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, Sisis 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 Sisis 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.

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.

In April 1854 the magnificent wedding took place in the Wiener Augustinerkirche (Augustinians 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 Sisis 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 Sisis 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, Sisis mother-in-law, was Ludovikas 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 Austrias 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). Sophies 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 Sisis 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.

A Dual Monarchy emerged, with Vienna and Budapest as equal capitals. In 1867 Franz Joseph was crowned King of Hungary Sisis biggest political triumph. Ten months later Sisis 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 Eugenie of France.

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 Sisis 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 Sisis 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 Sisis 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.

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 Marischkas 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 Viscontis film, shot in the year 1972, Elisabeths 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 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.

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 Elisabeths 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 Sisis 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.

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 Crame Coleste 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 Mikszath, 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.


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, Lucchenis 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.


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