Tag Archive: Italy


Exaggerated coincidences – part 2

Another coincidence:

In 1956, a young shopkeeper from San Remo, Giovani Cataneo, becomes engaged to a ravishing, pudic adolescent named Bianca-Maria Pellegrini.

The young girl’s parents demand a long engagement.  So long, that Giovani, during his holidays, amuses himself courting a young lady with a flirtatious eye named Marina Locatelli, whose lover he very rapidly becomes.  And one day, Marina tells him that she is expecting a child.  Giovani must marry her, against his will.  But he warns his future in-laws:

“I shall marry your daughter, but only in a civil marriage;  for a religious marriage must have love.  And I don’t love Marina…”

The Locatelli Family, furious, can hurl, vociferate, bang its fist on tables and threaten Giovani with all of Hell’s atrocities, the young man resists and, in the end, only the civil marriage is celebrated.

However, in the Roman Catholic Italy of the 1950’s, this act has only a juridical value and can be annulled.  So the new husband loses no time.   The day after his wedding, he rushes to the Tribunal and deposits a request for a divorce…

The process is long.  He has to wait five years to obtain satisfaction.  As soon as he is free, he marries – this time in church – the gentle Bianca-Maria Pellegrini who had waited for him.

Alas! after four years of happiness, Bianca-Maria, who is pregnant, has to be transported urgently to the San Remo Hospital.  That same evening, Giovani is called and informed that his young wife is suddenly at death’s door.

Mad with pain, he rushes to the hospital.  When he arrives, Bianca-Maria has just died.

Then, he collapses.  A doctor approaches:

“Your wife died five minutes ago.  It’s curious, she died almost at the same time as her neighbour…”

Giovani turns his head and remains frozen:  in the bed behind him, there is a woman whose eyes have just been closed.  And this woman is Marina Locatelli…  So, his two wives – who had never met – had come to die side by side, at the same time, in the same hospital…

***

Fifth example of exaggerated coincidence:

Georges Reme was a thief who was famous for escaping from prison.  One day that he had once again succeeded in escaping, he stole a car, changed its number-plates and drove towards the South-West.  At Royan, he stopped in front of a garage for some petrol.  However, after a few instants, another car came to park beside his.

The garage owner, who was standing in the doorway, then noticed, stunned, that the two vehicles had exactly the same number on their number-plates.  He alerted the Police.

And Georges Reme was arrested because – by a really fabulous coincidence – the owner of the number that he had painted, absolutely by chance, on his car, had come to park his car right next to him…

***

This article was published in "Paris-Presse" on 29 November 1956.

Finally, last exaggerated coincidence:

One day in 1956, in Charleroi, Monsieur Emile Massart, seeing that his dog was ill, decided to kill it.  He took it to the bottom of his garden, attached it to a stake, took his gun and fired.  But he missed it.  The bullet went through the hedge and killed his 21 year old cousin who was passing in the street…

This young lady’s name was Mademoiselle Leonce Lechien [“Thedog” in English].

***

Certain parapsychologists, refusing the simplistic notion of chance, consider that these coincidences are signs which our intelligence is unable – at least for the moment – to interpret.

***

Camille Flammarion's balloon one day, like this one, landed unexpectedly in a garden.

Destiny’s winks are sometimes mischievous.  Here is an example:  When he married, Camille Flammarion decided to make a very short wedding trip in a balloon…  And he promised the priest who had blessed his marriage to take him with him.

One evening – about ten days after the ceremony – he sent a message to inform him that he was leaving the next day.  He was told that the Abbot had left Paris to spend a few days with some cousins, on the banks of the Marne.  Flammarion was a bit bothered by this, but he decided to leave anyway.  He thought that the Abbot would never know about it and that he would take him another time.

And the balloon took off.

There are an infinite number of directions for leaving Paris in a balloon…  However the wind pushed Flammarion over near the Marne and brought him exactly over the garden where the Abbot was lunching…   where the balloon came down.

Strange coincidence, it must be agreed…  And coincidence that a fiction writer would have hesitated to imagine, so implausible it seems…

***

Finally, here are the exaggerated coincidences which exist between the death of President Kennedy and that of President Lincoln:

Lincoln was elected President of the United States in 1860, Kennedy in 1960.

