She enlivened imperial Vienna as its end drew near

Email|Print| Text size + By Christine Temin
Globe Staff / May 2, 2004

VIENNA -- She came from a noble family herself, but married "up." Passionate about exercise and keeping her figure, she was at times dangerously thin. The public adored her -- far more than they did her rather plodding husband. She longed to have more time with her children, whose upbringing was largely determined by royal in-laws and courtiers. She traveled constantly, to escape the rigidity of court life. Her death was violent and premature.

This sad set of circumstances applies equally to Diana, Princess of Wales -- and Empress Elisabeth of Austria. The similarities are eerie. There are also differences, starting with the century that separates the two unhappy women. Diana died in 1999; "Sisi," as she was universally known, died in 1898. And if you mention to a Viennese the uncanny resemblance of the two lives, you're likely to be reminded that while Diana spent hundreds of hours making surreptitious phone calls to friends and lovers, Sisi wrote poetry -- gloomy, romantic, and also undeniably accomplished.

It was the poems that inspired Vienna's new Sisi Museum -- them, and the awareness that Elisabeth and the mixture of truth and myth surrounding her, spell big business at the box office. The museum is in a suite of rooms in the Hofburg, the vast palace that was the center of the Hapsburg Empire and a prison to its empress, who yearned for freedom.

The location of this homage to Sisi would be the equivalent of a public shrine to Diana in Buckingham Palace. The Hapsburgs, however, no longer rule Austria, and the Hofburg belongs to the state.

Sisi is a celebrity in central Europe, but is not as well known in the United States. The name "Mayerling" is familiar as the subject of books, movies, a full-length ballet, and a perpetually playing musical, "Elisabeth," that is a Viennese version of "Evita."

The tale could have been written by Sisi herself, were she not inextricably tied to it. Mayerling was the hunting lodge in Lower Austria where, in 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf, the only son of the empress and the Emperor Franz Joseph, killed his beautiful young mistress, the Baroness Marie Vetsera, and then shot himself. That is, at least, the version of the story most commonly heard. As with Diana's death, alternative theories abound.

The new museum takes the darkness of Sisi's story as a starting point. The museum's aesthetic voice, the theatrical designer Rolf Langenfass, has created a dimly lighted labyrinth in the Hofburg, a deliberately claustrophobic contradiction of the palace's otherwise grandiose, gilded, high-ceilinged rooms. As Langenfass points out, there are 2,600 other rooms in the Hofburg, and the ones housing the Sisi Museum are, he says, "the most boring in the palace," the former quarters of a Hapsburg prince who preferred living in Budapest.

The gargantuan Hofburg complex, which began as a fortified castle in the 13th century, is now home to institutions including the Papyrus Museum; the Esperanto Museum; the Albertina, which owns the world's greatest collection of drawings; the 15th-century chapel where the Vienna Boys' Choir still sings at Sunday Mass; and the Spanish Riding School, where the famous Lipizzaner horses perform. (Remember Ava Gardner riding there when she played Sisi in the 1968 movie "Mayerling"?)

It's also the home of the over-the-top Imperial Silver Collection. Its sheer excess shows why 19th-century Europe was so ripe for revolution. Bring sunglasses. There's a bronze-gilt centerpiece more than 30 yards long; a silver-gilt service for 140 guests; a separate silver service for Sisi's seafaring voyages, decorated with dolphins; and, of course, the empress's silver duck presses, used by the kitchen staff to extract the juice from the bird's carcass.

Each Hapsburg royal had a separate suite in the Hofburg. Sisi's has been refurbished recently, and the rooms are open to the public along with the adjoining quarters of Franz Joseph. At the empress's insistence, there was a doorbell between them: The emperor had to ring to get in. These state rooms, while uniformly ornate, have personal touches. On Franz Joseph's desk are numerous family photographs, many of his beloved bride. In the large room where Sisi slept, the bed is pushed up close to the fireplace, which is itself between two ceramic stoves. She was always chilly in Vienna, she said. She never used a pillow, believing that lying flat would help maintain her regal posture.

Her dressing room, a white and gold fantasy, was headquarters for the beauty regime that was the central focus of her existence. Here, servants cared for her famously long and heavy hair, which took several hours a day. Here, she experimented with treatments including raw meat used as a facial. Here is her gymnastics equipment, including rings, bars, and climbing apparatus. Keeping the waistline she was so proud of involved a self-imposed routine as rigid as court etiquette. Sisi was known to hoist herself onto the rings for a workout before one of royal Vienna's famous balls -- in full formal regalia.

For the first time, Sisi's bathroom is now open to the public, too. She was the first member of the imperial family to have a bathroom in the modern sense of the word, complete with a rather menacing-looking gray metal tub. Next door are rooms covered with paintings of exotic flora and fauna by Johann Wenzel Bergl; they have been newly liberated from the layer of paint that had hidden (and preserved) them.

The new museum is a deliberate contrast to these vast state rooms. It's spooky, with examples of Sisi's wardrobe, a glass case with a cascade of hair (not hers), a re-creation of a compartment from her luxurious private train, and the scales she used to weigh herself daily. One of her myriad diets consisted of a single meal a day of egg whites and fruit. A great believer in drinking milk, she traveled with her own goats.

When Sisi married Franz Joseph, she was a mere 16, with the weight of an empire suddenly on her shoulders. At 60, on one of her innumerable journeys to escape that burden, she was murdered in Geneva by an Italian anarchist. (A few years later, on June 28, 1914, the assassination of Franz Joseph's nephew and heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, would be a catalyst for World War I.) So conscious of preserving her image was Sisi that she had refused to be photographed starting in her early 30s, and she sat for her last painted portraits when she was 42. To shield herself from public gaze, she habitually carried a fan or parasol.

The image control, in the days before the phrase "public relations" existed, was a success. The picture the world still carries of Sisi is the famous full-length portrait by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, the 19th-century court painter who managed to make even Queen Victoria look luscious. That wasn't a problem with Sisi, the most renowned beauty of her day.

There's another Winterhalter of her, still installed in her husband's Hofburg apartments, this one meant for private viewing. The famous hair is loose, cascading past her waist; her white dress has slipped off her shoulders.

In the new museum is the canonical Winterhalter the world knows, the image that has been endlessly reproduced. It's on the cover of the official guide to the imperial apartments in the Hofburg. (Franz Joseph was no more cover-boy material than Charles, Prince of Wales.) The famous Winterhalters of both emperor and empress are now side by side, closer than the couple often were in real life. Sisi is awash in pale tulle; her serene expression belies the reality of her feelings. Her braided hair is studded with diamond stars that look as if they've just descended from the heavens to rescue her.

Lest we lapse into sentimentality here, let it be noted that replicas of those stars -- in rhinestones, crystals, or, for the proper price, the real thing -- are among Vienna's most popular tourist souvenirs.

Christine Temin can be reached by e-mail at

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.