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Sisi – Empress Elisabeth
Sisi was born on Christmas Eve in the year 1837 in Munich. During her childhood Sisi spent her summers together with her seven siblings at the small Possenhofen Castle, an open, rural area of Lake Starnberg. Her parents, Duke Max of Bavaria and Ludovika, had no official obligations at the Royal Court. So they left their children to play, romp and horse-ride in an easy-going fashion. At the age of 9, Sisi looked more like a tanned country child than a princess.
Ludovika, Sisi’s mother, was the daughter of the Bavarian King Maximilian I from his second marriage with Karolina von Baden. Contrary to her three sisters, she did not marry into a Royal family, but into a branch of the house of Wittelsbach. That her husband, and thus the line of Birkenfeld-Gelnhausen, was granted the title “Herzog in Bayern” (Duke in Bavaria), was only a small consolation for the disappointed Ludovika. After the wedding on 9 September 1828, marital problems arose, which could have been spotted prior to the wedding. Max was a typical Wittelsbacher and therefore freedom-loving, eccentric and unreliable, albeit charming. He spent a lot of time travelling, constantly on the run from everything that looked remotely like official duties. Ludovika, on the other hand, devoted herself dutifully and actively to her children, although she started late to teach them discipline and introduce them to aristocratic life. The big chance for the ambitious mother came when Sisi’s eldest sister, Helene, was taken into consideration as wife to the Emperor of Austria. While Max did not care for such pandering, Ludovika was ultimately trying to get near the crown by this way.
Left: Possenhofen Castle at Lake Starnberg, 1854
Right: “In remembrance of Possenhofen”, Franz Joseph and Elisabeth as well as Max of Bavaria at a boating trip. Lithograph, 1853
Images: from Katrin Unterreiner; Sisi – Mythos und Wahrheit; Verlag Christian Brandstätter
Ludovika and her sister, Sophie, mother to the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, chose Helene as bride to the young monarch. During the summer of 1853 the engagement should have taken place in Bad Ischl, but Franz Joseph thwarted the plans of the two mothers. Instead of Helene he fell in love at first sight with the 15-year-old Sisi, who only came into Salzkammergut to accompany her mother and sister. Their engagement was announced the very next day.
Elisabeth’s arrival in Nußdorf near Vienna on 22 April 1854
Image: from Katrin Unterreiner; Sisi – Mythos und Wahrheit; Verlag Christian Brandstätter
In April 1854 the magnificent wedding took place in the Wiener Augustinerkirche (Augustinian’s Church). At the beginning of their marriage, Sisi tried her hardest to live up to expectations , although she hated the ceremonial of the Wiener Hofburg and the strict regiment of her mother-in-law, Sophie. Although Sisi’s beauty and her naturalness were very popular with her people, Sophie did her best to transform the freedom-loving child into a disciplined empress. Sisi became melancholy. She found a little consolation with her very busy husband, who was her only foothold during her early time in Vienna. In 1858 Sisi fulfilled her most important duty as Empress: after two daughters, Sophie and Gisela, she gave birth to the longed-for Crown Prince Rudolf. All three children were taken from the supervision of her mother and given into the care of Archduchess Sophie, who wanted to give them an adequate educational background. But Sisi’s relationship with her mother-in-law thereby deteriorated noticeably. Amidst the tumultuous times of the revolution in 1848, the 18-year-old Franz Joseph ascended the Austrian Imperial Throne. This came about at the hands of his advisors and his mother, whose cold stiffness he had inherited. With a sense of duty and dogmatism bordering on cruelty, he reigned over Austria until 1916. Although he was very affectionate towards his wife, she suffered her whole life from his arrogant and boring character and his negligence of her in spite of his kindness. His cool confessions of love were often mixed with criticism. His womanising prompted Sisi to escape from Vienna. Only in later years was she able to bring more understanding towards her reserved and lonely husband. Archduchess Sophie, Sisi’s mother-in-law, was Ludovika’s older sister and like her a daughter of the Bavarian King Maximilian I. She was a woman of strong will and she forced