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Sisi's photos reveal an emancipated empress


Photos collected by Empress Elisabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, are on display in an exhibition in Cologne, shedding a new light on her character.

In the summer of 1853, Bavarian Princess Elisabeth was invited to the 23rd birthday of Emperor Franz Joseph, ruler of the Habsburg empire. For the young monarch, it was love at first sight, and their marriage was quickly agreed upon. Together, they ruled over one of the most powerful empires of Europe. 

Thanks to director Ernst Marischka's film trilogy about the young princess nicknamed  Sisi (spelled "Sissi" in the film title), released between 1955 to 1957, generations of television viewers around the world have delighted in following the young princess's journey as she struggled to navigate Viennese court etiquette while winning over the hearts of the population.

The heart-warming films starring a young Romy Schneider were exactly what viewers needed in battered postwar Germany. 

Who was the real Sisi? 

As a historical figure, the 19th-century empress became both a legend and a symbol. She represented a common longing to break out of the shackles of everyday life to become someone spectacular. But this myth didn't exactly speak to her actual character. The empress was also a selfish and capricious person. 

Across Europe with Empress Sisi
Elisabeth, the beauty queen

Even in her day, men and women equally raved about the beauty of Elisabeth. The empress worked hard to achieve this. One to two hours a day were spent on hair care alone. Until her old age she had a wasp waist measuring 50 centimetres (19.6 inches) in circumference.

Across Europe with Empress Sisi
Bavaria: Carefree childhood at Lake Starnberg

Sisi, who grew up in Munich, spent the happiest days of her childhood at Lake Starnberg at her parents' summer residence. While Possenhofen Palace can only be visited from the outside, the Roseninsel (where Sisi met with her cousin, the "fairytale king" Ludwig II) and the museum in the historical waiting room of Possenhofen station offer ample opportunity to follow in the footsteps of young Sisi.

Across Europe with Empress Sisi
Bavaria to Austria: Betrothal in Bad Ischl

In the imperial summer residence of Bad Ischl, 15-year-old Elisabeth met Austrian Emperor Franz Josef for the first time. Her engagement to him in 1853 was the first turning point in her life. 100 years later, the Emperor's villa becomes the setting for some scenes from the famous German "Sissi" films starring Romy Schneider. The script glorified and falsified many things - not least Sisi's name.

Across Europe with Empress Sisi
Vienna: Marriage and years of horror at the Hofburg

After the wedding, the strict court rituals and a mother-in-law who interfered in raising her children soon made Sisi's life in the Hofburg unbearable. In the rooms next to the imperial apartments, the Sisi Museum now sheds light on the myth of Sisi - with personal objects such as her clothes, her furniture, her first-aid kit and her death mask. A must for all Sisi fans!

Across Europe with Empress Sisi
Italy: On the cliffs of Trieste

Travelling became the empress's elixir for life. Far away from the Viennese court she could relax. For example in Miramare Castle on the Adriatic coast near Trieste. Elisabeth stayed here 14 times on her travels across the Mediterranean, sometimes with Emperor Franz. The oysters, which Sisi enjoyed, are cultivated today in the Gulf of Trieste, just as they were in the Habsburg era.

Across Europe with Empress Sisi
Hungary: Adopted home at Gödöllő Palace

On June 8, 1867 Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were crowned King and Queen of Hungary in Budapest. In the following years she repeatedly visited Gödöllő Palace, a gift from the "Hungarian people" to the royal couple. At Gödöllő, Sisi pursued her favorite pastime extensively, horse riding. And made politics: She successfully fought for Hungary's internal independence.

Across Europe with Empress Sisi
Greece: Fateful years on Corfu

Sisi loved this Mediterranean island since her health spa stay on Corfu in 1860. After the suicide of her son in 1889, she sought solace on long walks and boat trips. The best place to be close to Sisi is the "Achilleion", the white marble palace that she had built as her retirement home. In the garden, sculptures remember the heroic sagas of Greek poet Homer, who inspired Sisi.

Across Europe with Empress Sisi
Switzerland: Assassination at Lake Geneva

Elisabeth became an immortal legend when she was murdered on September 10, 1898 during a visit to Switzerland. Anarchist Luigi Lucheni stabbed the Empress in the heart with a file while she was walking along the shores of Lake Geneva. The empress's former suite at the Hotel Beau Rivage still contains a number of memorabilia, such as a blood-stained silk ribbon.