Both were killed in their wife’s presence.

Both were killed by a bullet to the head fired from behind.

Their successors were both named Johnson.

Each of these successors was a Democrat from the South.

Each of these successors had been a member of the Senate.

Andrew Johnson (successor to Lincoln) was born in 1808.  Lyndon Johnson (successor to Kennedy) was born in 1908.

John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln’s assassin) was born in 1839.  Lee Harvey Oswald (Kennedy’s assassin) was born in 1939.

Booth and Oswald were both assassinated before being able to be judged.

The wives of the two Presidents each lost a child while living in the White House.

President Lincoln’s secretary, whose name was Kennedy, strongly advised him not to go to the theatre where he was assassinated.  President Kennedy’s secretary, whose name was Lincoln, advised him not to go to Dallas where he was assassinated.

John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln in a theatre and ran to a warehouse.  Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy from a warehouse and ran to a theatre.

The names of Lincoln and Kennedy each have seven letters.

The names of Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson each have thirteen letters.

The names of John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald each have fifteen letters…

***

To understand the signification of these “exaggerated coincidences”, these signs that Destiny – or someone – sends to us, we must wait until Man becomes a bit more intelligent…

***

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Frederic Mistral’s dog – part 3

Frederic Mistral and his dog Pan Perdu.

A few decades ago, the Soviet researcher Vassiliev was able to determine that a radio-biological connection animated all of the vital communications in a same species of animal.

Mistral was of course not a dog.  But he was doubtless a good telepath…

Louis Pauwels thinks that Pan Perdu found the tomb that he had never visited, by telepathy.  It could have been enough for Mistral, his wife, or the maid to have projected inside his or her brain an eidetic image of the cemetery, for the dog to have been able to orientate himself, after having captured it telepathically…  (An eidetic image is a very clear image of any sort of object which, in certain subjects, comports details that they do not notice during a direct perception of it.)

***

The goddess Hecate was the messenger of demons and ghosts. It was said that she was followed by a howling pack. Dogs, being animals who could see spirits, were sacrificed to her. Which is why she also bears the name Cynosphages.

An Italian researcher, Ernest Bozzano, uncovered nearly a century ago already, the extraordinary premonitions and transformations of which all animals were capable.  In his book, Les Manifestations metapsychiques chez les animaux, he analyzed 130 cases of haunting, visions of ghosts and apparitions, where diverse animals played a determining role.  All of these cases appear authentic and speak about absolutely astonishing premonitions of death:  dogs starting to howl death, for example, when their master, who will only die several days later, is still in excellent health.  In 17 cases, non-human animals also perceive ghosts that men do not see, and which cause them intense fear.  It is usually discovered that they are hauntings which have already occurred in the past, and have been seen by other people…

Bozzano, who believes in an After-Life and who is a bit of a spiritist, concludes with the possibility of the survival of the animal psyche and its capacity to project itself like the human psyche into other bodies.  This is the whole idea of Amerindian totemism, which permits a Cherokee who has to travel on foot in Winter to identify himself so well with the wolf (thanks to chants and magical operations) that his limbs really become insensitive to the cold…

In all parts of the world and at all periods, men have believed that they could temporarily or permanently metamorphose themselves like this into another entity or an animal form.  Paracelsius, the father of hermetic medicine and chemical therapy, absolutely believed it, just like the Romans who admitted the possibility for the soul to exist temporarily separated from the body.  They called it the “genius”, a word which comes from the word “animal” and which has also given that of “guide”…  What is so astonishing then that the creator of the Felibrige believed that his dog had exceptional gifts of clairvoyance?

***

As for the birth of the three puppies…  This epilogue could also have an explanation…  almost natural or at least sensible.  In Mistral’s time, people believed a lot in the “astral body”, those doubles that, according to spiritist doctrine, certain humans are able to project outside themselves so that they can be reincarnated elsewhere.  The Yogi also seeks to release the ties which attach the spirit to the body, to disconnect himself from the Karma, that sum of the acts of a life, which is going to weigh heavily on the lives to come of a person, and predestine them.  Liberated, the soul is able to go to live in any organism whether living or dead, says Brahmanic doctrine.