the coronation of her son Franz Joseph after the abdication of Emperor Ferdinand I. Her weak-minded husband, Franz Karl, the actual heir to the throne, was passed over, just as she disclaimed the crown herself. Known as “the only man at court”, it was Sophie who ruled, through Franz Joseph, by words and deeds over Austria’s politics during the early years of his reign. She led the regiment into the Wiener Hofburg and strictly supervised the compliance to etiquette and the Spanish Court Ceremonial (“Spanisches Hofzeremoniell”). Sophie’s rigorous attitude towards the unwanted daughter-in-law, Sisi, originated in her own roots in this world of court protocol, which Sisi liked to mock so much. The final split between Sisi and Vienna came in 1860, when stories of certain relationships of Franz Joseph emerged. After Sophie, Sisi now also felt betrayed by her husband. On top of that she suffered from a strange illness, that the doctors at court discreetly called tuberculosis (“Lungenschwindsucht”), although the symptoms on the whole suggested a venereal disease. Disappointed by Franz Joseph, Sisi fled from Vienna and began to travel restlessly. During the next two years Madeira, Venice and Corfu became her preferred domiciles. And in later years she returned to Vienna infrequently. The insecure young Empress became a self-confident, mature woman. Travelling became her purpose in life. “If I arrived at a place and knew that I could never leave it again, the whole stay would become hell despite being paradise”, she confided to her Greek teacher years after her first escape. The Hungarians had always been a thorn in the side of the Austrian multinational state. In vain they fought for their freedom in 1848. Sisi loved Hungary, partly a protest against Sophie, who detested all Hungarians, but also because she felt close to the language and the people of that country. The year 1866 saw Austria plunge into a severe crisis, which threatened to break Austria from many sides. But Sisi’s commitment to an Austrian-Hungarian settlement on the basis of special rights and freedoms for Hungary released the tension between Vienna and Budapest. The Habsburg Empire was divided into two equally authoritative parts.

Foto: Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges. m. b. H.

Foto: Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges. m. b. H.
Above: Study, Emperor’s apartments/Hofburg
Right: Bedroom, Emperor’s apartments/Hofburg
A Dual Monarchy emerged, with Vienna and Budapest as equal capitals. In 1867 Franz Joseph was crowned King of Hungary – Sisi’s biggest political triumph. Ten months later Sisi’s youngest daughter, Marie Valerie, was born. She was called, affectionately, the “Hungarian child” and was raised in the Hungarian language beloved by Sisi. She was always closer to her mother than those children raised by Sophie. Despite her commitment to Hungary, at the bottom of her heart Sisi was not a political person. Instead she counted on the power of her beauty, for which she earned world-wide admiration and adoration. At a height of 172cm she only weighed 50kg and constricted her already slender hips to 65cm. Her pride and joy was her heel-length hair, which needed care for hours on end every day. She once called herself the “slave of my hair”. To keep this beauty, Sisi kept rigorous diets and took exercise excessively – she practiced horse-riding, gymnastics and hiking. Her beauty provided her with fame, but in later years physical weakness and hunger oedema followed. Horse-riding was not only a way for Sisi to exercise, train her body and to sustain her figure, it also was a means of self-projection. Ambitiously, Sisi exercised many hours a day, not only to be the most beautiful monarch in the world, but also to be the best horse-rider and to surpass the only aristocratic rival on horseback, Empress Eugénie of France. 

Foto: Tina Dietz- Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges. m. b. H.

Foto: Margherita Spiluttini - Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges. m. b. H.

Image above left: Dressingtable of Empress Elisabeth, Emperor’s apartments / Hofburg Vienna
Image above right: Bathroom of Empress Elisabeth, bath tub made from zinced copper sheet, Emperor’s apartments / Hofburg Vienna
Image right: Gymnastics and Dressing room of Empress Elisabeth, detail with wall bars and high bar, Emperor’s apartments / Hofburg Vienna
Foto: Tina Dietz - Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges. m. b. H.