Across Europe with Empress Sisi
Vienna: Final resting place in the Capuchin crypt

The Empress's body was transported to Vienna in an ice-filled coffin in her saloon car and buried seven days after the assassination in the Vienna Capuchin crypt. While the hearts of most Habsburg rulers were removed and buried in the Augustinian Church in Herzgrüftl, Sisi's body rests entirely in the coffin. Her last wish to be buried in Corfu remained unfulfilled.

Across Europe with Empress Sisi
Vienna: Sisi path at Schönbrunn Palace

Elisabeth's body was transported to the Capuchin crypt in this ornately decorated hearse. It can be seen in the carriage house at Schönbrunn Palace, which once again traces the empress's life: from the train of her wedding dress to the golden carriage she used at the coronation in Hungary all the way to her riding saddle.

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Born in 1837, the young princess was the fourth of 10 children of Duke Maximilian and his wife Ludovika of Bavaria. She spent her childhood in Munich and nearby Lake Starnberg before becoming empress through her marriage at the young age of 16.

Yet becoming empress and moving to Vienna was not exactly a dream come true for the teen. Only two weeks into her marriage she referred to her new home as a "dungeon." Her husband was unable to devote himself to her private life — he was busy coping with military defeats and the process of transforming the empire into two constitutional monarchies: Austria and Hungary.  

Creating her own photo collection

Sisi had three daughters and a son. Yet she was deeply unhappy with life in court and plagued by health issues, many of which were thought to have been psychosomatic. Seeking respite, the empress fled her family and Vienna and traveled around Europe, living in Venice, Madeira and Corfu, where she could relax and recuperate — she later built an opulent palace there and spent much of her time learning Greek, going on walks and seeing friends. 

It was during her time abroad that she started her photo collection, which is now on display at Museum Ludwig in Cologne. Among the pictures shown are three so-called "beauty albums," bound in fine leather. In them, Sisi collected pictures of women to study their appearances. "I am creating a beauty album, and am now collecting photographs for it, only of women," she wrote to her brother-in-law, Archduke Ludwig Viktor, in the 1860s. "Any pretty faces you can muster at Angerer's or other photographers, I ask you to send me." The princess, who was seen as conventionally beautiful, was fascinated by the interplay of seeing and being seen.

The Cologne exhibition features a number of photos collected by Sisi at a time when photography was a new medium.


An early collector

The Museum Ludwig owns 18 of the empress's photo albums, consisting of about 2,000 photographs. The exhibition in Cologne shows a sample of them, including images of Sisi with her dogs or scenes from her family life. She also collected pictures of female artists and actresses who had a bad reputation in royal society at the time.  

In a sense, Empress Elisabeth can be considered a pioneer when it comes to collecting early photographs. The medium was fairy new, after all, having been officially introduced in 1839 by the French painter Louis Daguerre.

It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that photography became an accepted medium. Through the photos on display, visitors of the exhibition in Cologne will discover a side of the empress which was "much more modern and much more emancipated, much more sharp-tongued, much wilder than we might imagine her to be," according to the curator of the exhibition, Miriam Szwast.

The Museum Ludwig owns 18 of the empress's photo albums.

The death of an empress

By creating these photo albums, empress Elisabeth "created a segment of society that was to her taste, and surrounded herself with people in the pictures that interested her," explains Szwast. She also used the collection to emphasize her own beauty, which was both a delight and a curse.

While she had a reportedly lengthy daily beauty regimen, including caring for her long curly hair for hours, she also felt stifled by her looks and the demands of society. "To her the fine clothes she wore on official occasions felt like a costume: she spoke of being 'harnessed,'" says Szwast.

Sisi began collecting photos and putting them in albums, including the one pictured, during her many stays abroad

The rebellious princess also had an anchor tattooed on her shoulder in 1888, meant to symbolize her great love for the sea.

In her later years, Elisabeth also wrote poetry and was inspired by German radical political thinker and poet Heinrich Heine.

When her son Rudolf committed suicide in 1889, the empress resigned herself to wearing only black and sunk further into the depression that had long plagued her.

In 1898 she was murdered by an Italian anarchist while staying in Geneva. She died at age 60, having spent 44 years on the throne. 

The Cologne exhibition brings the darker facets of her life back to the forefront, freeing the eternally beautiful and melancholic picture we have of the empress from its kitsch. The result is a modern woman with a taste for contemporary art. 

The exhibition Sisi in Private: The Empress's Photo Albums is on display until February 21, 2021 at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne.


This article was translated from German (sh).