maybe some corals and aquamarines it would be perfect for Amphitrite.

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Coronation Portrait of Ludwig II (Ferdinand von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas)

Coronation Portrait of Ludwig II (Ferdinand von Piloty, 1865, oil on canvas)

King Ludwig II of Bavaria reigned from 1864 to 1886—a period which saw the kingdom of Bavaria integrated into Bismarck’s unified Germany.  Ludwig ascended the throne at the age of 18 after his father Maximilian II died unexpectedly of an illness.  He was a strange figure as a king.   Although introverted and shy he was also an extravagant aesthete with little taste for governing (although he enjoyed touring the countryside and conversing with everyday Bavarian farmers and workers).  At first he was admired for being a romantic and tragic young figure, but ominous rumors piled up around the reluctant king and fate had dark plans for him.

Ludwig’s uncle was Wilhelm I of Prussia—destined to become the Kaiser of the German Empire.  At first Ludwig tried to pull away from Prussian integration by siding with Austria, but he was easily outmaneuvered during the Seven Weeks War of 1866 and ended up allied with (and subordinate to) Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War.  Ludwig II was initially helped out in his kingship by his grandfather Ludwig I (an infamously bad poet who had abdicated the kingship amidst a spectacular scandal concerning the Irish dancer/courtesan Lola Montez) but the former king died in 1868, leaving Ludwig II to capitulate to Prussian Imperial hegemony. As Ludwig II grew disinterested in affairs of state, he began to follow an increasingly inward and eccentric path.

Linderhof Palace

Linderhof Palace

The personal diaries and letters of Ludwig II reveal that he struggled to restrain his romantic feelings for other men and behave in accordance with the strict Catholic faith of Bavaria.  He was engaged to a famous & beautiful duchess but he repeatedly postponed the engagement and finally called the wedding off altogether (apparently to spare his fiancée from a loveless marriage).   The king was an ardent patron of Richard Wagner and he spent huge amounts of personal time with the spendthrift composer.

Ludwig II and Wagner

Ludwig II and Wagner

Ludwig II is most famous as an eccentric and maniacal builder. Calling on the Teutonic fantasies of Wagner and the absolutist opulence of Louis XIV, Ludwig commissioned multiple palace/castles.  The greatest and strangest of his projects was Schloss Neuschwanstein, or “New Swan on the Rock castle”, a dramatic Gothic fortress with soaring fairytale towers, however he also commissioned Herrenchiemsee, a smaller scale replica of Versaille, and Linderhof Palace a chateau in neo-French Rococo style.  Linderhof Palace was the only one of Ludwig’s palaces completed in his lifetime.  It had novelty gardens of unrivaled opulence where Ludwig enjoyed being rowed around the fancifully lit grottoes of his water garden in a golden swan-boat.  Lost in extravagant fantasies of being a swan knight, Ludwig became more a recluse and indulged in ever more solipsistic behavior.

Schloss Neuschwanstein o

Schloss Neuschwanstein o

All of this building cost phenomenal amounts of money and Ludwig’s indulgence in personal fantasies left him little time to deal with his ministers and courtiers.  Despite the indignation of Ludwig’s court, his buildings were constructed with funds from the King’s purse rather than from the kingdom’s coffers (an important distinction).  Strangely, the buildings served the traditional purpose of follies in Ireland and England and many peasants, builders, and artisans were employed in the construction projects.

Great Hall of Herrenchiemsee

Great Hall of Herrenchiemsee

Ludwig’s brother and heir Otto was ostentatiously and deeply insane.  Bavaria’s courtiers and aristocrats began to wonder if it would not be best to have both brothers declared mad and locked away while a capable regent took over the important minutiae of integration and industrialization (and colonial empire—which Germany was beginning to dabble in).  In the finest tradition of Gothic story-telling, the plotters turned to alienists, the psychiatric professionals of the day.  By accumulating sordid (possibly fictional) tales, personal letters, and servants’ testimony, the aristocrats built up a case against Ludwig II as a dangerous madman.  The ever-pragmatic Bismarck regarded the affair as a transparent frame-up, but neither he nor the Bavarian Diet nor the German Parliament acted to save Ludwig II from conspirators who proclaimed him insane and unfit to rule.

