The Munich Residenz, home of the Wittelsbach dukes and kings, is guarded by bronze lions. Locals and tourists alike stop to touch one or more of them for luck. (There are a total of four). Actually, tourists make a big production of touching the lions, pausing to take pictures. Locals just casually brush the lions with their fingers as they pass, often without even looking at them.
Why are these particular lions considered lucky? One story goes that the tradition started when a young student protested the behavior of King Ludwig I and got away with it. Ludwig I was the grandfather of “Mad King Ludwig II,” builder of the fairy-tale castles Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee. Starting in the 1830s, Ludwig I’s subjects grew restive, like other people in Europe at the time. They demanded reforms. Ludwig I was not an astute politician–in the past, kings did not need to be.
However, Ludwig I was a great womanizer. That would not have been so bad, but one of his mistresses was the beautiful dancer and actress Lola Montez, who was not exactly discreet. She used her influence with the king to press for liberal reforms, then pressed for severe repression when rebellions started getting out of hand. Lola Montez was only her stage name; she was born Eliza Gilbert in Ireland. In defiance of popular opinion, the married Ludwig I went everywhere with her in public, made her a countess, and gave her an independent income. This situation went on for a little more than a year.
The story goes that a young student was so incensed by the king’s flagrant behavior that he wrote a complaint and nailed it to the main door of the Residenz. (Did he get the idea from Martin Luther?) When the offending document was found, the king demanded that “the writers” be found. Apparently the king believed the dastardly deed required more than one offender, and he put out the word to arrest all the usual suspects. The student promptly wrote another document claiming sole responsibility–and signing his name. He nailed that one to the door, too. When he was hauled before the king, Ludwig I had to admire the student’s nerve and style. So the student was let go. On his way out of the Residenz, he gave one of the guarding lions a pat, and ever since, people have touched one or the other of the lions for luck.
It’s an amusing story, but Ludwig I’s own luck as a king ran out. In late 1847, there were widespread student rebellions. Lola Montez persuaded the king to close the university. Soon he was forced to not only reopen the university, but to abdicate in favor of his son Maximilian II. Lola Montez fled Bavaria. She eventually ended up in America, where she had a successful career as actress, erotic dancer, and lecturer. Ludwig I may have had the last laugh, though. He lived on for another 20 years, pursuing his interests in women and the arts, free of the bothersome business of governing.
Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe!