Neuschwanstein Castle (German: Schloss Neuschwanstein, pronounced [nɔʏˈʃvaːnʃtaɪn], English: “New Swanstone Castle”) is a nineteenth-century Romanesque Revival palace on a rugged hill above the village of Hohenschwangau near Füssen in southwest Bavaria, Germany. The palace was commissioned by Ludwig II of Bavaria as a retreat and as an homage to Richard Wagner. Ludwig paid for the palace out of his personal fortune and by means of extensive borrowing, rather than Bavarian public funds.
The palace was intended as a personal refuge for the reclusive king, but it was opened to the paying public immediately after his death in 1886. Since then more than 61 million people have visited Neuschwanstein Castle. More than 1.3 million people visit annually, with as many as 6,000 per day in the summer. The palace has appeared prominently in several movies and was the inspiration for Disneyland‘s Sleeping Beauty Castle and later, similar structures.
The municipality of Schwangau lies at an elevation of 800 m (2,620 ft) at the south west border of the German state of Bavaria. Its surroundings are characterized by the transition between the Alpine foothills in the south (toward the nearby Austrian border) and a hilly landscape in the north that appears flat by comparison.
In the Middle Ages, three castles overlooked the villages. One was called Schwanstein Castle.[nb 1] In 1832, Ludwig’s father King Maximilian II of Bavaria bought its ruins to replace them with the comfortable neo-Gothic palace known as Hohenschwangau Castle. Finished in 1837, the palace became his family’s summer residence, and his elder son Ludwig (born 1845) spent a large part of his childhood here.
Vorderhohenschwangau Castle and Hinterhohenschwangau Castle[nb 2] sat on a rugged hill overlooking Schwanstein Castle, two nearby lakes (Alpsee and Schwansee), and the village. Separated only by a moat, they jointly consisted of a hall, a keep, and a fortified tower house. In the nineteenth century only ruins remained of the twin medieval castles, but those of Hinterhohenschwangau served as a lookout place known as Sylphenturm.
The ruins above the family palace were known to the crown prince from his excursions. He first sketched one of them in his diary in 1859. When the young king came to power in 1864, the construction of a new palace in place of the two ruined castles became the first in his series of palace building projects. Ludwig called the new palace New Hohenschwangau Castle; only after his death was it renamed Neuschwanstein. The confusing result is that Hohenschwangau and Schwanstein have effectively swapped names: Hohenschwangau Castle replaced the ruins of Schwanstein Castle, and Neuschwanstein Castle replaced the ruins of the two Hohenschwangau Castles.
Design and concept
In the nineteenth century, many castles were constructed or reconstructed; often with significant changes to make them more picturesque. Palace-building projects similar to Neuschwanstein had been undertaken earlier in several of the German states and included Hohenschwangau Castle, Lichtenstein Castle, Hohenzollern Castle, and numerous buildings on the River Rhine such as Stolzenfels Castle. The inspiration for the construction of Neuschwanstein came from two journeys in 1867 — one in May to the reconstructed Wartburg near Eisenach, another in July to the Château de Pierrefonds, which Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was transforming from a ruined castle into a historistic palace.[nb 3]
The king saw both buildings as representatives of a romantic interpretation of the Middle Ages as well as the musical mythology of his friend Richard Wagner. Wagner’s operas Tannhäuser and Lohengrin had made a lasting impression on him.
In February 1868, Ludwig’s grandfather Ludwig I died, freeing the considerable sums that were previously spent on the abdicated king’s appanage.[nb 4] This allowed Ludwig II to start the architectural project of building a private refuge in the familiar landscape far from the capital Munich, so that he could live out his idea of the Middle Ages.
It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau near the Pöllat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles, and I must confess to you that I am looking forward very much to living there one day […]; you know the revered guest I would like to accommodate there; 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. It will also remind you of “Tannhäuser” (Singers’ Hall with a view of the castle in the background), “Lohengrin'” (castle courtyard, open corridor, path to the chapel) […].