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On the 12th of June 1886, Ludwig was detained (after an unsuccessful attempt at fleeing).  He was placed in confinement at Berg Castle on the shores of Lake Starnberg, under thee care of the mental doctor Doctor Bernhard von Gudden.  The next day, the two men embarked on a walk together through the Schloß Berg parkland beside the lake (both the king and the alienist declined attendants).  Neither man returned alive. What transpired will never be known, but that evening a powerful storm swept the area. Desperate parties went out to search the lake and the surrounding forests for the two missing men.  Just prior to midnight the searchers found the bodies of the doctor and Ludwig II floating in the lake.  The king’s death was immediately ruled to be a suicide by drowning although the autopsy revealed no water in his lungs. Unreliable eyewitnesses (i.e. skulking royalists involved in various dodgy plots) reported that shots were fired however there is considerable disagreement about whether there were bullet wounds to the king’s corpse (which would indeed be suspicious).  Gudden was beaten and strangled—presumably by the (mad?) king.

These things happen...

These things happen…

The whole affair was entirely mysterious and grim, but with the king gone, the people who had deposed him were free to carry out their agenda (within a larger context of German nationhood, of course).  Work stopped on Ludwig’s castles.  His mad brother Otto became king–but their uncle Luitpold held the true kingly authority (such as it was).

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The world is different than it seems to be.  Aristocrats and ministers of Ludwig’s time viewed him as a miserable failure as a king (if not an outright lunatic).  Yet somehow he has emerged from the ruins of the German Empire with a higher reputation than the gifted statesmen who were his contemporaries. The castles which Ludwig created, which were seen as ruinous follies, have proven to be spectacularly lucrative as tourist destinations.  His patronage of the arts has left a cultural stamp on Bavaria which is widely believed to have contributed to that state’s wealth (it is today the most prosperous German state).   Bavarians speak of him fondly even today.  Perhaps a bizarre closeted life of secretly dressing as a swan and a terrible violent end in a German lake were the inevitable fate of someone who, from the beginning decided to live in a world of dreams.

 

Bavaria today

Bavaria today

Napoleon broke up the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. One of the new kingdoms which he carved out of the decayed giant was the kingdom of Bavaria, based around a duchy which dated back to the middle of the first millennium.   The new kingdom of Bavaria was twice the size of the old duchy and it contained many of the prettiest parts of Germany (today Bavaria makes up 20% of Germany’s territory) thanks to the fact that he first king of Bavaria, Maximillian I, was a Francophile and an ardent French ally.

Maximilian I (portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, ca. 1820)

Maximilian I (portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler, ca. 1820)

The kingdom of Bavaria survived the destruction of Napoleon’s empire.  Because of its large population and area (and since it contains the important city of Munich) Bavaria played a major part in the Prussian-lead unification of Germany in the late nineteenth century.  By playing Prussia off against its rival Austria, Bavaria incorporated into the German Empire on favorable term–indeed the army, train-system, and postal services of Bavaria remained distinct from the rest of Germany.  The unification of Bavaria with Germany took place in 1871.  Bavaria’s eccentric king, Ludwig II was the monarch who called for a German empire with the Prussian king Wilhelm I as emperor.  Coincidentally, the life of Ludwig  II was a fascinating Gothic melodrama of swans, and operas, and castles, and alienists (see more next week).

Bavaria, Germany

Bavaria, Germany

In November 1918, as World War I ended, Kaiser William II abdicated the throne of Germany.   King Ludwig III, soon followed him into exile, thus bringing the Wittelsbach dynasty to an end.  Overnight the Kingdom of Bavaria became the Free State of Bavaria (which it is still is today–although a bizarre attempt to found a communist republic nearly caused the state to leave Germany as the Bavarian Soviet Republic).

