“It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau … in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles.”
That sentence, written by king of Bavaria Ludwig II to his friend and protégé, Richard Wagner, started the incredible architectural project that became Neuschwanstein Castle. Not only did he build an architectural marvel, but he also contributed to Bavaria’s cultural heritage.
In September 1869, the king of Bavaria built a castle when there was no political need to build additional castles in Europe. The construction of Neuschwanstein Castle (in German, “Schloss Neuschwanstein”) was created for aesthetic reasons, not to assert power.
Neuschwanstein Castle doesn’t resemble any other castle, especially not 19th-century Bavarian ones. The king wanted to create his ideal refuge, based on his hopes, ideals, and dreams. Instead of placing it on flat land, he placed it in the alpine foothills, which sets it apart for his time and even for our day. Its construction and architectural style were also very unusual for the time.
King Ludwig wanted to create his ideal refuge and took inspiration from Hohenschwangau, the castle where he grew up, located next to Neuschwanstein. He based his lifelong project on Medieval picture books, rather than recreating a historically precise medieval castle.
Neuschwanstein Castle is an example of historicism, an architectural style very much in vogue in 19th-century architecture. In fact, architects and historians still use it as the prime example of historicism today—a style of historical architecture mixed with other styles and new elements and perfected to modern standards.
Neuschwanstein Castle is both an innovative and imaginative structure. It combines Byzantine, Neo-Gothic, Romanesque, and Medieval architectures, which was very unusual for the time. Within its Medieval white limestone façade and blue turrets, it had all the modern amenities of the 19th century, and the latest technologies, which weren’t widely available.
The construction of this unusual project took a very long time. The design plans began in 1863, when Ludwig II was only 23, and lasted until 1892, after his death. The Bavarian king commissioned theater set designer Christian Jank to design his dream project. This appointment had never been done before in the history of castle commissions, which shows how innovative Ludwig II was, as well as his passion for art and beauty. Architect Eduard Riedel then took over to design the architectural plans.
The ambitious project, which took longer than expected, started with the foundation stone in 1869, which was set atop two ancient Medieval castle ruins. The castle was dedicated to Wagner, the romantic composer.
Under its fairy-tale castle exterior, the construction used all the newest materials and technologies of the time, some of which were never used before. Brick was used on the walls and cement for the floors; building equipment included crane-driven steam engines. The throne room used steel framing, a first for castles at the time.
Modern amenities also had their place. The castle had running water—both hot and cold in the kitchen—as well as toilets with an automatic flushing system, telephone lines in some rooms, electricity, an elevator, and even an electric bell to summon servants.
Although the topping-out ceremony (a traditional formality held when the last beam of the structure is placed) happened in January 1880, the interiors were only finished in 1884. The square tower and bower were completed in 1892, after the king’s death. Instead of the 200 rooms planned, just a dozen rooms were finished. Now, 14 are open to the public.
Ludwig II (1845–1886) knew his castle only as a building site and lived there for a total of only 172 days. He maintained a private personal life. He went for sleigh rides at night, dressed sometimes in medieval historic costume, and often worked at night and slept during the day. He hired actors and musicians to perform for him.
He left a legacy of three beautiful castles in Bavaria; the two others are Linderhof palace, in the south-east of Bavaria, and Herrenchiemsee palace, set on an island on Bavarian lake Chiemsee. Linderhof is the smallest of the three and is a reproduction of Versailles’ Petit Trianon. Herrenchiemsee is a Neo-Baroque palace, only accessible by boat, based on Versailles as well, as Ludwig held Louis XIV to be the ideal monarch.
The king was a great admirer of beauty and art. In his childhood, he loved to play-act. “I want to remain an eternal mystery to myself and others,” he said, in line with the 19th-century German romantic ideal.
Indulging in his passion for beauty and art, he supported Wagner’s music and became the composer’s patron.
At 18, Ludwig became king of Bavaria but only reigned for two years because of the Prussian war. He was more of a figurehead afterward, so he dedicated his life to building beautiful castles. He died under suspicious circumstances that have not been resolved to this day and which German historians still debate.
Neuschwanstein Castle is beautiful in many ways. It embraces the beauty of its natural setting. “The location is one of the most beautiful to be found, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world,” the king wrote to Wagner in a letter. The castle is set in the Bavarian Alps, next to the Tyrol mountains, with a waterfall, lake, and wooded paths nearby. It is a refuge of breathtaking natural beauty.
The mixture of architectural styles gives the castle its unique character. Each lavish room is full of embroideries, silks, drapery, woodwork, sculptures, and murals. The two-story throne room is perhaps the most impressive, with its gold cupola, 13-foot gold chandelier, lapis lazuli columns and arches, and Byzantine style.
Neuschwanstein’s unique murals on the walls depict medieval literary legends and poets of Bavaria. Themes of love, redemption, guilt, and salvation fill these opulent rooms, showing the king’s high ideals through art.
The lower hall has murals from the Sigurd saga, from Norse mythology. In the dining room, there are romantic paintings, inspired by the Minnesinger, medieval German singer-poets of courtly love.
In the king’s Neo-Gothic bedroom, wall murals retrace the classic love story of Tristan and Isolde. In the dressing room, there are paintings from German poets Hans Sachs and Walther von der Vogelweide. The story of Lohengrin is found in the salon, while the Tannhäuser saga is in the study.
In the upper hall, murals continue with the Gudrun and Sigurd sagas, which leads to the singers’ hall, with Parzival’s story. All these are from either German medieval literature or Norse mythology and appear in Wagner’s operas. A grotto is reminiscent of a description in “Tannhäuser,” as presented in a Richard Wagner opera.
The swan symbol is an inherent part of Neuschwanstein. A Christian symbol of purity, it’s also the heraldic animal of the counts of Schwangau; Ludwig adopted the swan as a Schwangau successor.
The swan also refers to Lohengrin, the legendary “Swan Knight,” with which Ludwig identified and which was the subject of another of Wagner’s operas. Swan images are found throughout the castle in murals, statues, and faucets. Neuschwanstein actually means “New Swan Stone” in German, but during Ludwig’s II reign, it was called “New Hohenschwangau.”
Painting, music, literature, and architecture fill every room, making Neuschwanstein an everlasting work of art. Today, Neuschwanstein is the most beloved castle in Germany and the most visited, both by locals and tourists from all over the world, and Ludwig II is still remembered in Bavaria as “Unser Kini” (“our cherished king”).