• Kaiserin Elisabeth "Sisi"

    Sisi - Austria’s free-spirited Empress

    Emperor Franz Joseph’s gaze wandered to the young, unaffected girl. The 15-year-old Elisabeth, or ‘Sisi,’ was a stunning beauty, radiating a youthful spirit. The Kaiser fell in love with her at first sight and Sisi’s life changed forever. Who could have known that trying to defend her spirit and independence became her destiny?

    Sisi Museum Vienna

    A fateful moment in history

    What exactly happened to the ladies' luggage that day will forever remain a mystery. Whatever the case, the suitcases containing their colourful summer wardrobe could not be found. Duchess Ludovika of Bavaria and her daughters Helene and Elisabeth were in mourning because of a recently deceased aunt. Now they had to appear before the emperor in black for their meeting on that fateful August 16, 1853. In Bad Ischl, a lovely town in Austria’s Salzburg Lake District, Helene was to be presented to His Majesty Franz Joseph, ruler of the Habsburg Empire. She was a serious 17-year-old who appeared austere and ascetic in her dark clothing. Franz Joseph greeted her, but his gaze wandered to the young, lively girl next to her. The 15-year-old Elisabeth, or ‘Sisi,’ kept her mother and sister company on the journey, and as fate would have it, the emperor fell in love with her at first sight.

    Every now and then a single, fateful moment in history turned beggars into kings, outlaws into heroes and … a girl from a small Bavarian town into a legendary empress. The event in Bad Ischl was one such moment. Two days after their first meeting, Franz Joseph asked Elisabeth to marry him. Eight months later, the wedding took place in Vienna. Of all the Habsburgs, Austria’s longest-reigning dynasty, no one has retained as much fame as Elisabeth of Austria. Even 125 years after her death, the empress outshines all. Yet, it is still difficult for historians to determine Sisi’s true personality behind all the hype.

    An ill-fated marriage

    From the very first day, the young and spirited empress felt caged by the rigid rituals of the Viennese court. The honeymoon at Laxenburg Palace turned into a disaster; the young emperor spent his days at his desk, while his wife cried her heart out in the park. A life with strict duties and ceremonies at the court lay in front of her. Over the following years, the couple travelled between various courts and homes: from the Imperial Palace to Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, between the Imperial Palace Innsbruck and Leopoldskron Castle Salzburg, and between Hof Palace and the Imperial Villa in Bad Ischl. But for Sisi, weeks of monotonous protocol and constraints turned into months, months into years, and the joy of an adventurous, gilded life never reached her. She only saw restrictions and suffered under the control the imperial court had over her. Even the birth of their first daughter Sophie Friederike couldn’t change that: Sophie died at the tender age of two. Shortly after Sophie came Gisela. Then, people cheered the birth of Rudolf, heir to the throne. At the age of 21, Sisi was a mother of three. But her children grew up lonely and practically without a mother. 

    Guided by her independent spirit, she began to rebel against the omnipresent expectations of the court and yearned to emancipate herself. She neither strived to be a devoted, quiet wife nor a doting mother, and she certainly did not want to be a representative figure of the vast empire. Franz Joseph accommodated his unorthodox and freedom-loving wife as far as his position and sense of tradition would allow. It was not far enough. Sisi fell ill and felt trapped in a golden cage. At one point, she broke out. 

    • Restless Travels

      Her hasty departure from Vienna to the Greek island of Corfu was - with brief interruptions - the beginning of a lifelong odyssey. For the rest of her days, Elisabeth of Austria remained wandering the world, in search of her true self. Restlessly she moved from spa town to spa town, staying only a few weeks at a time before moving on. She spent her days with a rigorous sports program (her maids regularly had to be picked up by carriage because they could not keep up with the empress). By then she had long been considered the best horsewoman in the world. She put herself on an excessively strict diet and never weighed more than 103 lbs (47 kg).

    • She only made an exception for violet ice cream from the Demel Confectioner to the Court and the famous Original Sacher-Torte, a chocolate cake from the Hotel Sacher Vienna.

      Sisi loved the sea, sailed in the worst storms, and had an anchor tattooed on her shoulder. After a while, she no longer allowed portraits of herself: the last photo shows her at age thirty, the last painting at age forty. Later, no one except her chambermaids saw her face, which she hid behind a veil, fan, or umbrella as soon as she left her room. It was as if she had decided to remain forever that radiantly beautiful girl with whom the emperor had fallen in love at first sight, on that fateful day in Bad Ischl.

    Sisi in the film, the biography of Romy Schneider, Hofmobiliendepot (Imperial Furniture Museum) / Hofmobiliendepot (Imperial Furniture Museum)

    A Movie Star

    The romance in the beginning, her desire for self-determination and independence, the eccentricities of her later life, as well as her tragic love for Franz Joseph made Elisabeth of Austria a Habsburg celebrity.

    In the 1950s, the trilogy with Romy Schneider made Sisi world famous. Television films and a musical followed.

    In 2022, Netflix launched a new series about Austria’s most famous empress: ‘The Empress.’

    Franz-Joseph-Vault in Vienna / Capuchins' Crypt

    The Last Chapter

    The empress's death in 1898 was as unusual as her life. Sisi did not notice her injury at first. On the banks of Lake Geneva, an assassin thrust a sharpened file into her heart. Elisabeth thought the man had merely knocked her over, and she straightened up, apologised to passers-by for her mishap, and hurried with her chambermaid to the ship in which she was about to sail across the lake. It was only on board that the empress collapsed.

    "What actually happened?" were her last words. Minutes later, the woman who was to become the most famous of all Habsburgs was dead. Only a single drop of blood stained her dress. It was black, just like the one she had worn on that fateful day in Bad Ischl.