Envied by many, the Empress of Austria could not escape the strokes of fate that accompanied her life. In 1857 her first daughter, Sophie, died at the age of only two years. Ten years later, her brother-in-law, Emperor Maximilian I. of Mexico, was shot by anti-monarchy insurgents in his own country. His wife, Charlotte, went insane, and spent the last fifty years of her life suffering from mental illnesses at Miramare Castle, in uninhabited royal houses and in psychiatric clinics. One of Sisi’s closest friends, King Ludwig II. of Bavaria, was declared mentally ill as well and was locked away. After a little while he drowned in unexplained circumstances in Lake Starnberg. When Sisi’s son, Rudolf, committed suicide in Mayerling with his loved one, Mary Vetsera, in 1889, Sisi never recovered from the blow. Increasingly growing lonely, she experienced the death of her sister, Sophie, who died in 1897 during a fire at a charity bazaar in Paris. Over the years, on top of the numerous cases of death in Sisi’s family, there were her own thoughts of suicide, acted out in poems, but never put into action. When anarchist Luigi Lucheni thrust a pointed file into the heart of the Empress of Austria in Geneva on 10 September 1898, he encountered a woman disappointed with life. Destiny had found her eventually.
She delivered her woeful imagery of loneliness to posterity, for which she used the term “future-spirits” (“Zukunfts-Seelen”):

“I wander lonely in this world,
Delight and life long time averted,
No confidant to share my inner self,
A matching soul never revealed.”

(Sisi, The Poetic Diary)
Katrin Unterreiner; Sisi – Mythos und Wahrheit
(Legend and Truth)
Elisabeth on Film
In the early films of the 1920s and 1930s, Elisabeth only played “supporting parts” in films about Emperor Franz Joseph or Archduke Rudolf. Therefore, she was not portrayed as young, enchanting Empress, but as a mature woman. Only through Ernst Marischka’s “Sissi” trilogy from the 1950s, did Elisabeth become known and adored throughout the world as “Sissi”.
This was mainly on account of the young Romy Schneider, who shaped until this day, the image of a young, sweet and easy-going “Sissi”, which only very slightly matches the personality of the Empress Elisabeth. The third part of the “Sissi” trilogy ends, significantly, right at that moment when Elisabeth broke from her role as Empress and wife to achieve a life according to her own imagination. This part of her life would not have fitted into the image of the loving wife, the devotional mother and benevolent empress, concerned about her people and loved by each and every one. Consequently, it was left out. It is these circumstances that contributed primarily to the world-wide belief in the romantic love story and an image
   of a popular empress. It also became accepted even to this day, that Elisabeth died early, since virtually nothing is known of her later life. Romy Schneider revised her role as Empress Elisabeth on film: in his film “Ludwig II.”, Luchino Visconti presented a capricious, distant Elisabeth, who had nothing in common with the endearing “Sissi” from the 1950s. Yet in Visconti’s film, shot in the year 1972, Elisabeth’s cousin, Ludwig, took centre stage. Therefore, her role as the Empress was nothing more than a snap-shot.
At court in Vienna
From the first day Elisabeth feels uneasy in her new role, but nevertheless she tries at the beginning to conform to the expectation set upon her. However, she objects to her obligations placed on her as an empress. The representation and the strict court ceremonial are a nuisance to her, and she detests the stiff hierarchical constitutions and intrigues at the Viennese court. Complying with her position as first lady at court, she is permanently beleaguered by court ladies – ladies of the highest nobility, by whom she feels watched and spied on. At representative appearances she feels, by her own account, as if she is being paraded like a horse in its harness. Sisi is increasingly suffering from being deprived of her personal freedom: The young empress starts to suffer from insomnia, loss of appetite and a persistent cough. To prevent a pulmonary disease, and acting upon the advice of her doctors, she is sent to Madeira in 1860. For the first time, Sisi is free from any kind of obligation and enjoys life far away from courtly constraints. She extends her stay at the health resort, thus trying to keep away from Vienna as long as possible. She travels to Corfu and Venice, then to Reichenau at the Rax and Possenhofen; always steering clear of Vienna. When Elisabeth returns to the Viennese court after an absence of almost two years, a drastic change has taken place: the graceful but shy and melancholy girl has become a self-confident, proud beauty. It is at this time that the famous portraits of Franz Xaver Winterhalter are done. The most renowned of these is undoubtedly the painting from the year 1865, which shows Elisabeth in courtly gala dress with diamond stars in her hair.