— Ludwig II, Letter to Richard Wagner, May 1868
The building design was drafted by the stage designer Christian Jank and realized by the architect Eduard Riedel. For technical reasons the ruined castles could not be integrated into the plan. Initial ideas for the palace drew stylistically on Nuremberg Castle and envisaged a simple building in place of the old Vorderhohenschwangau Castle, but they were rejected and replaced by increasingly extensive drafts, culminating in a bigger palace modelled on the Wartburg. The king insisted on a detailed plan and on personal approval of each and every draft. Ludwig’s control went so far that the palace has been regarded as his own creation, rather than that of the architects involved.
Whereas contemporary architecture critics derided Neuschwanstein, one of the last big palace building projects of the nineteenth century, as kitsch, Neuschwanstein and Ludwig II’s other buildings are now counted among the major works of European historicism. For financial reasons a project similar to Neuschwanstein – Falkenstein Castle – never left the planning stages.
The palace can be regarded as typical for nineteenth-century architecture. The shapes of Romanesque (simple geometric figures such as cuboids and semicircular arches), Gothic (upward-pointing lines, slim towers, delicate embellishments) and Byzantine architecture and art (the Throne Hall décor) were mingled in an eclectic fashion and supplemented with 19th-century technical achievements. The Patrona Bavariae and Saint George on the court face of the Palas (main building) are depicted in the local Lüftlmalerei style, a fresco technique typical for Allgäu farmers’ houses, while the unimplemented drafts for the Knights’ House gallery foreshadow elements of Art Nouveau. Characteristic of Neuschwanstein’s design are theatre themes: Christian Jank drew on coulisse drafts from his time as a scenic painter.
The basic style was originally planned to be neo-Gothic but the palace was primarily built in Romanesque style in the end. The operatic themes moved gradually from Tannhäuser and Lohengrin to Parsifal.
In 1868, the ruins of the medieval twin castles were completely demolished; the remains of the old keep were blown up. The foundation stone for the palace was laid on September 5, 1869; in 1872 its cellar was completed and in 1876, everything up to the first floor, the gatehouse being finished first. At the end of 1882 it was completed and fully furnished, allowing Ludwig to take provisional lodgings there and observe the ongoing construction work. In 1874, management of the civil works passed from Eduard Riedel to Georg von Dollmann. The topping out ceremony for the Palas was in 1880, and in 1884, the king was able to move into the new building. In the same year the direction of the project passed to Julius Hofmann, after Dollmann had fallen from the King’s favor.
The palace was erected as a conventional brick construction and later encased in various types of rock. The white limestone used for the fronts came from a nearby quarry. The sandstone bricks for the portals and bay windows came from Schlaitdorf in Württemberg. Marble from Untersberg near Salzburg was used for the windows, the arch ribs, the columns and the capitals. The Throne Hall was a later addition to the plans and required a steel framework.
The transport of building materials was facilitated by scaffolding and a steam crane that lifted the material to the construction site. Another crane was used at the construction site. The recently founded Dampfkessel-Revisionsverein (Steam Boiler Inspection Association) regularly inspected both boilers.
For about two decades the construction site was the principal employer in the region. In 1880, about 200 craftsmen were occupied at the site, not counting suppliers and other persons indirectly involved in the construction. At times when the king insisted on particularly close deadlines and urgent changes, reportedly up to 300 workers per day were active, sometimes working at night by the light of oil lamps. Statistics from the years 1879/1880 support an immense amount of building materials: 465 tonnes (513 short tons) of Salzburg marble, 1,550 t (1,710 short tons) of sandstone, 400,000 bricks and 2,050 cubic metres (2,680 cu yd) of wood for the scaffolding.
In 1870, a society was founded for insuring the workers, for a low monthly fee, augmented by the king. The heirs of construction casualties (30 cases are mentioned in the statistics) received a small pension.
In 1884, the king was able to move into the (still unfinished) Palas, and in 1885, he invited his mother Marie to Neuschwanstein on the occasion of her 60th birthday.[nb 5] By 1886, the external structure of the Palas (hall) was mostly finished. In the same year, Ludwig had the first, wooden Marienbrücke over the Pöllat Gorge replaced by a steel construction.
