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Monarch of Masterpieces: King Ludwig I of Bavaria

No other ruler has left his mark on Bavaria like King Ludwig I (1786-1868). We have him to thank for the Ludwig Maximilian University, the Oktoberfest and many of the artworks, buildings and museums that have made Bavaria, and Munich in particular, a paradise for artists and art lovers from all over the world.

Things could have turned out very differently: For Ludwig grew up not as a royal scion, but as the son of Count Palatine Maximilian Joseph of Zweibrücken and his wife Auguste. His father was stationed in Strasbourg as a colonel in the French army. Revolution, war and displacement characterised Ludwig's youth. When Maximilian Joseph unexpectedly inherited his childless cousin Karl Theodor as Bavarian Elector and Bavaria was elevated to a kingdom shortly afterwards in 1806, Ludwig became Crown Prince. After the death of his father, he himself ascended the Bavarian throne as King Ludwig I in 1825.

King Ludwig I and the arts

Painting of the Propylaea at Königsplatz in Munich
A fitting city gate for Ludwig's Athens at the Isar river: The Propylaea at Königsplatz in Munich by Leo von Klenze © Stadtmuseum München

For Ludwig, art and politics belonged closely together: "The works of the statesman will have long since passed, when those of the excellent artist are still uplifting", he himself remarked in a speech. The monarch realised early on that the small kingdom of Bavaria could not compete with world powers such as England or France regarding the military or the economy - but as a passionate art collector and patron, he was able to transform Munich into a city of arts, an Athens at the Isar river as he liked to call it, that would be unrivalled throughout Europe. In addition to the expansion of Munich into a royal seat - the residence was in urgent need of a prestigious remodelling - Ludwig saw his royal duty in patronage.

Ludwig supported many young artists of his time with commissions and brought the expertise of established artists to Bavaria by offering them lucrative positions. Among others, he was able to contract Leo von Klenze as court architect and Peter von Cornelius as director of the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts). These artistic masters in turn attracted other artists and students to the city. Munich's cultural scene flourished under the constant patronage of its ruler.

Marble statue of a naked faun resting on a rock
The Barberine Faun in the Glyptothek in Munich © Klaus Bärwinkel

When it came to collecting art, Ludwig's motto was quality over quantity. Instead of an abundance of second- and third-class works of art, he was interested in a high-calibre, world-class collection, preferably at an affordable price. After all, he did not have the financial means of Napoleon Bonaparte or Queen Victoria. In total, he spent more than half of his private fortune on art over the span of a good 50 years - and preferred to make savings elsewhere, for example by cutting his wive's funds. He also drove his art agents, especially Johann Martin von Wagner, to despair with his thriftiness. Nevertheless, Wagner went to great lengths for the monarch; we have him to thank for the purchase of antique treasures such as the sculpture Boy with a Goose and the Greek Aeginetes. The negotiations for the purchase of the Barberine Faun even dragged on for over 10 years due to the difficult political situation. Wagner bought most of the antiquities specifically for the Glyptothek, Ludwig's museum for the art of antiquity which was the first of it's kind in the West.

Painting showing workers casting the bronze head of the monumental Bavaria statue
Wilhelm Gail, The Presentation of the Head of Bavaria in the Royal Foundry, c. 1844 © Stadtmuseum München

Ludwig was a bargain hunter who knew how to conserve his financial resources through clever negotiating tactics. For example, the king bought his star architect Leo von Klenze's collection of contemporary paintings anonymously for a ridiculously low price via an intermediary. However, Klenze was appeased by the fact that Ludwig had purchased the collection as the core collection for the Neue Pinakothek (New Pinakothek), a museum for contemporary art that was to complement the Old Masters in the Alte Pinakothek. For the time being, it completed the group of museum buildings from which Kunstareal (external link, opens in a new window) would develop in the centuries to come. His grandson Ludwig II added an important building block to the development of Munich as a modern city with the foundation of the Technical University of Munich.

