At the start of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, after the orgiastic dance sequence insisted upon by the Jockey Club for its first performance in Paris, we find the poet sickening of the sensual pleasures offered in Venusberg – resisting Venus’s charms he elects to return to the world of men. Far from the world of men, in the grounds of his palace at Linderhof, did King Ludwig II a subterranean pleasure dome decree – in the form of an underground cave of stalactites surmounting a small artificial lake. In fact everything about this chamber was artificial – conceived and designed between 1876 and 1877, the Venus Grotto is an immersive stage setting constructed from canvas, cement and steel – its coloured lights, some reflecting the exact shade of Capri’s famous Blue Grotto, were powered by a series of 24 dynamos. The grotto’s air temperature was kept at a manageable level by the furnaces built into the cave’s walls. Have I missed any of its wonders? Oh yeah, the golden half-shell boat and throne from which Ludwig could admire his underground realm of the senses – the ceramic garlands and the artificial waterfall – and the rugged limestone entrance that was also the work of artifice rather than nature.
The Venus Grotto is an early media device – not surprisingly its conception coincides precisely with Edison’s invention (one wants to ‘discovery’ of so fundamental a device) and also with the raising of Wagner’s Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. A cinematic experience before such a thing had coalesced around the moving image, the Venus Grotto is not a spectacle that King Ludwig was prepared to share: we note again the womb-like warmth and wetness of the grotto itself, his own refined sense of ‘spirituality’ as opposed to what he considered the grosser sensations of sensual love, and finally that highly suggestive vertical slit in the rocks through which he entered his pleasure chamber. It was perhaps an unconscious arrangement that allowed a man, whose own birth at Nymphenberg was witnessed by selected members of the Bavarian court, to ensure that the first-born really was the next king of Bavaria, to return to the womb in nobody’s company but his own.
Pictured above from top to bottom: the entrance to the Venus Grotto in the grounds of Linderhof, the main chamber; stalactites and garlands; another view of main chamber showing a little more detail of A Heckel’s mural depicting Tannhäuser in Venusberg; and a side grotto. Photographs by roving shutterbug Kitty Keen as KH was incapable at the time, having succumbed to a mild case of Stendahl Syndrome.