Image above: Original diamond star of Empress Elisabeth after the design of the former court jeweller Rozet & Fischmeister. Elisabeth not only owned one set of 27 diamond stars; two versions of the famous stars are kept to date. One type originates from the court jeweller Jakob Heinrich Köchert and is wrought with a pearl in the middle, a second type without a pearl was made after the design of the court jeweller Rozet & Fischmeister. Some stars have
 been given away to court ladies and still reside in the ownership of their descendents. One set of 27 diamond stars has been passed on inside the family. This is how the stars are reproduced in a photograph that shows the bride dowry of the Archduchess Elisabeth (also referred to as Erzsi), the daughter of Archduke Rudolf, on the occasion of her wedding with Otto Prince Windisch-Graetz in the year 1902.
Image above left: Empress Elisabeth in Courtly Gala Dress with Diamond Stars; painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1865.
Image below: “The highest imperial family”; photograph by Ludwig Angerer, 1859. Significantly there is only one photograph where Elisabeth is shown together with her family and her children. Pictured are from left to right: Elisabeth with the young Rudolf on her lap, Gisela, Archduchess Sophie as well as Archduke Franz Karl. Standing behind from left to right Franz Joseph, Ferdinand Max (the later Emperor of Mexico), his wife Charlotte, Franz Joseph’s youngest brother, Ludwig Viktor, as well as Karl Ludwig. Unlike Franz Joseph, Elisabeth is not once photographed with her children or one of her children. Pictures of the imperial family are mostly photomontages in order to communicate the impression of a “normal” family life to the public.
Beauty cult
“How beautiful she is!”, shouts the Shah of Persia against all etiquette, when Elisabeth receives him in 1873. Men and women of her time enthuse over Elisabeth’s fabulous beauty, and are even more allured by her grace, charisma and the mysterious aura surrounding the Empress. Elisabeth is one of the most beautiful women of her time and she herself is perfectly aware of this. Her cosmetic treatment takes up the better part of her daily routine. Elisabeth is particularly proud of her thick hair, of which the combing and dressing takes up between two and three hours a day. Her hairdresser Franziska (Fanny) Feifalik plays a decisive role, since the former hairdresser of the Wiener Burgtheater is responsible for all the elaborate hairstyles. While hairdressing she has to put on white gloves and is forbidden to wear rings. After dressing, braiding and pinning up the hair for hours, the fallen out hairs have to be presented in a silver bowl, each lost hair bringing about a look of reproach from the Empress. Her niece remarks mockingly, that “the hairs upon Aunt Sisi’s head are numbered”. On a fortnightly basis, the hair is being washed with a specially made mixture of egg yolk and cognac, a procedure which takes up a whole day. In later years she probably tinges her hair with indigo and an extract made from nutshells. The hours spent with hairdressing are primarily used by Elisabeth to learn languages: Hungarian and later most notably ancient and modern Greek. For the latter she hired Constantin Christomanos, who reads to her, corrects her language exercises and philosophises with the Empress. Christomanos describes the hours of hairdressing in the Hofburg in the following way: “Hairdressing takes almost two hours, she said, and while my hair is busy, my mind stays idle. I am afraid that my mind escapes through the hair and onto the fingers of my hairdresser. Hence my headache afterwards. The Empress sat at a table which was moved to the middle of the room and covered with a white cloth. She was shrouded in a white, laced peignoir, her hair, unfastened and reaching to the floor, enfolded her entire body.”
