Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

Monday 24 April 1854.  Glorious sunshine lights up the Hofburg Palace which is ringing with happy agitation. Vienna has dressed in its best clothes for the wedding of Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria and Princess Elisabeth in Bavaria, Sissi to her family.  Very early in the streets, regiments parade to the sound of bands, while cannons make windows and doors rattle.  The religious ceremony will take place late in the afternoon.  A day of excitement and irritation where Sissi tries to remember her ceremonial lesson.  Outside, the rumbling grows louder with the arrival of the illustrious guests and subjects of the Empire.  Seventy-five thousand people are expected.  From the delegations of all of the European Courts to simple peasants who have polished the buttons of their jackets and tightly pulled up their white stockings, an incredibly heterogenous crowd flows from the Palace to the taverns, from the streets to the squares.

At half-past six in the evening, Sissi, who has been manipulated, readied, dressed, hairdressed and decorated for hours, at last appears.  She is magnificent.  Her long body caressed by a satin gown embroidered with gold and silver is surrounded by the halo of a sumptuous veil of Brussels lace.  Her hair, dressed in bands, sparkles with the bright lights of Archduchess Sophia of Austria’s tiara.  From the breast to the waist, the gown is decorated with an oval bouquet of white roses.  Sissi is beautiful, grave, and of diaphanous pallor.

The cortege enters the street of the Augustines to go to the church of the same name, which is only a few tens of metres away from the Palace.  The Church of the Augustines is the church of royal weddings.  It is in this choir that, in 1810, the wedding by procuration of Marie-Louise with Napoleon had taken place.  Under the Gothic vaults, fifteen thousand candles are alight.  Decorated with red velvet, the church is an immense, sacred jewellery-box.  According to etiquette, Franz-Josef must enter first, alone.  Behind him, his mother and his aunt on either side of Sissi.  Under the white and gold baldaquin, Cardinal Rauscher, the Archbishop of Vienna, welcomes the future spouses.  Sissi, according to custom, has her veil raised.  On her right, Franz-Josef, the Collar of the Golden Fleece [Toison d’Or] on his breast.  The silence is total.  Then the Cardinal begins an edifying, and interminable, sermon.  He announces that the Empress’ love must be for the Emperor

“like an island in the middle of all the worries of a sovereign”.

This island of love is peaceful in the midst of a tempest,

“an island where the smiling rose and the gracious violet grow”.

A flowery sermon.

At the moment of the exchange of consents, Franz-Josef looks at his family.  In sign of agreement to his marriage, they slightly nod their heads.  The Emperor pronounces a strong, energetic “yes”.  After having interrogated her family with her eyes, Sissi, greatly moved and emotive, only lets escape an almost inaudible murmur.  A kiss, some tears, they are married.  Austria has a new Empress.  Elisabeth leaves the altar on the arm of the man who will reign over fifty-two million subjects and whose titles are impressive.  He is King of Croatia, King of Jerusalem, Grand-Duke of Tuscany, Duke of Lorraine, Grand-Prince of Transylvania, Grand Voivode of Serbia…  Franz-Josef will bear, in total, forty-seven titles, of which the geographical list is almost a repertory of Central Europe.

The couple returns to the Hofburg in the imperial Court carriage.  A pure marvel.  Entirely gilded, with eight windows in Venitian glass, it is decorated with paintings by Franz Xaver Wagenschon, a predestined name which means “beautiful carriage”.  Drawn by eight white horses, the carriage is driven by two postillions, while twelve liveried lackeys accompany it.  Because of its weight, – over four tonnes – it can only roll at walking pace and, to stop, the lackeys have recourse to a simplified, perillous system of braking:  they seize the spokes of the high back wheels.  The interior is lined with red velvet and fringed silk strewn with embroideries.  Very richly sculpted, this carriage gives a surprising impression of lightness.  The couple arrives at the grand ceremonial room of the Hofburg.  Two thrones have been set up under a dais surrounded by heavy chandeliers.  Franz-Josef leads Sissi.  For the first time, she takes place officially at his side;  it is now possible to refer to the Emperor and the Empress.  And greet them.  A line of dignitaries and diplomats begins to pass with many bows and kissing of hands.  Franz-Josef, very much at ease, whispers the names, the charges and the functions into her ear.  Sissi wants to kiss two cousins.  Glares stop her.  She is Empress and must conform to custom.  Revolted at imposing distance on her family, Sissi attracts this remark from her husband:

“You are the First Lady of a great empire…”

At half-past-eight, the couple takes place in an open carriage to receive the people’s homage.  The whole of Vienna is outside.  Luminous garlands have been thrown across the streets, lanterns sway, serenades rise from squares black with people.  On the Kohlmarkt, the coal market, the crowd stops the carriage.  Chopin had lived right near here, twenty-five years earlier.  For more than an hour, the cortege is acclaimed.  At ten o’clock in the evening, the spouses and their families are allowed a supper, at the Hofburg, then comes the moment when the two young people are going to be… alone?  Not yet…

Accompanied by her mother and her mother-in-law, Sissi goes to her bedchamber.  At the door of the room, the Archduchess stops.  When Ludovika tells Sophia that the young bride is “ready”, the Archduchess goes to get Franz-Josef.  Buried in the immense bed, her hair spread out over the pillows, Sissi hides her face.  Her mother-in-law will note that she looks like

“a frightened bird in its nest”.

Sissi doesn’t know, however, that the nuptial protocol has been simplified for some time.  For example, her aunt, Queen Amelia of Saxe, had to submit to a ballet of ladies-in-waiting charged with her toilette and a cortege of silent princes led before her bed.

This evening, the two mothers retire after having simply said goodnight to their children, who now have the right to be husband and wife.  A little before midnight, silence has at last descended on the old palace.  Sissi is Empress…

To be continued.

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