Having recently been to Austria (again) and inevitably but  nevertheless unpremeditatedly  stumbled upon an earthly remnant of the famed Sissi, Franz Joseph’s bohemian Empress, in the form of a palace called Kaiservilla, my fascination with her legend instantly rekindled. Thus I ended up buying yet another biography depicting the bizarre destiny of the much idolized monarch whose blazing icon still lingers over the lore-inspired part of our collective memory quite as if time would not attempt diminishing such rarefied a charm – although perhaps time in itself shares not half the merits for its transcendence in the detriment of intensive propaganda which doubtlessly enhances the Austrian economy with its touristic value. So, out of a melange of eagerness and spontaneous, exceptional magnanimity, I made my pecuniary contribution by purchasing Sophie Zavadill’s “Elisabeth, Empress of Austria” and Jean des Cars’ “Sissi, Empress of Austria” (do note I’m aware of the phenomenal difference between these two exceedingly dissimilar titles), managing to devour them in a bit under 2 days.

Here’s one delicious fragment to justify my enthusiasm and concomitantly provide an insight in Sissi’s complex personality:

Sissi, portrait by Hungarian artist Gyula Benczúr

During a carnival she and Ida Ferenczy attended a masked ball in secret. It was the Redoute, which is still held annually in the grand ballroom of the Hofburg. The emperor knew nothing of his wife’s escapade. She also deceived her servants by having herself undressed as usual, going to bed, and pretending to sleep – just as in a novel.  When her servants had withdrawn, Ida Ferenczy slipped into her room with the fancy-dress costume, a magnificent yellow domino made of heavy brocade. Ida also brought the empress a red blonde wig and mask with long black tassels to completely cover her face. Ida wore a red domino and was also masked- as is still the custom at the Redoute.

‘The two slipped into the hall and at first only watched the goings-on from the the balcony. Elisabeth was fascinated. She had been to every sort of functioning by then but never to a masked ball. When she became tired of looking, the empress selected from the crownd a young man who was obviously without an escort. Ida brought him, a government employee in his late twenties, to the masked empress, who spent the rest of the evening in the company of this Fritz Pacher. She questioned him about politics, asked whether he was satisfied with the government, inquired what he thought of the empress and finally spoke about her favorite poet, Heinrich Heine. She flirted with the young man but could not be moved to lift her mask by a centimeter. The ball of the yellow domino was followed by a series of letters between the blonde “Gabrielle” and Pacher. These letters have survived and confirm the fairy-tale story.

More than ten years later, Elisabeth wrote a poem called “Long, long ago: the song of the yellow domino”.’

(“Elisabeth, Empress of Austria” by Sophie Zavadill)

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A Gallery of Beauties

June 17, 2013

Everybody at a certain point harbors the desire or curiosity or simple, sheer interest to gather a collection of various things in diverse quantities, some parameters more eccentric than others. Empress Elisabeth of Austria, commonly nicknamed “Sissi“, a character to whom Madame has dedicated a plethora of posts, had her own phenomenal assortment which put together a considerable number of photos immortalizing the most beauteous women of the age. But I already wrote about it here. Yet what I didn’t know at the time when that account of her oddities was given and subsequently learned to be a crucial factor in explaining her peculiar idea of a collection refers to the strikingly similar propensity for putting together images of beautiful ladies which dominated the life of  Sissi’s uncle, King Ludwig I o Bavaria. No longer content with getting most of the pulchritudinous grand dames of the time in his bed for fleeting moments of passion, the monarch who is (in)famous for abdicating the throne following a tempestuous scandal involving his mistress, Lola Montez, determined to forever own the marvelous physical charm of these resplendent females. And thus took shape the Gallery of Beauties, the original inspiration for Empress Elisabeth’s identically themed albums.

beauties

This chamber, wholly dedicated to the celebration of corporal attractiveness, exhibits a selection of 36 portraits ordered by Ludwig between 1827 and 1850. They were all commissioned to have the same size so as to perfectly fit in the allocated space and all feature the enchanting profiles of mid 19th century women coming from sundry social backgrounds like the German aristocracy or the European middle-class. This way, characters who otherwise never spoke in real life were forced by circumstance to keep each other company while hanging on the walls of the King’s gallery of visual splendor inside Nymphenburg Palace. So Ludwig’s sister, Sophie (between brackets: the mother of Emperor Franz of Austria, Sissi’s husband), rested alongside such notorious figures as English aristocrat Jane Digby, actress Charlotte von Hagn (a former concubine to Franz Liszt) and, inevitably, Lola Montez, quite an outrageous arrangement, given the epoch. Sort of like compelling Whistler’s Mother to face Courbet’s “Origin of the World” non-stop.

Don’t you just fancy having a place resembling this?

Of course I’m referring to Sissi the Empress, whose 175th birthday (she would’ve been terrified by the prospect of ugliness this age implies)  we celebrate today, on Christmas Eve (Happy Holidays to you all!). Not for nothing she was called Eugénie, after the obscure patron Sainte Eugénie, commemorated on 24 December.