Image above: Hand Mirror of Empress Elisabeth.

Image left: Elisabeth in Morning Light, copy of E. Riegele after the original of Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1864. There are only few painters to whom she acted as a model, counted among are portraits by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Franz Schrotzberg and Georg Raab.
In order to maintain her admired beauty, Elisabeth tests countless beauty formulas. There is no individual secret recipe which she swears by, but time and again she tries something new. The beauty products are either produced in the court pharmacy, or prepared by a lady-in-waiting in her own apartment. It is interesting that Elisabeth attaches less importance to experimenting with unusual creams, than a wide variety of washing waters, tinctures and lotions, from which she apparently is expecting more results. Elisabeth most often uses a simple creams, produced in the court pharmacy. This so-called Crème Céleste is made from white wax, spermaceti, sweet almond oil and rosewater. Another cream, which (as recently discovered beauty formulas show) is repeatedly ordered for Elisabeth and highly appreciated by many ladies at court, is cold cream, which is made from almond oil, cocoa butter, beeswax and rosewater. It owes its name to the cooling and refreshing way it affects the skin: given that the water-oil-emulsion is instable and slightly breaks on the skin, the water evaporates faster, making the cream feel pleasantly cooling. For facial tonics Elisabeth mainly uses rose facial tonics, which are supposed to protect the skin from inflammation and uncleanness. Additionally, the Empress tries camomile-rose, lavender as well as violet lotions. But Elisabeth also swears by rather eccentric methods, such as masks from crushed strawberries or from raw veal, which she uses to inlay a facial mask made of leather to wear during the night. Contrary to other women of her time, Elisabeth strictly opposes heavy make-up or perfume. She sets a high value on naturalness, only her magnificent head of hair is being sprayed with perfume essences. Significantly more time than the care of her face, Elisabeth devotes to her body care and personal hygiene. She bathes daily and likes to alternate steam with oil baths and cold baths. She is exceedingly fond of warm olive baths that are intended to keep the skin tender and smooth. At night she often sleeps with cloths soaked in vinegar above her hips, to preserve her slimness. Her favourite vinegar is violet vinegar, made from recently picked violet blossoms, cider vinegar, distilled water as well as violet powder: “Layer the violet blossoms into a bellied bottle, douse with cider vinegar. Shut tightly and allow to infuse for two days. Afterwards filter through a hair sieve and press out blossoms with a wooden spoon. Take some distilled water and stir violet powder until smooth. Add it to the distilled water and shake it thoroughly together.” Furthermore Elisabeth is sleeping without a pillow – arguably to retain her upright posture – and allegedly wraps her neck with cloths soaked in Kummerfeld toned washing water.
Lady in black
After the tragic death of her only son Rudolf in the year 1889, Elisabeth becomes more and more embittered, recedes into her own world, becomes unsociable and inapproachable. From now on she wears black exclusively, and most experience Elisabeth as black silhouette in the distance. Her last official appearance is in the year 1896 on the occasion of the millennium celebrations in Budapest. Kalman Mikszáth, present at the reception at Budapest Castle, describes his impressions: “There she sits, in the throne room of the royal castle in her black, lacy Hungarian robes. Anything and everything on her is sombre. From the dark hair a black veil flows down. Hairpins black, pearls black, everything black, only her face as white as marble and unutterably woeful… A mater dolorosa (sorrowful mother)… It is still her, but the grief has embedded its mark upon this visage… Not one stir, not one glance reveals concern. White as marble, resembling a statue… “
„I hasten to the realm of dreams, my master, there are you,
My soul, and heart, they jubilate, for you the only true.“
To my master, 1887
Elisabeth, who has written poetry since her adolescence, turns more and more towards lyrical poetry. She loves Homer and writes, inspired by her main idol, Heinrich Heine, numerous poems, affected by her frustration, her melancholy and her longings, but also by contempt for mankind and increasing isolation.
