The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

Empress Sisi: The Most Beautiful Royal in Europe

Strolling through the streets of central Vienna, there are two faces staring at you from cups, mugs, fridge magnets, chocolates, coffee-boxes, and all the rest of the tourist paraphernalia. One is Mozart, as can only be expected, the other one is the Empress Elizabeth (1837-1898), the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph, affectionately known as Sisi. Mozart, born in Salzburg and having lived and worked in Vienna, is all around as one of the greatest musical geniuses in history. The question is what has Sisi done to merit a place alongside Mozart, even if only on a postcard stand?

A number of books and films have attempted to portray a romanticized picture of the beautiful, young girl who rebelled against the stiffness of court life in Vienna and roamed the world in search of freedom. One and only one aspect of this myth strikes me as being completely true – what a beauty! The Empress, tall, extremely slim, with a tiny waist and hair cascading down to her knees was known as the most gorgeous-looking royal in Europe.

Sisi has gone down in history as eternally young. This is interesting because when she was assassinated, she was a sixty-one-year old woman, so not ancient by any means, but certainly not in the first flush of youth. Youth was, though, an important element of the Sisi myth that she herself intentionally cultivated. After she turned thirty-one, Sisi refused to have her photograph taken. So, her image, stuck in popular imagination, is based on early photographs and portraits for which she sat when she was in her twenties. It is a somewhat worrying reflection that the Empress, who may have been no genius like Mozart, but who was certainly an expert on beauty, had decided that after thirty-one a woman was not fit to be seen.

Elizabeth (Sisi) as a young girl

As for Sisi’s impatience with life at court, it sounds very much like the polite way of saying that she found her husband boring. This may be as it may, but it has to be said that Franz Joseph, the neglected husband, was no domestic tyrant and, apart from a few tactful hints in his letters to his wife that the two hadn’t seen each other in months, he didn’t put much of a fight.

Sisi would be absent from Vienna sometimes for years. On one occasion, she showed up after a two-year stay abroad. The family physician, who didn’t share the delicacy of the husband, put it quite bluntly that Sisi was not fulfilling her responsibilities either as an Empress or as a mother. His impressions must have been based on the intervals when Sisi was in Vienna. Most of the time, though, the Empress was travelling - in a grand style, with a large entourage, including a goat. As she often dieted on milk only, she would take the goat along on her luxury ship.

The long travels away from Vienna have been described as the journeys of a restless soul. As it is, they were usually in the direction of the Mediterranean and invariably ended up in magnificent villas and palaces. One has to confess that many of the romantics – Lord Byron comes to mind – were travelling in a similar way to similar destinations. Most people, though, would find it difficult to feel sorry for Sisi in her villa on Corfu.

Now, I am not at all trying to belittle Sisi and say that she had nothing else to show for herself but good looks, of which she took obsessive care and of which she was extraordinarily vain. On the contrary, I believe, along with the ancient Greeks, that great beauty is, like genius, the gift of the gods. Remember beautiful Helen in Homer’s poem, for whom a long and ferocious war was fought over many years.

So, there is no need to turn Sisi into a rebel fighting the system, a tragic soul, etc. Neither is there, for the purposes of tourist souvenirs, any need to ask what Sisi did or accomplished. I mean, the Empress Maria Theresa, a strong-willed woman, reigned over the Austrian Empire, as an absolute monarch, for forty years. She is generally seen by historians as an extremely successful and efficient ruler, but one can appreciate, seeing her portraits, why people would prefer to see Sisi on their coffee-cups or fridge magnets.

Sisi was the personification of a princess from the fairy tales, a famous beauty who had enchanted her people and continues to do so. It appears that this is how she thought of herself and this is how she wanted to be remembered. Whether this is superficial or not is a matter of a point of view. Didn’t Oscar Wilde say somewhere that it was only superficial people who didn’t care about appearance?

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