Elisabeth of Bavaria (Sissi)
(24 December 1837 – 10 September 1898)
Elisabeth of Bavaria was Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary as the spouse of Franz Joseph I. As such, she held also the titles Queen of Bohemia, Queen of Croatia and others. From an early age, she was called “Sisi” by family and friends.
While Elisabeth had limited influence on Austro-Hungarian politics, she has become a historical icon. Elisabeth is considered to have been a non-conformist who abhorred conventional court protocol and at the same time a tragic figure..
Elisabeth was born in Munich, Bavaria as Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie in Bavaria. She was the fourth child of Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria and her mother was Princess Ludovika of Bavaria. Her family home was Possenhofen Castle.
In 1853 Elisabeth accompanied her mother and her 18-year-old sister, Duchess Helene, on a trip to the resort of Bad Ischl, Upper Austria. Her mother hoped Helene would attract the attention of their maternal first cousin, 23-year-old Francis Joseph, then Emperor of Austria. Instead, Franz Joseph chose the 15-year old Elisabeth, and the couple were married a year later in Vienna at St. Augustine's Church on 24 April 1854.
At sixteen years old, Elisabeth had difficulty adapting to the strict etiquette practiced at the Habsburg court.
In this oppressive atmosphere, Elisabeth quickly made clear her impatience with the surroundings and the role imposed on her by society as a member of on of the world’s oldest royal courts. Isolated from political events by a dull and conventional camarilla, she was obliged to keep up appearances while, at the same time, being expected to be sensitive to political and diplomatic issues during long audiences with courtiers. Towards these people, Sissi (as her husband sometimes called her) feigned rejection by making up poems imbued with a “geniale Narrenstreich”:
I have woven some caps for you
And decided to put bells on the top;
That way you can go around like buffoons
She bore the emperor three children in quick succession: Archduchess Sophie of Austria (1855–1857), Archduchess Gisela of Austria (1856–1932), and the hoped-for crown prince, Rudolf (1858–1889). In 1857, tragedy struck. Elisabeth, against the advice of the doctors, took her two daughters on a vacation in Hungary. Both girls were ill with diarrhea, but while Gisela recovered quickly, her older sister Sophie succumbed to the disease and died; she was two. Her firstborn's death would haunt Elisabeth for the rest of her life and cause a permanent rift between her and her husband, which would gradually grow wider as their marriage slowly collapsed. In 1860, Elisabeth left Vienna after contracting a lung disease, later believed to be psychosomatic. She spent the winter in Madeira and returned to Vienna only after having visited the Ionian Islands. Soon after that she fell ill again and returned to Corfu.
Archduchess Gisela Louise Marie, 1860s
In 1867, national unrest within the Habsburg monarchy caused by the rebellious Hungarians led to the founding of the Austro–Hungarian double monarchy. Elisabeth had always sympathized with the Hungarian cause. Reconciled and reunited with her alienated husband, she joined Franz Joseph in Budapest, where their coronation took place. Following the imperial couple's reconciliation, Elisabeth gave birth to their fourth child, Archduchess Marie Valerie (1868–1924). Afterwards, she took up her former life of restlessly travelling through Europe. Elisabeth was denied any major influence on her older children's upbringing; they were raised by her mother-in-law and aunt Princess Sophie of Bavaria, who often referred to Elisabeth as a "silly young mother."
Elisabeth embarked on a life of travel, and saw little of her offspring. She visited such locations as Madeira, Hungary, England and Corfu. At Corfu, after her son's death, she commissioned the building of a palace which she named the Achilleion, after Homer's hero Achilles in The Iliad. After her death, the building was purchased by German Emperor Wilhelm II. Later it was acquired by the nation of Greece and converted to a museum.
She became known not only for her beauty. Newspapers published articles on her fashion sense, diet and exercise regimens, passion for riding sports, and a series of reputed lovers. She paid extreme attention to her appearance and spent much time preserving her beauty. Especially her long hair that was a treasure of herself.
Her barber was one of the most rich person in Vienna because Sissi payed to her a lot of money for taking an meticulous care of her hair. Sometimes brushing her hair took around 4 hours!
Elisabeth followed a strict and draconian diet and exercise regimen to maintain her 20-inch (50 cm) waistline, wasting away to near emaciation at times. This was years before such symptoms could be classified as a classic case of Anorexia nervosa.
The Empress wrote poetry (such as the "Nordseelieder" and "Winterlieder", both inspirations from her favorite German poet, Heinrich Heine). Shaping a fantasy in poetry, she referred to herself as Titania, Shakespeare's Fairy Queen. Most of her poetry relates to her journeys, classical Greek and romantic themes, and ironic commentary on the Habsburg dynasty. In these years, Elisabeth intensively studied both ancient and modern Greek, immersing herself in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Numerous Greek lecturers, such as Marinaky, Christomanos, and Barker, had to accompany the Empress on hour-long walks while reading Greek to her. According to contemporary scholars, Empress Elisabeth knew Greek better than any of the Bavarian born Greek queens during the 19th century.
In 1889, Elisabeth's life was shattered by the death of her only son. Thirty-year-old Crown Prince Rudolf and his young lover Baroness Mary Vetsera were found dead; an investigation suggested it was murder-suicide by Rudolf. The scandal was known as the Mayerling Incident, after Rudolf's hunting lodge in Lower Austria, where they were found.
Rudolf's sensational death increased public interest in Elisabeth, and the Empress continued to be an icon, a sensation in her own right, wherever she went. She wore a long black gown that could be buttoned up at the bottom, a white parasol made of leather and a brown fan to hide her face from the curious. Only a few snapshots of Elisabeth in her last years were taken, by photographers lucky enough to catch her unaware.
Elisabeth spent little time in Austria's capital Vienna with her husband. Their correspondence increased during their last years, however, and their relationship became a warm friendship. On her imperial steamer Miramar Empress Elisabeth travelled through the Mediterranean. Her favourite places were Cap Martin on the French Riviera, where tourism had started only in the second half of the 19th century; Lake Geneva in Switzerland; Bad Ischl in Austria, where the imperial couple would spend the summer; and Corfu. The Empress also visited countries to which no other northern royal went at the time: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Malta, Greece, Turkey and Egypt. The endless travels became an escape for the Empress from herself and her misery.
On 10 September 1898, in Geneva, Switzerland, Elisabeth, aged 60, was stabbed in the heart with a sharpened file by a young anarchist named Luigi Lucheni, in an act of "propaganda of the deed". When attacked, she had been walking along the promenade of Lake Geneva about to board the steamship Genève for Montreux with her lady-of-courtesy, Countess Sztaray. She boarded the ship, unaware of the severity of her condition. Bleeding to death from a puncture wound to the heart, Elisabeth said, "What happened to me?" The strong pressure from her corset had contained the bleeding until the garment was removed.
Reportedly, her assassin had hoped to kill a prince from the House of Orléans and, failing to find him, turned on Elisabeth instead. Lucheni afterwards said, "I wanted to kill a royal. It did not matter which one."
The empress was buried in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna's city centre. For centuries it has served as the Imperial burial place. After learning of his wife's death, the Emperor reportedly whispered to himself, "She will never know how much I loved her."