“Titania shall not go where people walk
This world, where no one understands her,
Where hundred thousand gazers her beleaguer,
Whispering and prying, “Look, the fool, look there!”
Where jealousy and envy sneak her out,
To distort her every action,
She returns homebound to those regions,
Where allied, kinder souls abide.

To Titania, 1888
Constantin Christomanos immortalised in his memoirs the recollections of reading with the Empress for hours, and where Heine was omnipresent: “When we talked about life and world systems, she began to declare with a voice full with flowing irony…” – here follows poem 58 of the Heimkehr-cycle from Heine’s “Buch der Lieder” (Book of songs). Elisabeth’s adoration for the poet, who died in 1856, is also a sign for her mental autonomy and independence. At that time, Heine is by no means an acknowledged poet, but it is precisely his realistic social criticism and irony, which trigger a European scandal, that attract her. Moreover, the fact that he, too, is regarded as an outsider, makes him likeable.
Image left: Writing set of the Empress of gilded silver and lapis lazuli.
Image right: At this writing table in her living- and bedroom at the Hofburg, Empress Elisabeth composed many of her poems.
Elisabeth starts to identify herself with the fairy queen Titania from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. While Franz Joseph does not understand these “Wolkenkraxeleien” of his wife at first, he still tries to give her a treat: he has her bedroom in the Hermesvilla of the Lainzer Tiergarten in Vienna, which she calls “Titania’s Magic Palace”, painted in scenes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
The funeral
Elisabeth’s dead body is brought to Vienna and is at first laid out in the Burgkapelle. The ceremonial funeral takes place in the Kapuzinergruft on 17 September. However, the sympathy of the people is directed first and foremost at the Emperor, who has suffered another stroke of fate. Count Kilmannsegg later comments matter-of-factly: “Only few tears were shed for her.” But with her tragic death starts Elisabeth’s immortality – and every criticism is forgotten. What remains is the memory of the beautiful, inapproachable Empress. The legend of Sisi is born.
Luigi Luccheni tried to flee immediately after the deed, where he threw away the file, thereby breaking the point. But already after a few metres he was captured and arrested. Not until later, when it became known that Elisabeth was fatally wounded, the inconspicuous file was searched and found. Precisely one month after the assassination, Luccheni appeared before the court. Proudly he confessed to the murder and noticed with satisfaction the great interest that the case caused and his prominence and fame. He was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment. Luccheni was disappointed that his trial was held according to the Geneva Convention, and that he therefore could not be given the death penalty. Twelve years later, in October 1910, Luccheni hanged himself on his leather belt in his cell. In 1984, Luccheni’s preserved remains were transferred, under the strictest confidentiality, to the Federal Pathologic-anatomical Museum in the “Narrenturm” of the Old Vienna General Hospital. Since the preserved head was not a scientifically analysable preparation and to counter any kind of sensation seeking, Luigi Luccheni was cremated in secret on Zentralfriedhof (central cemetery) in the year 2002.
In extracts from
Katrin Unterreiner; Sisi - Mythos und Wahrheit
(Legend and Truth)
Elisabeth’s story is told in just under hundred pages as a short overview. Special about this book is that the author, on the basis of new sources, squashes some rumours that were orbiting around Sisi.

The author: Katrin Unterreiner, born 1969, undertook history of art and history studies at the University of Vienna. Since 1999 she has been a member of staff at the research department at the Schloss Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H. and freelance curator (among others “Kronprinz Rudolf – ich bin andere Bahnen gegangen”, Hofburg Wien 2000, “Habsburgs Kinder – Kindheit am kaiserlichen Hof”, Schlosshof 2001). She produced numerous publications concerning the Wiener Hofburg, the interior of the Emperor’s apartments as well as the everyday culture at the Viennese court. Since 2002 she has been academic head of the Emperor’s apartments in the Wiener Hofburg and curator of the Sisi Museum, launched in the year 2004).
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Christian Brandstätter Verlagsgesellschaft m.b.H.
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