For the Egyptians, cats were magical animals. They embalmed them.

The year that Mistral dies, in 1914, Professor Richet, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine, experimentally observes the materialization of human forms and faces produced by mediums from portraits of deceased persons that are presented to them.  These forms come out of their mouths in long, whiteish filaments or imprint themselves in tubs of wax placed near them…  Richet asks himself whether living matter could not be modelled by thought and he baptises this operation “ideoplasty”.

***

This is just an hypothesis on the appearance of the puppies, and it is true that there are simpler and more agreeable ways for a dog to become a father.  However, in the word “Panet” there is “pain” [bread].  This could have some bearing on the case.  It makes Louis Pauwels think of the multiplication of the loaves of bread which, like other miracles, will doubtless be explained in the near future otherwise than by divine intervention…

For example, by the gifts of certain exceptional beings, who manage to provoke those anomalies of matter that scholars see every day in their laboratories and which cause them to question fundamentally that which only yesterday were eternal laws of established Physics…

***

Louis Pauwels says that, in the domain of paranormal powers, that which Jesus did, an Amerindian dog can do.  Which does not at all detract from Jesus-Christ…  like the great anthropologist James Frazer, he thinks that in the Universe, the sum of vital energy is constant, that from the mineral to the human, the chain of transformations can ceaselessly lengthen and that the forms that it engenders are linked to each other to infinity…

***

This story proves that for all living beings the modifiable part can remain immense…  We only have to want it…

***

Walking on fire

This Hindu, who is participating in a ritual ceremony, is walking on a carpet of red embers.

Seated near a fire with a few Hermit Brothers, Giovanni Buono, the founder of the Hermits of Saint Augustin, is exhorting his companions to persevere in their faith.  We are in the 1230’s, on a Winter’s evening, in an Italian convent in Botrioli.  Suddenly, as if to give more power to his words, Buono rises and goes towards the tall fireplace which is heating the monastery’s big room.  He steps over the grate and starts to walk with bare feet on the red embers.  He smiles as he says, while stirring the embers with his hands as if they are cool water,

“God is ready to perform prodigies for his friends”.

An edifying story coming from the depths of time for the use of the little catechists of the XIXth Century?…

It is not certain, for the life of Saint Giovanni Buono is filled with similar prodigies as is indicated in the Acta sanctorum published by the Bollandists, those men of science recruted mostly among the Jesuits, and given the task of writing the lives of the saints.

In what concerns Buono, they are inspired by the minutes of the procedure for beatification begun in 1251.  Under oath, his companions, notably Brother Salveti, bear witness…

Brother Giovanni remained with bare feet in the embers for exactly the time that it takes to say half of the psalm Miserere mei Deus.

Then he invites some of his Brothers, including Salveti, to join him in his cell.  Salveti says:

“I was very happy to receive this invitation for it would allow me to examine Buono’s feet which I expected to be considerably damaged.”

Salveti attentively inspects the Brother’s feet and has to believe the evidence:  they have escaped any burns, as has his long tunic which bears no mark from the fire…

***

This Macedonian fire dancer must absolutely look in front of her. If she turns to look back, she immediately burns herself.

In the XVth Century, Saint Francesco di Paola, the founder of the Order of the Minimes, is actively participating in the construction of the Paola Convent in Calabra.  Toward the end of the work, a chalk oven, which has been alight for twenty-four hours, cracks in several places.  As all the chalk risks being spoilt, Francesco asks the workers to go away, and patches up the cracks.

When the masons return, they find the stove repaired and the Franciscan in the process of washing his hands…  It is absolutely impossible, and this figures in the procedure for beatification, to repair such an oven…  without entering inside it.

Francesco di Paola shows several times that he is insensitive to fire.  As he likes a good laugh, he one day plays a joke on a high-born canon.

The canon estimed that Francesco’s austerity was normal since he was of very low extraction, and therefore used to difficult living conditions…  Francesco says:

“It’s very true that I’m a country bumpkin!…  If I wasn’t a real country boy, I wouldn’t be able to do this for example…”

Taking up handfuls of embers from the fire, he holds out two fistfuls of burning coals to the canon.  The canon finds nothing better to do than to throw himself at his feet and ask for his blessing.

