Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Vienna is one of the most beautiful and artistic cities in the world. No wonder that Karl Kraus said, “The streets of Vienna are surfaced with culture just as the streets of other cities with asphalt.”
Wherever one turns, the baroque buildings with their ornate facades and voluptuous sculptures, the gardens and fountains, provide a delightful feast to the eyes. Vienna is the home of western classical music. Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms lived here. In season, it is wonderful to hear the best operas being enacted.
But it is the Schonbrunn Palace – the Imperial summer residence of the Hapsburg Royalty that beckons. One of the greatest of European palaces, its 1500 rooms lavishly decorated in the Rococo style, and the rich velvet embroidery embossed with the logo of the pomegranate, reflect the resplendence of a bygone age.
Like all great palaces, Schonbronn has its own scandals and intrigues. One such story is of Elizabeth, the Empress of Austria and wife of Emperor Franz Joseph II. Her portrait adorns one of the palace walls – a woman of rare beauty, tall and angelic! With a mane of wavy hair cascading down her shoulders, she looks like a bird which has broken out of its gilded cage, only to find that one leg is still tethered to the cage, with a long leash.
“Marriage is a preposterous institution,” she said, “You are sold as a child of fifteen, swear vows you don’t understand, and you regret them for thirty years or so, but you can never break them.”
Popularly known as ‘Sissy’ she was the second daughter of Duke Max of Bavaria. But as he had no duties at the Bavarian Court, his family was not restricted by palace protocol. The children grew up in an atmosphere of freedom.
Sissy was born on Christmas Eve in 1837, with a ‘lucky tooth’ on her upper gum. It showed she was destined for great things. Her elder sister Helene was to be betrothed to Franz. But he fell in love with Sissy instead, and could not be persuaded to marry anyone else. Sissy was just fifteen, a free spirit full of boisterous energy. Marriage was nowhere in her thoughts. But her mother insisted, “You cannot turn down an Emperor.”
So despite her protests and much against the wishes of Franz’s mother Arch Duchess Sophie, she was betrothed to the Emperor who was twenty three years old. Between betrothal and marriage, Sissy was put through a rigorous routine of palace etiquette and protocol, under the hawk-like eyes of the Duchess. The study of French and Italian history was boring. Social graces like etiquette, conversation and dancing seemed so artificial to the 15-year old girl, who missed her siblings and her friends who were the common folks of Bavaria.
Though the Emperor was madly in love with his child bride, State duties and politics left very little time for romance. The Crimean War was looming on the horizon. After the week long wedding festivities, it was back to work. The honeymoon was cancelled. Loneliness and homesickness followed, and depression gradually crept in. The ebullient Bavarian lass turned into a tearful melancholic woman.
Two girls were born in quick succession, but until an heir was produced, Sissy couldn’t relax. Rudolph the Crown prince was born in 1858. The rift between the Arch Duchess and Sissy widened over the upbringing of the boy. Sissy’s ability to provide suitable guidance was questioned.
To make matters worse, Sissy discovered that her husband whom she loved, was involved in an extra marital affair. Now to boredom was added emotional isolation. It was the proverbial ‘last straw.’ Sissy fled to her natal home in Possenhofen, with her children and her personal staff. She could not forgive his infidelity.
This was a turning point in her life. Timidity gave place to a progressive self confidence. She became more demanding, and it eventually led to an idolatrous narcissism. Her self centredness made her immune to the feelings of others. The Emperor continued to be generous financially.
Moving first to the Island of Madeira, and then on to Venice and Corfu, she took charge of Rudolph’s training, and threatened to leave her husband if he or his mother interfered. The boy was not an outdoor type. Sissy wanted him to have a liberal education instead of being forced into excessive physical training and royal duties.
Sissy was in her mid twenties now. She stood 5’8” tall and was very conscious of her incomparable beauty. Her wavy copper coloured hair flowed down to her ankles. It took three hours for her maids to comb and braid it every day. She was so naturally pretty that she needed no cosmetics to enhance her looks. Preserving this beauty became her obsession to the point of narcissism. Foreign diplomats paid her court, and journalists from all over the world followed her around.
In many ways, her story is reminiscent of the life of Princess Diana. But there is one great difference. Sissy’s name was never romantically linked with any other man.
Sissy moved to Hungary in 1866, when Prussia threatened Austria. Here she dabbled in politics, showing a preference to Hungary rather than Vienna, in spite of the fact that Hungary had risen in rebellion against the House of Hapsburg. She even befriended a Hungarian rebel called Gyula Andrassy, who had been condemned to death.
Her final act of treachery was to force the Emperor to concede to the demands of Hungary and divide the Empire of the Hapsburgs into two, with two capitals, one at Budapest and the other at Vienna. The high point of her life was when Franz and she were crowned king and queen of Hungary. Sissy even had another daughter Marie Valerie whom she brought up as a Hungarian. The Viennese hated her. She had neglected the traditional duties of an Empress. She was neither a good wife nor mother. Rudolph and his elder sister reverted to the care of the Arch Duchess Sophie, while Sissy set her sights on new worlds to conquer.
Now she wanted to become the best woman horse rider in the kingdom, and spent a major time in equestrian pursuits. As ‘Queen of the Hunt,’ she travelled frequently to England and Ireland. Yet she was totally dependant on her husband for her flamboyant life style.
At his Silver Jubilee as Emperor, she refused to ride in his carriage through the streets of Vienna, but followed in a closed coach, with face veiled. Even their Silver Wedding celebration was treated with disdain.
But with age came insecurities. The myth of her matchless beauty could not be sustained forever. Thoughts of cloistering herself in Switzerland crossed her mind.
Belatedly, she felt remorse for the loneliness and misery she had caused the husband who loved her. At 58, she brought him a surrogate wife named Katrina Schratt from the Hofsburg Theatre.
Rudolph who craved for his mother’s love received only indifference. He was a sensitive timid soul with no king-like qualities. When he committed suicide with his teenage mistress in Myerling, deep in the Vienna woods, it shook her out of her self-obsession.
Premature ageing due to her punishing exercise schedules and excessive dieting drove her into deep depression. While travelling incognito through Europe, she was stabbed by an Italian anarchist in1898.
“The beautiful things of the world are the most useless,” said John Ruskin.
“Beauty for some brings escape,” was Aldous Huxley’s theory.
Did Sissy find escape for her loneliness and frustration in narcissism one wonders?
Yet Vienna has not forgotten their reluctant Empress. Immortalised in marble, she sits with dignity in the Volksgarten in Vienna.

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