Empress Elisabeth of Austria has tons of followers on the tourist trail in Austria today, although in her lifetime she was seldom seen. The Carriage Museum at Schonbrunn Palace was seldom visited until officials made it part of the “Sisi Trail.” Now a few people out of the droves of tourists at the palace cross the courtyard to puzzle over artifacts from Sisi’s privileged but sad life.
Nobody knew quite what to make of Sisi during her lifetime, and she hardly gave anyone the chance to know her. She’s often compared with England’s unhappy Princess Diana, but the difference is that Diana used and manipulated the media. Sisi really just wanted to be left alone. Born to aristocrats in 1837, Sisi lived an idyllic life at her family’s Bavarian castle until she caught the eye of the young Emperor Franz Joseph, then 23 to her 15. He was visiting Bavaria in order to propose to her older sister–a typical arranged marriage between aristocratic first cousins. But once he saw Sisi, he had to have her and it was pretty much impossible to refuse him.
By all accounts, Sisi was fond of Franz Joseph, but she absolutely hated the restrictions of royal life. So did he, but he was a man of duty–and he saw it as his duty to see that nothing ever changed. After giving birth to three children in rapid succession, and having those children taken away from her for court authorities to raise “properly,” Sisi began a life of restless traveling and ceaseless physical activity. She reconciled with Franz Joseph for brief periods, but mostly she led her own life out of the public eye.
She loved horses and was a spectacular rider, spending several seasons in England fox-hunting. There, she wore out any number of men who tried to keep up with her. And she did all this sidesaddle, laced into specially made leather corsets that at times constricted her 20-inch waist down to 16 inches. She had to be sewn in to her dresses once the hour-long process of tightening the corset was finished.
But no one was allowed to photograph her once she turned 30. She felt that her celebrated beauty was beginning to fade, and her beauty was all she had. Anyway, her teeth were terrible by that time. She always carried a fan, and routinely hid behind it. It seems she was obviously anorexic in a time before that term was invented. She was probably bulimic, too–she had a private staircase built from her rooms to the kitchen in one of her houses so she could eat in private, and she was known to gorge on cakes from the royal baker Demel.
The Carriage Museum at Schonbrunn Palace has a display featuring portraits of Sisi’s favorite horses. Her everyday sidesaddle is on display, too. It’s hard to imagine jumping hedges and ditches while perched sideways on a horse, but that was really what Sisi did best.
Join me next time for more explorations into the art, history and surprising personalities of the past in Europe!