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Sissi Empress of Austria. A Tragic Biography by Isabel del Rio

Sissi Empress of Austria. A Tragic Biography by Isabel del Rio
Isabel del Rio

Sissi empress of Austria and Hungary. A tragic biography full of lights and shadows. By Isabel del Rio

Sissi empress. Portrait by Emil Rabending

Sissi empress. Portrait by Emil Rabending

Elizabeth of Wittelsbach (Sissi empress) was born on Christmas Eve 1837 in Munich. She was the daughter of the Duke Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria (a friendly man, devoted of arts) and his wife Ludovika (sister of the terrible Archduchess Sophie, mother of Franz Joseph I, The Habsburg Emperor of Austria and Hungary).

Sissi spent her childhood in a carefree rural existence in the company of her brothers, sisters, dogs and horses. She had a liberal education, spoke several languages and was, like her father, devoted of arts and trips. Then, nothing suited with the religious conservative old-fashioned way of thinking of the Habsburg family.

In August 1853, the life of Sissi took a point of no return. The terrible Archduchess Sophie had planned to marry her son, the Emperor, with Helene, Sissi oldest sister. However, Franz Joseph I fell in love with Sissi (aged 15) and they married on April 24 1854. It was one of the few times Franz Joseph I (dull, clumsy and politically irresolute) faced his mother. Then, Sissi found herself lost in big palaces full of rules she didn’t understand. Her mother-in-love forbade Sissi shopping, talking to people, riding, travel and even educate her own children. In 1855 and 1856 Sissi gave birth to two daughters, the eldest of whom died of measles aged 2 (of course, Sophie unfairly blamed her of the tragedy). Finally, in 1858, the long-awaited Crown Prince Rudolph arrived (a poor man who committed suicide years later a cause of his homosexuality, so forbidden by the Habsburg family).

Too young, Sissi cannot put up with the Archduchess and soon, her health began to suffer. Tuberculosis was diagnosed. In 1859, she was sent to Madeira alone and she started to be happy. She recovered but rarely, she returned to Vienna and took refuge in Corfu and Venice while the Austro-Hungarian Empire, under pressure for national identity from the Slavs, the Czechs, the Italians and particularly the Hungarians, was breaking apart (as we know, during the First World War, the empire totally disintegrated).

In 1865 the tutor of Crown Prince Rudolph, who (of course) had been chosen by the Archduchess Sophie, had some public scandals and the mother-in-law power began to wane. In the end, Sissi entered on a splendid period during which her prettiness, cleverness, simplicity and kindness charmed everybody who met her. Then, Sissi began to take an interest in political issues, particularly the desire of the Hungarians to achieve independence. She was a fundamental person in bringing about the Austro-Hungarian Compromise, which gave the Hungarians a measure of self-rule. This political solution was so happy for all parties that Franz Joseph and Sissi were crowned King and Queen of Hungary on 8 June 1867. She now spent much of her time in Budapest (where today still people love her), and here, she gave birth to another daughter, Marie Valerie, brought up as a Hungarian.

The suicide of her son, Crown Prince Rudolf (aged 30) depressed Sissi forever. Eternally dressed in black, standing in diet to prevent weight gain, traveling the Mediterranean, studying ancient Greece, reading poetry on her yacht in the middle of dangerous storms… her eccentric legend was spread throughout the world. Her life came to a tragic end when she was murdered in Geneva in 1898. It happened on 10 September 1898, during a shopping trip, she was stabbed by Luigi Luccheni, an Italian anarchist. It seems, it was nothing personal, he only wanted to kill a rich person and Sissi was the first she met that day… I think, she congratulated him!

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Sissi Empress of Austria playing with her dog

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Isabel del Rio

Managing Editor at Yareah® Magazine. Author of ‘Ariza’ (2008) and ‘The Girls of Oil’ (2010)

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