Between cleaning the last corner of my already ultra-sterilized flat and venturing to decorate the Christmas tree alongside a totally amateurish brother, I decided to take a moment of respite and celebrate my favorite 19th century Empress. Also, since the ‘Quote Monday” has been off for a while, why not revive it with a thematic excerpt from Sissi’s diary to compensate the shortness of the post?

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She was aware they believed her insane and actually pronounced it out loud, publicly, though I’m momentarily unable to recall the exact circumstances which lead to her uttering such audacious a line. Certainly no previous Austrian monarch ever attempted a similar bravery in facing the court. A true eccentric, this woman, and a brave one at that.

She was so interestingly dynamic I believe it’s nearly impossible not to least feel the most malnourished affinity for her and to support my conviction, here are some things I bet you didn’t know about our Sissi (and neither suspected):

  • She admired gorgeous women perhaps as much as men did, with the exception that she only, exclusively, solely accepted the company of this particular category, and even had a picture album to count her preferences (over 100 samples, which numbered beauties from Lola Montes and Maria Sophia of Bavaria to unconventional Amelie Gautreau).  To complete it, the Empress wrote the Austrian ambassadors across Europe to send her photographs of charming ladies in their vicinity, causing amusing scandals regarding the purpose of the collection.
  • She had an anchor tattoo on her shoulder to express a love for sailing never to diminish for as long as she lived. Husband Franz was reportedly displeased by the daring.
  • When catching a sea storm, she often had her attendants tie her to a fixed chair on the main deck, claiming she imitates Ulysses due to the magnetic attraction waves exerted on her… Imagine what terrible coercion subdued the ones who abode her whim but responded before the Emperor if any unfortunate incident took place.
  • To avoid fulfilling her marital duties in the detriment of much desirable traveling, Sissi encouraged Franz’s sexual affairs, especially the long-term relationship with actress Katharina Schratt, whose reputation she always protected. Rumors of their friendship enabled Kat to continue the liaison for over 30 years, as a faithful mistress and friend to the miserable Emperor.

Wasn’t hers a titillating life?

Once upon a time, approximately a century plus relatively 20 years ago, when Lady D and Grace Kelly had yet to become international royal icons, fascinating generation after generation with their undeniable and utterly awing charisma, Europe celebrated as divine exponents of , well, a sex-appeal cumulated with fantastic physical charm, two renowned sovereigns contemporaries of elder and less prettier Queen Victoria. Empress Eugenie de Montijo (shortly named Doña María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox-Portocarrero de Guzmán y Kirkpatrick, 16th Countess of Teba and 15th Marquise of Ardales) and Bavarian wacko, Empress Elisabeth of Austria (or Sissi), were, judging by the public opinion which papers never ceased to express, the crowned dignified beauties of late 19th century (otherwise somehow inferior to the peculiar pulchritude of a Lola Montez or a notorious Countess di Castiglione). Noble dames followed their fashion, copied their hairstyles, queued to steal their secret tricks and ultimately spread conspicuous rumors regarding the eccentricities so much talked about in journals across the old continent. A week couldn’t pass without both nasty and flattering news being published all over the Austrian, French, English or German Empire, constancy which eventually lead to their defining as legends, to the shared dismay of their husbands. To gossip on topics concerning the beauteous Empresses was an irresistible occupation of aristocrat high-put ladies while at quite tedious court balls, and, through this jealous rivals, the two made the elevated scandal of the day.

No wonder that, despite the tensed political circumstances and the wrong presumption of natural rivalry between elegant style icons, they developed a friendly relationship originated in an official meeting with the occasion of the Salzburg  reception offered to Napoleon III by Franz Joseph after his younger brother’s, Emperor Max of Mexico’s death on foreign lands. Agreeably not the most proper setting yet nonetheless an opportunity for the enchanting women to get in contact.

The city of Salzburg competed in comparing the two so to realize who was most loved by Aphrodite and the state affairs passed to the second position on the common scale of interest as Elisabeth and Eugenie were placed in the center of everybody’s attention. One witty, emanating confidence, the other sensitive, even timid; one blessed with symmetric features, one decidedly the owner of magnetizing allure: to chose a winner troubled the referees of this indirect contest. Implicitly, they were believed to be unquestionable enemies, still weren’t.

A funny anecdote recorded by the rich Count Wilczek unveils the intimacy shared by them in that short  period. He reports how Sissi, habitually traveling incognito, visited the French royalty in the evening to “speak of certain things” while he was supposed to guard the room entrance to prevent the prospect of someone interrupting them which proved justifiable when Napoleon III himself insisted on seeing his spouse. The Count was then obliged to “cross two empty chambers of the apartment, even the bedroom, to reach the boudoir whose entry had been carelessly left ajar. Before it was placed a cheval glass and the couple of Empresses were treating the door beneath which I remained with their backs, busy to measure, with some ribbons, the probably most beautiful legs in Europe.” He was never able to forget that unimaginable scene until the end of his days… Lucky man!

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