Catherine of Sienna falls one day into the enormous fire of her father who was a dyer.  She was in ecstasy, and it is Lysa, her sister-in-law [or step-sister – it is the same word in French] who pulls her from the flames with no damage to her body or clothes.

As they concern saints, sceptics are always tempted to explain these prodigies by a few pious exaggerations by witnesses…  divine intervention, in their minds, paradoxically removing a great part of the mystery of these phenomena…

Things become complicated when it is known that a lot of human beings, never having heard of Christian mysteries, or not caring much about them, also present the same incombustibility characteristic.

In an article in Le Journal des savants in 1677, diverse exercises of a famous English side-show performer are described.  In front of the most trustworthy witnesses, he swallows sulphur and flaming coals, puts a glowing coal on his tongue and gently simmers a closed oyster on it until it opens, nicely cooked.

Not at all affected by this exercise, he swallows for dessert a flaming mixture of melted glass, flax fibres, sulphur and wax, in such a way that “this composition makes as much noise in his throat as a hot iron that it dipped into water”.

If he had lived at the same epoch in France, his prowesses would doubtless have led him straight to the stake, as happened to a certain Thomas Boulle, accused of sorcery because he could walk on embers without burning himself.  He is burnt alive in Rouen on 22 August 1647.

When the famous Marie Sonnet, known as the Salamander, appears less than a century later, sorcerers are no longer being burnt.  Anyway, it could be asked whether the flames would have gotten the better of this young woman, the Muse of the Saint-Medard Convulsionists.

Her talents explain, for a lot of people at least, the loss of control of the Fools for God who manifest themselves around this church in the Mouffetard quarter of Paris.

Minutes of extraordinary precision, dated 12 May 1731 and counter-signed by fourteen priests, Doctors in Theology, Sorbonne licencees, Parliamentary Councillors, Treasurers of the Chambre des Comptes, etc., indicate that:

“This day, between eight and ten o’clock in the evening, Marie Sonnet, being in convulsions, her head on one stool and her feet on another, the said stools being entirely inside the two sides of a great fireplace and under the mantel of the same, so that her body was in the air above the fire which was of extreme violence, and that she remained for thirty-six minutes in this situation, in four different times, without the sheet in which she was wrapped, having no clothing, burning, although the flame sometimes passed over it, which seemed to us totally supernatural.  In faith of which we have signed this day 12 May 1731.  Signed: (here follow different names of people in high places in Paris).  Plus, we certify that, while we were signing the present certificate, the said Sonnet put herself back on the fire for nine minutes, seeming to sleep above the brazier which was very ardent, having fifteen logs and faggots burnt during the said two and a quarter hours.”

So the Sonnet remained stretched over the fire for the length of time necessary “for roasting a piece of veal or mutton”.

To be continued.

Human spontaneous combustion

In 1876, Reverend Adams died in a New York hotel, a victim of "Heaven's fire".

1810 in Cesene, Italy.  On the evening of 22 October, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, a sixty-two-year-old woman who has never been ill in her life and whose youthful complexion is admired by all her friends, is dining lightly.  Then, as is her custom, she has an herbal tea brought to her and drinks it in the company of her chambermaid Anna Maria, while listening to the day’s gossip.  The two women chat gaily for more than an hour-and-a-half.  Around ten o’clock, the Countess rises, bids goodnight to Anna Maria and laughingly says that she can’t wait for the next morning because it is Sunday and she will have brioches for breakfast.  Then she goes to bed.

At this moment, she appears happy to be alive and in perfect health.

The next morning, at half-past eight, the chambermaid knocks at the door to the Countess’ apartment.  No answer.  She knocks again.  Still no answer.  Intrigued, she opens the door.  What she sees makes her hurl in horror.

At the centre of the bedroom, which is intact, there are the extremities of two legs, two forearms and a head…  The rest of the Countess’ body is nothing more than a little pile of ash on the blackened brick tiles.

The chambermaid’s cries rouse the other domestics who rush to the scene.  The Countess’ butler warns them not to touch anything.  The Police must be called.

