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  When her servants had withdrawn, Ida Ferenczy slipped into her room with the fancy-dress costume, a magnificent yellow domino made of heavy brocade.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)

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.

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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?

Love triangles and promiscuity seldom flourished so exquisitely than at the Papal Court in Rome up to about 3-400 years ago. As some “The Borgias” fans might’ve already noticed, Vatican city was quite a den of lavish sins back in the days of Michelangelo and didn’t stop being one until long after Bernini’s days, which is why the following episode of his life should not come as a surprise.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the preeminent protege of the Popes Urban VIII and Alexander VII, like all reputed artists, had some apprentices to do his less important commissions in exchange for advice and guidance. And these anonymous apprentices, emphasizing one in particular, had wives. Female presences to whose charms the great sculptor could not frequently resist.

One such ravishing woman by law reserved for a single husband, was Constanza Piccolomini Bonarelli, spouse of Matteo Bonarelli and licentious lover of Bernini.

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So much was he enamored with her that, to fully convey his passionate sentiments, Gian Lorenzo produces the above bust, a Constanza he could caress in marble, the immortal, unwithering variant of his beloved. It was the zenith of their affection.

And soon they’d reach their nadir… one terrible way too.

Since Constanza was unfaithful to her hubby, cheating came natural to her and not long after her storming affair with Bernini commenced, she found herself involved with a second paramour, none other than Gian Lorenzo’s younger brother, Luigi.

Alas, a naturally suspicious Bernini soon felt her betrayal and thought a most basic scheme to catch the two in flagrant delicto: he simply announced his going to the countryside to tend to some business, insidiously expecting the couple to make a wrong move… which didn’t let itself waited.

Luigi, unconscious of any danger, immediately visited a lonely Constanza yearning for consolation to be “welcomed” by a furious Bernini who almost beat him to death.

Amusingly (or tragically, depending on your point of view), this telenovela-like story didn’t stop here, but to continue it and learn the climax of the whole affair, I recommend the following documentary:

Perhaps because I have sadistic velleities or just an eccentric appetite for slightly scandalous deeds which delight me to such extent that I quite managed to become addicted, whenever I’m in need of spicy historical records I turn to Italy, whose patrimony of mischievous figures, rich criminals and lascivious damsels never ceases to quench my thirst. I don’t know if it has anything to do with living in the Boot and having mainly depraved popes, but they definitely put mediatized characters like bloody Elizabeth Bathory to shame.  Think Lucrezia Borgia– she could do more than kill helpless maidens and bathe in their blood to gain eternal youth (Naomi Campbell seems to have repeatedly attempted to test it unsuccessfully -boo, humdrum human rights disapprove-  which means it isn’t so astounding).

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Italians, on the other hand, have a certain something, a natural flair seasoned with one ravishing vice inherited as specific trait from their fiery ancestors, the Borgias, Orsinis, Medicis, Sforza and so on, unlike the French who were rather subverted by vanity, a particular section of generally named “vice” Italy’s inhabitants had (though I assume they still have) galore.  It’s suffice to say this enchants me (it does).

Returning to the main topic, to satisfy my perpetual desideratum for anecdotes I frequently resort to evidences from Rome, Florence or Napoli, the main gathering nests of the wealthy and infamous. Yesterday, to enlarge my research area, I was reading Staley’s “Lords and Ladies of the Italian Lakes”, a highly vibrant  compilation of rumors and stories set in the vividly painted Lombardy Lakeland  (rival to England’s similarly called region) and just stumbled across a single-paragraph biography of Adeliza de Borgomanero. Profession: part-time murderess, nothing unusual, in fact, for the gloomy Middle Ages, but still juicy and only good to savor today.

Adeliza de Borgomanero’s half-legend, pretty sad in the end, follows an interesting row of events and rumors embroidered around her numerous intriguing habits, culminating in her premature death.

Portrait of a woman, c.1400

She was born circa 1350 in a family of minor nobles, enough to secure her the proper background for marrying a local count from  Val d’Ossola region, elder and boorish, I assume, yet without documented evidence. We can scarcely imagine how the wedding might have been due to the complete lack of reports, but let me tell you it was ensued by a hearty feast and inexorably grand if we judge by the period’s traditions.

At any rate, Adeliza, the sinful child, couldn’t refrain her congenital iniquity and did a thing or two (again, unaccounted by history) apparently inappropriate because old, tedious hubby exiled the young girl to a remote Bellagio castle, situated in the vicinity of Lake Como (which will be a faithful accomplice to her atrocities).

Wrong move if he had any intention of rehabilitating his wife since it barely exonerated Adeliza, point from where she, officially discharged of marital duties, began to knock together her own personal court. For a graceful lady, with a small fortune (money speak, after all) at her complete disposition, I bet it wasn’t such a laborious job.

Lovers were definitely not missing from the jolly assembly and, as she gave the impression of having a weakness for both tall, muscular men or more romantic, effeminate boys  (exclusively gallant ones), soldiers and troubadours surrounded her castle. With them began the actual gossip about her disputable morals.