Interior of the Valhalla with numerous busts of famous Germans
Donaustauf near Regensburg, Walhalla (Valhalla), interior view, view to the north © Bayerische Schlösserverwaltung

Ludwig sought to strengthen German and Bavarian nationalism with the help of large monuments. He had two temples of honour for famous German men built by his court architect Leo von Klenze: Walhalla (Valhalla) near Regensburg, a temple of honour for deserving German-speaking rulers, generals, scientists and artists, was built high above the Danube. Munich's Ruhmeshalle und Bavaria (Hall of Fame and Bavaria) was somewhat more modest and was intended to "recognise Bavarian merit and fame". Bavarian Herstory was made in the 21st century when the first women of merit were inducted into the Walhalla: Resistance fighter Sophie Scholl, sculptor Käthe Kollwitz, Venerable Maria Theresia of Jesus and martyr Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

The Heart of a Monarch: King Ludwig I and His Complicated Love Life

Portrait of the young Crown Princess Therese of Bavaria
Johann Peter von Langer, Crown Princess Therese of Bavaria, 1812 © Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

Unlike his sister Auguste, Ludwig narrowly escaped a political marriage in accordance with Napoleon's wishes. He chose his bride Therese from the small Duchy of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The whole of Munich celebrated their wedding on October 12th 1810 with a lavish party - after all, it was the first royal wedding of the kingdom! The five-day celebrations ended with a horse race on a meadow outside the city, which was henceforth to be called "Theresienwiese" after the young bride. In the following years the public celebration of the wedding anniversary developed into the world-famous Oktoberfest.

Therese and Ludwig were close, as the numerous letters between the two lovers prove. They had nine children together, including the future kings Maximilian II. Joseph of Bavaria and Otto I of Greece. However, Ludwig not only appreciated art, but also beautiful women. Throughout his life, the king indulged in numerous affairs, which repeatedly put his marriage to the test. In particular, a set of 38 paintings of the "fairest of the fair sex", which Joseph Karl Stieler was commissioned for Ludwig's Gallery of Beauty (you can take a look for yourself at Nymphenburg Palace), were the subject of numerous rumours about the king's dalliances.

Only one of his many rumoured affairs has been confirmed by historians. But this one ultimately became his undoing: Ludwig's love affair with the provocative dancer Lola Montez made Munich's blood boil. Lola, whose real name was Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert, was the daughter of an Irish officer. She made waves by posing as aristocratic lady from Seville and performing provocative made-up Spanish folk dances throughout European Cities. Scandals followed her at every turn. Her exotic beauty cast a spell over the 60-year-old king. It is said that he even kept a marble replica of her foot on his private desk. From then on, he did everything he could to please his mistress: Whether it was arranged dance performances at the Munich court theatre, a palace of her own complete with staff and personal protection, her naturalization as a Bavarian citizen or her elevation to the nobility - Ludwig tended to each and every of Lola's desires against the council of his ministers and spent a whole lot of money along the way. Queen Therese also protested resolutely, albeit in vain. The false Spaniard was hated by the royal subjects: Ludwig's irrational behaviour and Lola's interference in Bavarian politics were criticised in numerous caricatures and lampoons.

Revolutionary ideas had been simmering in Munich for quite some time. In January 1848, there was a clash between the student fraternity "Allemannen", which was closely associated with Lola and provided her unofficial bodyguard, and other students. As a result, the king felt compelled to close the university, which triggered further riots. The citizens' hatred was particularly directed at Lola, who fled to Switzerland in February. When the March Revolution broke out, Lola Montez was probably just the last straw that broke the camel's back. Among other things, the liberal revolutionaries demanded freedom of the press and a constitutional amendment giving ministers more powers. Ludwig was forced to agree. This severely curtailed his power as king - he had previously ruled autocratically. In the same month, he abdicated in favour of his son Maximilian Joseph. Ludwig spent the last twenty years as a private citizen until he died in his winter residence in Nice on February 29th 1868 at the age of 81.