Sisi of Vienna and Other Stories of the Court
s soon as you enter the Rococo halls of Schönbrunn Palace, the weight of history seems to envelop you. But it’s not just History with a capital H; it’s the day-to-day stories of the Court in one of the most important empires of its time. Built in Baroque style, it was the Habsburgs’ summer residence through generations. Emperor Franz Joseph was born here in 1830 and spent many summers with Marie Antoinette. Legend has it that Mozart, still a boy, vowed to marry the archduchess one day. His music resonates today through the Mirrors Room, where he played his first pieces for the imperial family.
Elisabeth of Bavaria (Sisi) spent her first night in Vienna at Schönbrunn, and the palace also served as Napoleon’s headquarters during his occupation of the city from 1805 to 1809. The Napoleon Room can be visited on the Grand Tour, which includes 40 of the palace’s thousand plus rooms, each with its own history and stories. All are furnished and decorated in keeping with the time. The Marie Antoinette Room, for example, was used as a dining room and the table is set for an imperial family dinner, with silver cutlery and Viennese porcelain service. Protocol was more relaxed at the family dinners than in the courts, and conversation was allowed across the table, instead of the subdued tones spoken only to one’s neighbour as required by etiquette.
The Empress’s Sweet Tooth
One of Sisi’s passions were the candied violets from Demel, a café that opened in 1768 and bore the title of Purveyor to the Imperial and Royal Court, in recognition of the quality of the products preferred by the monarchy. Those who succumb to the temptation of the Demel display window will hear the same question asked of Sisi and the emperor two centuries ago: “Haben schon gewählt?” (“Has the lady/gentleman chosen yet?”).
The grounds and exterior of the Schönbrunn can be admired free of charge. Its Baroque-inspired labyrinthine gardens are part of the ensemble named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996. The site includes the world’s first zoo, dating from 1752, and other interesting features like the Children’s Museum, where you can discover how the youngest members of the court amused themselves. The Imperial Carriage Museum has a fleet of over 600 vehicles, among them the funeral carriage that transported both the Emperor Joseph and Sisi, and also the last empress, Zita, in 1989.
Vienna abounds with small windows to the past that offer insights into the life of the nobility during the city’s glory days, when it was the cultural, artistic and political centre of reference for Europe. One example is the collection of antique instruments played by the likes of Beethoven and Chopin, or the Old Court Silver and Table Rooms, with priceless items like the Milan centrepiece, which extends to a full 30 metres. Both can be seen at the Imperial Palace, until 1918 the seat of the government and permanent residence of the Habsburgs.
The Imperial (or Hofburg) Palace is one of the most extensive palace complexes in the world. Besides the museums and exhibitions, the imperial apartments, once occupied by Emperor Franz Joseph, his wife and children are also open to the public. The Rococo décor, comprising 17th century Belgian tapestries, Bohemian lead crystal chandeliers and Louis XV furniture, give visitors a glimpse of the glamorous, lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the sovereigns and their relatives. Visitors can also see the gymnasium where Sisi spent hours exercising.
Empress Elisabeth is among the most fascinating personalities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was as inspiring to later film-makers as to her contemporaries. She was so popular that her husband commissioned porcelain figurines made in her likeness to give as favours to their guests. However, Sisi was never comfortable in the Viennese court and sought refuge in riding, exercise and her beauty regime, which included warm olive oil baths and egg-yolk face masks. The city dedicated an entire museum to her. Among the over 300 personal items on display are her travelling medicine chest and dresses and jewellery worn at significant times during her life.
Too progressive for the strict etiquette of the court, the empress took to travelling around Europe as often as she could, finally meeting her death in Geneva. Her body was returned to Vienna and she was buried along with Franz Joseph and other members of the imperial family in the Imperial Crypt at the Church of the Capuchin Friars, close to the Imperial Palace. Sisi, like the rest of the Habsburgs, left a legacy that lives on throughout the city.