Grave Thoughts Indeed – Part 3 – Royal rollicking and frolicking

The Alter Südfriedhof dates to the 14th century, but most of its graves tell the tale of Munich’s movers and shakers from the 1800s, a time when the city’s population doubled. More people meant more buildings, streets and institutions. But this was also an era that saw one of Munich’s most famous scandals involving its king, one which left traces here in this cemetery.

Alter Südfriedhof – Aristocratic Rollicking and Frolicking, read by Brenda Arnold

Duke, duke, king!

During most of its history, Munich was ruled by a duke of the Wittelsbacher family, which was in power for 800 years until 1918. Quite a run, considering Europe’s constant turmoil and shifting borders. Bavaria as a territory also managed to survive fairly intact, even adding a bit of land, the Palatinate, and the title of Elector as a result of the Thirty Years’ War.

But how do you get from duke to king? In the havoc wreaked by Napoleon, many lands and titles were up for grabs. And remember, this was the guy who crowned himself (I guess that makes him a DIYK – a Do-It-Yourself-King). So following centuries of dukes, Maximilian I Joseph became the first king of Bavaria by virtue of the Napoleonic conflicts.

The Maximilianeum, home to Bavaria’s parliament

But besides wage war, what do kings do best? Build monuments, of course. The freshly minted king of Bavaria wasted no time.

King Maximilian I Joseph

Prior to the 1800s, Munich was not particularly important and had nothing special to boast of. King Max aimed to change that, commissioning two architects (both of whom are buried in the Alter Südfriedhof) to build new streets and entires swaths of buildings. Friedrich von Bürklein built the Maximilianstrasse, which originates at the royal Residenz, and the majestic buildings that line it. He also built the Maximilianeum, seat of the Bavarian Parliament. Karl von Fischer designed the Briennerstrasse, the Nationaltheater and the Königsplatz, the beautiful square destined to be sullied by stomping Nazi jackboots a century later.

Karl von Fischer was also named as the first professor of architecture at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, but was ultimately bumped from his position as royal architect by Leo von Klenze (also buried – well, you know where), who went on to finish many of von Fischer’s projects. Von Klenze somehow managed to win the favor of the king, despite his predecessor’s much-admired results. It’s like that one colleague who steals your ideas and presents them in meetings as his own. Looks like this maneuver has a history.

But before he could construct anything new, King Max had to make room by tearing down a Franciscan Monastery, leaving a large open square. The only remaining trace of this building is in the name of the restaurant that stands on the site: Franziskaner, the German word for Franciscan monk.

Royal painter Joseph Stieler, creator of the Gallery of the Beauties, turns his brush here on King Ludwig I, his employer, shown in his coronation robes

Now that the square was gone, the king was faced with a tough decision.

“What should I call my lovely new square?” he thought.

“I’ve got it!”

Max-Joseph-Platz.

Very original. And also designed by Leo von Klenze.

King Ludwig I

King Maximilian I Joseph’s son and successor, Ludwig I, continued the quest to make Munich a more happening place. Like his dad, he had lots of ideas for new buildings, but the city was bursting at the seams. By this time the city walls had long since outlived their usefulness in a world of superior firepower, so he tore down part of it, the Schwabinger Tor gate, to allow Munich to expand. This made room for what today is one of Munich’s main thoroughfares and trendiest neighborhoods, Schwabing.

Now that the gate was gone, the king was faced with a tough decision.

“What should I call my lovely new street?” he thought.

“I’ve got it!”

Ludwigstrasse.

Do I see a pattern here? Maybe they just knocked stuff down so they could build something new and give in their own name. Sort of like restructuring and rebranding.

The Ludwigstrasse is lined with a whole string of impressive buildings commissioned by Ludwig and designed once again by Leo von Klenze. These include the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (there are those names again), the Ludwigskirche church (named after–yep, you got it), and the Feldherrenhalle, the Hall of Generals, built to memorialize Bavaria’s military prowess, later to be degraded as the future site of Hitler’s Putsch.

Helene Sedlmayr, enshrined in the Gallery of the Beauties, shown in the traditional costume or Tracht of Munich.

King Ludwig’s passion for building monuments was surpassed only by his interest in pretty girls. He even commissioned the royal painter to create the Galerie der Schönheiten, the Gallery of the Beauties, now a popular tourist attraction in the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. Whenever the king saw someone he found attractive, he asked her to sit for a portrait, which they did. After all, it would be pretty hard to turn down the king. One of these women, Helene Sedlmayer, was a servant for the royal family and later became known as Die Schöne Münchnerin, the beautiful girl from Munich. She is also buried in the Alter Südfriedhof, as is the royal painter himself, Josef Stieler.

But here is where the scandal comes in. By far the most famous painting in the Gallery of Beauties is of Lola Montez, an Irish dancer who tried to pass herself off as Spanish nobility. The king, then in his 60s, may not have fallen for her fake pedigree but he did fall for her. She wielded considerable influence over him and even meddled in government matters. Their affair made him increasingly unpopular with the Bavarian populace and was a contributing factor to his abdication. Lola herself was forced to flee Munich during the 1848 uprisings.

A Montez montage: Lola Montez (L) inspired the German expression “Ich bin die fesche Lola” (I’m the badass Lola). Marlene Dietrich (R) sings a song by the same name in the movie The Blue Angel

Montez went on to travel the world and not only inspired many films, but also spawned the German expression Ich bin die fesche Lola, meaning something like “I’m the badass Lola.” The very badass Marlene Dietrich uses this expression in a song by the same name. Even if you don’t speak German, listening to it gives you a good sense of 1930s badassery. Dietrich is not buried here but in Berlin, where she was born and first became famous.

The statuary behind the Nymphenburg Palace, home to the Gallery of the Beauties and former summer palace of the ruling Wittelsbach family

Apart from the Gallery of Beauties, visitors to the Nymphenburg Palace also flock to its stunning, French-style garden replete with statues. These are not of beautiful women but of equally photogenic Greek gods, whose likenesses have found their way into countless photo albums across the world. The tomb of their sculptor, Roman Anton Boos, can also be found in the Alter Südfriedhof.

Brenda Arnold

Coming up next: Part 4 – The Oktoberfest

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Expat chatter

An American from the Midwest, I landed in Bavaria many years ago. It's been an adventure from day one!

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