The Crown of Bavaria

The Crown of Bavaria

 

At any rate, here is a picture of the Crown of Bavaria, which can today be found at the Residenz palace in Munich.  The crown, which is purely ceremonial and was never worn,  was made by the most famous French goldsmith of the Napoleonic era (in accordance with Maximillian’s love of all things French) and is set with rubies, emeralds, sapphires, pearls, and a huge blue diamond–the Wittelsbach Diamond.  Or, at any rate it was originally set with this huge gem stone.  In the dark days of 1931, the Wittelsbach family pried the Wittelsbach diamond out and sold it in order to stay solvent.

The Crown of Bavaria (with an imitation Wittelsbach Diamond)

The Crown of Bavaria (with an imitation Wittelsbach Diamond)

Spring passes by so quickly. Only a little while ago I was looking out at the March ice and wistfully writing about the redbud tree, fervently wishing it would finally awaken in crimson blooms.  Now most of the glorious trees of spring have bloomed and their flowers have already fallen.  The cherry blossoms have come and gone. Summer is on its way with its roses, lilies, and foxgloves, but the trees have largely finished their majestic yearly display.  However “largely” does not mean entirely. Walking around my neighborhood this week I have noticed many beautiful shade trees covered with fountaining red blossoms.  Since New York City has been busily planting new specimens of every sort of tree, quite a few of these pretty mystery trees are still wearing plastic labels from the nursery (sometimes it is easy to practice dendrology in the city!).  It turns out this lovely tree goes by the unlovely common name “red horse chestnut.”

A Red Horse Chestnut Tree (Aseculus x carnea) in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

The red horse chestnut tree is not a chestnut tree at all: its name is due to the fact that the horse chestnuts and buckeyes (which comprise the Aesculus family) were once erroneously believed to be related to true chestnuts. The name Aesculus means “edible nuts”, but this name too is a misnomer: the nuts are slightly poisonous, containing alkaloid saponins and glucosides.  In fact the red horse chestnut tree I noticed on my way to work this morning isn’t even a naturally occurring species of tree.  It is a cultivar between Aesculus hippocastanum, the common horse chestnut tree of Europe, and Aesculus pavia, the red buckeye or firecracker plant—a showy native shrub of the American south.

A Horse Chestnut Tree (Aesculus hippocastanum)

The Germans have long been fans of Aesculus pavia, the common horse chestnut tree, a large beautiful tree with spreading boughs and big white blossoms which appear in late spring.  In Bavaria the horse chestnut tree was planted above the underground storage caves and cellars where lagers were stored.  Brewers and beer enthusiasts once cut ice from ponds and rivers and kept it in these insulated shaded cells to cool the beer during summer (in fact lager means storage in German).  It is believed that Germans first hybridized their mighty horse chestnuts with the ornamental American buckeye shrubs to obtain a cultivar with the best aspects of both–presumably so the beer gardens would be even more pleasant in May thus making lager drinking even more delightful.  The first red horse chestnut trees seem to have appeared in Germany around 1820.

The Bavarian Beergarden (Otto Piltz, 1875)

Whatever the case, the red horse chestnut trees in my new neighborhood are certainly very beautiful right now.  I hope you have noticed that this miniature essay about horse chestnuts is really an elegy to this year’s fading spring.  It was a very lovely season and you only get to enjoy four score or so springs in your life (give or take a few dozen).   It is the merry month of May and summer is coming. Now it is time to go outside and sit beneath the horse chestnut trees of your garden and enjoy life with your friends and family.

Genieße das Leben ständig!
Du bist länger tot als lebendig!

(Constantly enjoy life!
You’re longer dead than alive!)

Flowers of the Red Horsechestnut Tree

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