Countess Adeliza was said, inspired by Quenn Giovanna II of Napoli (who had promiscuous affairs with much younger men she then compelled to take their lives, threw over the balcony in the sea, assassinate, etc) to have demanded her paramours to commit suicide post the consumption of their sexual revels. The brave fools who refused obeying her desire were not much luckier: a servant was charged with dropping them through steel racked oubliettes in the lake below (remember I mentioned Como Lake’s implication in the murders) and none survived.

Queen Giovanna II of Napoli

 Either way, let’s remark she was a delicate lady who didn’t like to dirty her hands so those crimes were  more probably made to prove her authority, her sovereignity  over men (the thing women wand most, by Adeliza’s contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer) and less to satisfy a devilish thirst of blood.

But she became a vampire-siren figure in the popular lore nonetheless, living in a metaphorical (or not?) charnel house.

More original than slaughtering your servants, right?

Adeliza passed away inexplicably at only 20 years of age, in 1370, leaving practically nothing historians can list apart from the legends.  And what beautiful legends.

The pas week has been a hectic ping-pong with several events I had to squeeze in my program and diligently prepare, though I cannot complain for taking part in any of them since they are direct fruits of either my work or my resolute desires across the last few years.

I’ve been invited to make a visit to the town residence of the Royal House of Romania and been (briefly) received by Princess Marguerite, I’ve had to pull through an essay meant to be my entry for quite a promising contest then finish the editing of my novel novella (“Vicious“) to be able to publish it in time and handled its launch concomitantly with that of my author blog. This, plus a couple of other troubles.

No wonder the “Parties of the Past Century” series has yet to be completed.

However, here’s the next roaring social gathering which brought together most of the era’s elite:

Le Bal du Siecle

Ball of the Century

The Mexican multimillionaire Charles Beistegui, a professed eccentric also known as the modern “Count of Monte Cristo”, was the host to the most lavish, flamboyant and altogether magnificent masked ball ever given in honor of the old aristocratic times. His Venice Palazzo Labia, a splendid 17th century residence, was put to its use glamorously and costly decorated to fit the magnitude of the event Charles promised to be the assembly of the century.

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Luxurious rococo gowns of rich materials were displayed with a profusion of jewels and thus the elegantly adorned guests could only be distinguished from the likewise decor by the mere barrier of movement. Famed names such as Orson Welles, the Aga Khan, Barbara Hutton, Dali, Gene Tierny or Jacqueline de Ribes relished the extraordinary parade of refinement, the presence of exotic black people with their peculiar animals (camels included), the amazing atmosphere.

It was an evening of perpetual wonder, the sort wars exclusively can impel one to organize just for the most humane need of forgetting one’s misery.

Le Bal Black & White

1966: Truman Capote, prodigious writer much celebrated on his mother-continent,  throws a party that instantly has him conquer the lavish high society worldwide, a ball whose promise of superlatives makes invitations paramount concerns of elites across both America and Europe (no wonder he gathered 5 thousand friends but gained 15 thousand enemies when anyone known as someone vied for a possibility to attend).

The New York Plaza Hotel, meticulously decorated, reaches its zenith.

After a period of seclusion dedicated to laborious preparations, Capote returns with repetitive “I’m beside myself! Beside myself!” to take it over and welcome the masqued guests nevertheless recognized by the photographs galore who fenced in the red carpet.

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Glittering names as those of Frank Sinatra, Cecil Beaton, Mia Farrow, Jacqueline de Ribes, Oscar de la Renta, Marlene Dietrich, Maharajah and Maharani of Jaipur,  Vivien Leigh, Shirley MacLaine,Baroness Cecile de Rothschild, Baron and Baroness Guy de Rothschild, Mr and Mrs John Steinbeck, Andy Warhol, Tennessee Williams and even the expatriated Duke and Duchess of Windsor figured on the privileged guest list. It was indeed the egocentric celebration of a silver age, a kaleidoscope of savory juxtapositions of class, titles, secular manners and social status to garrison the last remnants of decadence.

Half the Hall of Fame and Best Dressed list attended Capote’s hubristic feast in the most mesmerizing costumes possible (note: I’m far from resorting to hyperbole for that depiction)…

If in Truman’s shoes, is there anyone you would’ve coveted to see there but was not, caught in various circumstances, able to come?

Le Bal du Palais d’Hiver

It just so happened that I stumbled across an incredibly posh and surprisingly well composed series of five episodes on the most exquisite XXth century parties I’m going to use as a main support for my own sequence, just to baffle a bit the monotony this blog has, alas, succumbed to.

So without further (and obviously unnecessary) introductory lines, behold the first sample.

As if anticipating the ensuing horrors of the Russian Revolution, Tzar Nicholas II, knowingly the last Romanov ever to sit on his rightful throne, and Empress Alexandra, whose demeanor, like her mother in law,  I’ve always disapproved of, threw the most dazzling party at the Palais d’Hiver.

The Surrealist Ball

How splendiferously eccentric can a mid-late 20th century ball get?