Despite its size, Neuschwanstein did not have space for the royal court, but contained only the king’s private lodging and servants’ rooms. The court buildings served decorative, rather than residential purposes: The palace was intended to serve Ludwig II as a kind of inhabitable theatrical setting. As a temple of friendship it was also dedicated to the life and work of Richard Wagner, who died in 1883 before he had set foot in the building. In the end, Ludwig II only lived in the palace for a total of 172 days.
The effect of the Neuschwanstein ensemble is highly stylistic, both externally and internally. The king’s influence is apparent throughout, and he took a keen personal interest in the design and decoration. An example can be seen in his comments, or commands, regarding a mural depicting Lohengrin in the Palas; “His Majesty wishes that … the ship be placed further from the shore, that Lohengrin’s neck be less tilted, that the chain from the ship to the swan be of gold and not of roses, and finally that the style of the castle shall be kept medieval.”
The suite of rooms within the Palas contains the Throne Room, Ludwig’s suite, the Singers’ Hall, and the Grotto. Throughout, the design pays homage to the German legends of Lohengrin, the Swan Knight. Hohenschwangau, where Ludwig spent much of his youth, had decorations of these sagas. These themes were taken up in the operas of Richard Wagner. Many rooms bear a border depicting the various operas written by Wagner, including a theater permanently featuring the set of one such play. Many of the interior rooms remain undecorated, with only 14 rooms finished before Ludwig’s death. With the palace under construction at the king’s death, one of the major features of the palace remained unbuilt. A massive keep, which would have formed the highest point and central focus of the ensemble, was planned for the middle of the upper courtyard but was never built, at the decision of the King’s family. The foundation for the keep is visible in the upper courtyard.
Neuschwanstein Castle consists of several individual structures which were erected over a length of 150 metres on the top of a cliff ridge. The elongate building is furnished with numerous towers, ornamental turrets, gables, balconies, pinnacles and sculptures. Following Romanesque style, most window openings are fashioned as bi- and triforia. Before the backdrop of the Tegelberg and the Pöllat Gorge in the south and the Alpine foothills with their lakes in the north, the ensemble of individual buildings provides varying picturesque views of the palace from all directions. It was designed as the romantic ideal of a knight’s castle. Unlike “real” castles, whose building stock is in most cases the result of centuries of building activity, Neuschwanstein was planned from the inception as an intentionally asymmetric building, and erected in consecutive stages. Typical attributes of a castle were included, but real fortifications – the most important feature of a medieval aristocratic estate – were dispensed with.
The palace complex is entered through the symmetrical Gatehouse flanked by two stair towers. The eastward-pointing gate building is the only structure of the palace whose wall area is fashioned in high-contrast colours; the exterior walls are cased with red bricks, the court fronts with yellow limestone. The roof cornice is surrounded by pinnacles. The upper floor of the Gatehouse is surmounted by a crow-stepped gable and held Ludwig II’s first lodging at Neuschwanstein, from which he occasionally observed the building work before the hall was completed. The ground floors of the Gatehouse were intended to accommodate the stables.
The passage through the Gatehouse, crowned with the royal Bavarian coat of arms, leads directly into the courtyard. The courtyard has two levels, the lower one being defined to the east by the Gatehouse and to the north by the foundations of the so-called Rectangular Tower and by the gallery building. The southern end of the courtyard is open, imparting a view of the surrounding mountain scenery. At its western end, the courtyard is delimited by a bricked embankment, whose polygonally protracting bulge marks the choir of the originally projected chapel; this three-nave church, never built, was intended to form the base of a 90-metre (295-ft) keep, the planned centrepiece of the architectural ensemble. A flight of steps at the side gives access to the upper level.
Today, the foundation plan of the chapel-keep is marked out in the upper-courtyard pavement. The most striking structure of the upper court level is the so-called Rectangular Tower (45 metres or 148 feet). Like most of the court buildings, it mostly serves a decorative purpose as part of the ensemble. Its viewing platform provides a vast view over the Alpine foothills to the north. The northern end of the upper courtyard is defined by the so-called Knights’ House. The three-storey building is connected to the Rectangular Tower and the Gatehouse by means of a continuous gallery fashioned with a blind arcade. From the point of view of castle romanticism the Knights’ House was the abode of a stronghold’s menfolk; at Neuschwanstein, estate and service rooms were envisioned here. The Bower, which complements the Knights’ House as the “ladies’ house” but was never used as such, defines the south side of the courtyard. Both structures together form the motif of the Antwerp Castle featuring in the first act of Lohengrin. Embedded in the pavement is the floor plan of the planned palace chapel.
