Napoleon III is victorious, but, unexpectedly, he is the one who asks for peace. To begin with, human losses are enormous. Then, the war is unpopular, despite the victory. Finally – and this is doubtless the determining factor – Prussia has decided to bring back order to the Lombardy chaos if the hostilities continue. Napoleon III can only give in so that victory is not effaced by revenge from the German States.
Uncomfortable, the two Emperors meet for the peace preliminaries. Franz-Josef refuses to cede Lombardy to Sardaignia. He cedes it to France, who can do what she likes with it. Napoleon III also asks for Venetia, but, not occupying it, he doesn’t get it. The duchies of Parma, Modena and Toscany are given back to their legitimate sovereigns, and an Italian confederation is envisaged, under the Pope’s presidency. This last clause allows Austria to keep control over the rest of Italy.
That evening, at the moment of the signature of the Armistice, Franz-Josef speaks these bitter words:
“I am making an immense sacrifice. Lombardy is the most beautiful of my provinces.”
Astounded at the betrayal of Napoleon III, who knifes emerging Italy and abandons it, when he had promised to liberate it “from the Alps to the Adriatic”, Cavour gives his resignation to King Victor-Emmanuel. Everywhere, the Italian Campaign leaves an immense feeling of bitterness and dissatisfaction. The victors seem to have lost just as much as the vanquished. Extremely crushed, Franz-Josef boards his train for Vienna. He has only one joy left, Sissi.
The Empress is happy about the return of her husband, unscathed, but is unhappy about the events. She sleeps very badly, and looks very worried. She is following a draconian diet, composed exclusively of eggs, dairy products and fruit. She has acquired a bad habit: she smokes, at table, all the time, even in her coach, which shocks her coachmen and lackeys. The Gotha whispering will carry the information as far as England, where Queen Victoria also declares herself to be scandalised. These six weeks without the Emperor have been infernal. Constantly watched, treated like an excentric, the Empress is perpetually slapped down. Franz-Josef had his war in Lombardy, Sissi had hers at Schonbrunn, against her mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophia, who took advantage of her son’s absence to tighten the grip of her authority. She had supported the principle of the Italian Campaign. The return of the defeated Emperor Franz-Josef tarnishes the monarchy’s brilliance. The Italian capitulation is felt both as a national defeat and a personal defeat for the Emperor. In these conditions, the Summer is poisoned.
One element plays in Sissi’s favour: her mother-in-law’s influence is singularly diminishing. The Ministers, whom the Archduchess has always pressured, have been revealed to be without vision, and the generals incapable. Even her politics have been condemned by blood. Courageously, Franz-Josef realises that he has to take control in Vienna. Along with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, fired at the beginning of the campaign, the Minister for the Interior is removed from his functions.
When Franz-Josef reappears in public, on 12 September 1859, at a parade, two months after the signing of the Armistice, he affronts a glacial, even hostile reception. Vienna is still traumatised. At the Opera House, the spectators ignore his presence but greet that of Sissi, who is the symbol of resistance to the disavowed Archduchess. Continuing an inevitable epuration, the Emperor fires his generals.
In fact, Franz-Josef has trouble admitting his errors of judgement. He finds comfort and support with Sissi, but is this enough to deal with the humiliation? He, the soldier, is wounded in his pride and, sometimes, it is she, the one he calls “the good angel”, who stands firm for both of them. She overestimates her strength and is unable to get rid of a nervous cough.
In Spring 1860, six balls are held at Court, and the Empress decides to invite twenty-five couples. Without their parents. A way of avoiding the presence of the Archduchess. Another upheaval which will cause gossip. Sissi dances a lot and sometimes wants to remain longer than she should. She feeds the gossip by reorganizing her apartments at the Hofburg. Between the bedroom and the grand salon, where the couple takes its private meals, Sissi has a gymnasium installed. In this purple-decorated room, a wooden beam with eleven apparatus, parallel bars and two rings hanging from cords are set up. Sissi’s obsession with her diet prevents her from weighing more than fifty kilos, which is most insufficient for her height of one metre seventy-two. And every morning, before her cold bath, Sissi exhausts herself in tractions, contorsions and stretching, as well as long walks and equestrian exercises. She will hang portraits of her favourite horses and dogs on the gymnasium walls. Empress Elisabeth is certainly the most sportive of the European lady sovereigns.
In the South of Italy, a wind of liberty is blowing, propulsed by a fifty-two-year-old hero, a former officer of the Sarde Royal Navy, a revolutionary who has escaped to South America, is hunted by all the trans-Alpine police forces and has become, by his courage, the first patriot of the new Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi. On 11 May 1860, leaving from Genoa with one thousand and eighty-seven companions called “red shirts”, he arrives in Sicily and occupies Palermo. In record time, Garibaldi and his Expedition of the Thousand prove the fragility of the Kingdom of Naples. The sovereigns, Francesco and Maria, Sissi’s sister, call for help. The Empress begs Franz-Josef to intervene, but he refuses. One year after its Italian defeats, Austria cannot throw itself into another campaign to defend the Napolitan throne, and public finances are depleted.
News circulates badly. It is only known that Garibaldi is continuing his victorious march towards the North and that the Queen of Naples is showing more panache than her husband.
On 21 August, Garibaldi arrives in Italy and marches on Naples. On 7 September, the capital falls. A new citadelle is added to the edification of Italian unity. King Francesco II, emerging from his apathy, delivers a very estimable resistance, locked up with Maria, in Gaete, to the North-West of Naples.
Helpless to go to her sister’s aid, Elisabeth doesn’t know what to do with herself. Without the event being comparable, she watches with satisfaction the evolution of Hungarian politics. Obliged to compromise, because of the Italian defeat and serious financial difficulties, Franz-Josef has to sign, in the Autumn, a text which will be called the October Diploma. This system maintains the principle of regime unity for Austria and Hungary, but organizes a Parliament in Budapest. The Emperor is relaxing his grip.