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Apparently, the Rothschilds forward their answer through a flamboyant surrealist party of oddities galore, as anticipated in the picture above, which gives gives an accurate account of just what unusual looks they could conceive. The Rothschilds being the banker family that honorably took over Croesus’ reputation in modern days. Surrealism- the inter-bellum artistic current prizing the chaotic, fantastical  absurd. Think Dali (who not coincidentally was a guest).

Now, another participant at the mentioned gathering, Baron Alexis de Redé, extensively describes all one would love to know about the whole ‘a tad ludicrous’  event:

On 12 December 1972, Marie-Hélène gave her Surrealist Ball at Ferriéres. This time the guests were asked to come in black tie and long dresses with Surrealist heads.[ The year before, 1971, the Rothschilds were hosts to a glorious Proust Ball assembling more than half the international elite] The invitation was printed with reversed writing on a blue and cloudy sky, inspired by a painting by Magritte. To decipher the card, it had to be held to a mirror.

invitation

‘For the evening the chateau was floodlit with moving orange lights to give the impression that it was on fire. The staircase inside was lined by footmen dressed as cats that appeared to have fallen asleep in a variety of staged poses.’

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Guests had to pass throught a kind of labyrinth of Hell, made of black ribbons to look like cobwebs. The occasional cat appeared to rescue the guests and lead them to the tapestry salon. Here they were greeted by Guy with a hat to resemble a still-life on a platter, and by Marie-Hélène wearing the head of a giant weeping tears made of diamonds.

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Marie Hélène proved that she had the flare and imagination to create something unique and worthwhile. None of this was created by charm alone. It needed a degree of ruthless determination. She attended to every minute detail of style in her life and also in her entertaining. She was a great hostess with all the qualities. She loved parties and people. She was forever in quest of new talent and new figures to entertain from the world of the arts, literature, dance and haute couture. She mixed them with the more established set of Paris society. Everyone was intrigued. Marie-Hélène’s parties took on such importance that one social figure threatened to commit suicide unless she was invited…

baron

It is not possible to repeat such things now for many reasons. But it is fascinanting to look back and to remember these occasions, which dominated our thoughts and plans to such an extent for so many months. I am happy that I took part in so many, and happy that I gave some myself.

baron

And with this verdict, reminiscent of Proust although much less highfalutin,  ends our attendee’s account of the soiree which, lush and exuberant in spirit, inaugurates a “Parties of the Past Century” series.

baronlu

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?

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Beauty is omnipotent. Beauty, striking or delicate (or both), lissom and cunning and sinuous in the conquering of hearts, is thus quite a stimulus for the visual senses whose function, when by its appearance employed, seems to reduce itself to that of a mere messenger of titillations. Beauty is that which can impress the most obtuse perceptiveness and with these being said, I should conclude my introductory definition, sliding to the subject: Joanna Lloyd, picture above. (Between brackets, pure serendipity lead me to her as,though of yore acquainted with Joshua Reynold’s aristocratic portraits depicting haughty dames and gents of the London Season scene,it was not until I read the “House of mirth” that I met his beauteous Mrs. Lloyd. And ironically enough, I wouldn’t have ever saw the lady in question if it weren’t for Wharton’s laudatory description within the novel…)

Now, she might not be considered exactly a stunner after today’s standards but the woman undoubtedly had a gorgeous profile and overall a certain charm about her gracious self. She’s highly refined.

Needless to add I, hunter of all things beautiful, just had to comply with my impulse and dig up her life. Surely I couldn’t refrain  making use of such fine a serendipitous ‘discovery’ . Plus, don’t you have a greater experience of a thing’s immortalized  fairness once you learn, explicitly, there was blood flowing under that epidermis?I tend to think people are getting too impersonal (from reasons I won’t take time enumerating) and the sort of insertion into one’s life I’m proposing could bring back some warm, colorful interest. Canvas is one enduring substitute of flesh, how about this?

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Anyway, returning to the topic, the following are the disappointingly few facts I managed to gather (believe it or not, if you haven’t heard of Joanna Lloyd, Google almost hasn’t either):

-she was the third daughter and coheir of John Leigh Esq. of Northcote House, Isle of Wight…

-who married, at a thin age, a Richard Bennett Lloyd from an important American family…

-moving together on the other side of the Ocean, in Maryland (there’s actually a Maryland Historical Magazine which gives a plentiful account of her life there yet cannot be found online).

-shortly before embarking for the U.S. (1775-6), she had her portrait painted by the fashionable Reynolds, who allegedly praised her attractiveness (also much appreciated, albeit not without scorn, at the Lloyds’ new home). This is the exquisite work Wharton’s character in the “House of mirth” replicates.

-the spring of the 1788’s saw her widowed and promptly remarried to a handsome  Francis Love Beckford (1764-1838), (announced by the 3rd edition of “New Lady’s Magazine  or Polite and Entertaining Companion for the fair sex”).

-naturally, she returned to British soil and from this part any information reminiscent of her earthly life passed out of my reach.

The Reynolds remains, though. Does it intrigue you as it appears to intrigue me? Why yes, why no?

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