The western end of the courtyard is delimited by the Palas (hall). It constitutes the real main and residential building of the castle and contains the king’s stateroom and the servants’ rooms. The Palas is a colossal five-story structure in the shape of two huge cuboids that are connected in a flat angle and covered by two adjacent high gable roofs. The building’s shape follows the course of the ridge. In its angles there are two stair towers, the northern one surmounting the palace roof by several storeys with its height of 65 metres (213 ft). With their polymorphic roofs, both towers are reminiscent of the Château de Pierrefonds. The western Palas front supports a two-storey balcony with view on the Alpsee, while northwards a low chair tower and the conservatory protract from the main structure. The entire Palas is spangled with numerous decorative chimneys and ornamental turrets, the court front with colourful frescos. The court-side gable is crowned with a copper lion, the western (outward) gable with the likeness of a knight.
Had it been completed, the palace would have had more than 200 interior rooms, including premises for guests and servants, as well as for service and logistics. Ultimately, no more than about 15 rooms and halls were finished. In its lower stories the Palas accommodates administrative and servants’ rooms and the rooms of today’s palace administration. The king’s staterooms are situated in the upper stories: The anterior structure accommodates the lodgings in the third floor, above them the Hall of the Singers. The upper floors of the west-facing posterior structure are filled almost completely by the Throne Hall. The total floor space of all floors amounts to nearly 6,000 square metres (65,000 sq ft).
Neuschwanstein houses numerous significant interior rooms of German historicism. The palace was fitted with several of the latest technical innovations of the late 19th century. Among other things it had a battery-powered bell system for the servants and telephone lines. The kitchen equipment included a Rumford oven that turned the skewer with its heat and so automatically adjusted the turning speed. The hot air was used for a calorifère central heating system. Further novelties for the era were running warm water and toilets with automatic flushing.
The largest room of the palace by area is the Hall of the Singers, followed by the Throne Hall. The 27-by-10-metre (89 by 33 ft) Hall of the Singers is located in the eastern, court-side wing of the Palas, in the fourth floor above the king’s lodgings. It is designed as an amalgamation of two rooms of the Wartburg: The Hall of the Singers and the Ballroom. It was one of the king’s favorite projects for his palace. The rectangular room was decorated with themes from Lohengrin and Parzival. Its longer side is terminated by a gallery that is crowned by a tribune, modelled after the Wartburg. The eastern narrow side is terminated by a stage that is structured by arcades and known as the sängerlaube. The Hall of the Singers was never designed for court festivities of the reclusive king. Rather, like the Throne Hall it served as a walkable monument in which the culture of knights and courtly love of the Middle Ages was represented. The first performance in this hall took place in 1933: A concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s death.
The Throne Hall, 20 by 12 metres (66 by 39 ft), is situated in the west wing of the Palas. With its height of 13 metres (43 ft) it occupies the third and fourth floors. Julius Hofmann modelled it after the Allerheiligen-Hofkirche in the Munich Residenz. On three sides it is surrounded by colorful arcades, ending in an apse that was intended to hold Ludwig’s throne – which was never completed. The throne dais is surrounded by paintings of Jesus, the Twelve Apostles and six canonized kings. The mural paintings were created by Wilhelm Hauschild. The floor mosaic was completed after the king’s death. The chandelier is fashioned after a Byzantine crown. The Throne Hall makes a sacral impression. Following the king’s wish, it amalgamated the Grail Hall from Parzival with a symbol of the divine right of kings, an incorporation of unrestricted sovereign power, which Ludwig as the head of a constitutional monarchy no longer held. The union of the sacral and regal is emphasized by the portraits in the apse of six canonized kings: Saint Louis of France, Saint Stephen of Hungary, Saint Edward the Confessor of England, Saint Wenceslaus of Bohemia, Saint Olaf of Norway and Saint Henry, Holy Roman Emperor.