On 20 November 1856, the Emperor and Empress of Austria and their suite arrive in Trieste. The Empress (Sissi), speechless with admiration, discovers the calm blue of the Adriatic. The city is decorated and the population’s welcome seems amiable. But a suspicious fire erupts in front of the Town Hall. The official explanation is the accidental inflamation of the fireworks planned for the evening. Sissi and her husband content themselves with this version. When a heavy crystal crown, hung between the two masts of the boat on which they are going to sail on the bay, crashes onto the deck a few minutes before their arrival, emotion is high. Is this a second regrettable coincidence or a first assassination attempt?
On 25th, Venice receives the imperial couple. The word “receives” is in fact badly chosen; Venice ignores their visit. The crowd assembled on the Saint Mark square is silent. The Venitians manifest their hostility by a total absence of acclamations. Only the police and public servants attempt to create an illusion with a few loud cries. The crossing of the square is uncomfortable. A delirious crowd impresses, a silent crowd unsettles. In the Basilica, Franz-Josef, contraried by this welcome, hides his pain, and Sissi squeezes the hand of her daughter Sophia, dressed in a blue velvet coat trimmed with zibeline. Mother and daughter wear matching outfits.
On 29 November, the couple holds a reception at the Palace of the Doges. Barely one quarter of the great families attend. The ladies are insulted as they leave their gondolas. The atmosphere is stormy. At the Fenice Theatre, an opera temple, the acclamations are as rare as full boxes.
Back at the Palace, Sissi gives her impressions to the Emperor. In her opinion, too much rigour, too many vexatious measures with regard to the Venitians explains the open hostility since their arrival. For the first time, the Empress holds a political discourse. Her message is one of tolerance and liberalism. A little surprised, the Emperor listens to her, and agrees. Again…
On 3 December, Franz-Josef signs decrees proclaiming amnesty for the events from 1848-1849. Further, several cities are dispensed from paying the forced taxes. The effect is immediate. Venice defrosts, and in the evening of the following day, another gala at the Fenice shows the degree of metamorphosis. The couple is applauded and the Empress receives increased personal success.
In Venice, the atmosphere now being relaxed, the sovereigns decide to spend Christmas there. Venice in Winter, the damp fog that effaces the old palaces and muffles the cries of the gondoliers, everything is so different from the Alpine Christmasses… Borrowed from a botanical garden, the traditional fir tree is decorated for the nineteenth birthday of the happy Empress. She savours the extraordinary liberty of visiting churches and palaces whenever she likes.
On 5 January 1857, the cortege reaches Vicence. The city has always been proud. It proves it by a very cold reception: only two ladies of quality come to present themselves to the couple.
Four days later, at Verona, the ambience is improved by a big, popular, regional festival which has not taken place for the last ten years, the incredible Gnocchi Bacchanalia. The idea is to stuff with food the most important public servant, in this case, the Governor of the city. The unfortunate man is constrained to eat in front of the amused gazes of Sissi and Franz-Josef, amid total hilarity. But the demonstrations take on a doubtful tone when the inhabitants insist that the imperial couple ingurgitate a lot of gnocchi too. Is this just a simple participation in municipal joy or, on the contrary, a way of ridiculing the Emperor and the Empress? In reply, the stay is shortened. At Brescia, the crowd’s silence is insupportable. It is explained by the city’s ferocious resistance to Vienna, in 1849.
Finally, on 15 January, Franz-Josef and Elisabeth arrive in Milan. They are expecting the worst. They are right, the worst will happen, and it will have for framework the splendid La Scala Theatre. The police has a lot of trouble trying to fill its two thousand eight hundred seats. The patrician families have made it known that their boxes will be occupied. Alas, when the evening comes, and the imperial couple makes its entrance into La Scala, all of the places are taken with lackeys in black livery. In the orchestra, on the four balconies and in the two galleries, Milanese aristocracy has had itself represented by its domestics wearing mourning. The affront is total. On this same day, Count Cavour, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Piemont-Sardaigna, declares to the Turino Parliament that “Italy is perfectly capable of governing herself”.
Although Sissi’s charm does not work in Milan, the Empress nevertheless insists that measures of clemency be taken, as in Venice. An amnisty, the restitution of confiscated properties, and fiscal measures are immediately decided.
On 29 February, another gala at La Scala effaces the previous appalling impression. The applause is double, for Sissi’s role has finally been recognized. Countess Esterhazy is consternated, the Empress is taking the side of the revolutionaries… The Press resumes the evolution in these lines:
“One is not yet for Austria but one is already for the Emperor. Each senses the soothing hand of the noble young woman who has transformed the sovereign’s dispositions.”
Two conclusions can be drawn from this Italian trip. The first is the influence that Sissi can have politically. In time, no-one resists her charm. The second is a certain suppleness in Franz-Josef when he is “on the ground”. He knows how to adapt, react quickly, he attempts to fix his mistakes and even his faults. For the Empire, as well as for themselves, the experience is positive.
Sissi has improved her health. She needs it, for the return to Vienna makes the leaden weight of obedience fall back onto her shoulders. From Italy, she has brought back a beginning of maturity and authority. Unfortunately, the Hofburg remains a prison. And Sissi is again oppressed…
To be continued.