Commissioner Antonielli arrives a quarter-of-an-hour later, accompanied by Doctor Bianchi.

The two men immediately notice that nothing in the bedroom has burnt, but that a sort of greasy soot covers the furniture, the bedsheets, the curtains and the paintings.  The policeman exclaims:

“It’s extraordinary!  You would say that the Countess has been consumed by an interior fire…”

Doctor Bianchi adds:

“A fire of rare intensity, for you know that, to burn a human body and reduce it to ashes, you need a heat of 2,500 degrees!  But a heat of 2,500 degrees would have destroyed the whole house…”

The following day, the day after that, and for weeks, policemen and doctors try to solve the enigma posed by the death of Countess Cornelia di Bandi.  Finally, Commissioner Antonielli, finding no explanation, writes in conclusion to his investigation “that a mysterious fire seems to have lit itself spontaneously inside the Countess’ chest”.

And the dossier is filed.

***

Second case:  on 2 July 1951, Mrs Carpenter, who is the owner of a house in Saint Petersburg (Florida) brings a telegramme to Mrs Reeser who is renting an apartment there.  She knocks several times on the door.  Obtaining no answer, she tries to open it.  The doorknob is burning hot.  She then notices that there is a slight odour of singeing in the air.  Panicked, she calls the Fire Department.  The firemen break down the door with axes and find the apartment intact, except that, in the salon, a big armchair, of which only the metal springs remain, has burnt completely, along with the centre of the rug.  Just above it, a black stain marks the ceiling…  But where is Mrs Reeser?

Moving closer, the firemen suddenly discover what is left of her:  her head, completely carbonised and reduced to the dimension of a tennis ball…  In the ashes, they find a fragment of spine and a little piece of foot…  That is all.

The Police come to investigate.  With no result.  Then Doctor Wilton Krogman, a specialist in death by fire at the School for Medicine of the State of Pennsylvania, is called in.  He had been on holiday nearby.  He declares:

“It is the most astounding thing that I have ever seen.  I am unable to imagine such a complete cremation without more damage to the apartment itself.  I have never seen any human skull shrunk like that by intense heat, either.  In general, skulls swell or explode into a thousand pieces…”

There again, the dossier is filed without any explanation being given…

***

The cadaver of a soldier found dead on 19 February 1888 by "spontaneous combustion" inside a grange filled with dry wood and hay which weren't even singed.

Third case:  in 1885, on a farm near Senecca, Illinois, on Christmas  morning, John Larson discovers the body of his employer Patrick Rooney in the middle of the kitchen, stretched out on a sort of film of coagulated fat.  Larson leaps onto his horse and goes to tell Rooney’s son who lives close by.

Back at the farm, the two men notice a hole near the kitchen table.  They lean over it and find a calcinated skull, a few burnt bones and a little pile of ashes.  These are the remains of Mrs Rooney, the farmer’s spouse.

The Police, alerted, come to investigate.  The Medical Examiner concludes death by asphyxia for Patrick Rooney, from the smoke of his wife’s body, which was burning.

The Inspector in charge of the case, after a long investigation which gives – again – no result, contents himself with writing that “Mrs Rooney disappeared in a fire of fantastic heat and of an unknown nature, which, curiously did not extend farther than the immediate vicinity”.

And the dossier is filed.

***

The fourth case is even more extraordinary, for it is triple.

On 7 April 1938, the cargo ship Ulrich is sailing towards Liverpool.  Suddenly, the First Mate notices that the boat is yawing as if it were drifting.  Very intrigued, he goes to see what the man at the helm is doing.  A surprise awaits him:  the man has disappeared.  In his place, near the wheel, he discovers a little pile of ashes and a pair of slightly calcinated shoes.  There is no trace of a fire:  the wheel, the compass are untouched.

The First Mate then questions the crew.  No-one heard the slightest cry.  As well as that, the sky is limpid, which excludes any lightning bolt hypothesis.

Conclusion:  the man at the helm of the Ulrich died by spontaneous combustion.

However, on this same 7 April 1938, near Upton-by-Chester, in England, the Police discover a lorry in a ditch.  On the seat, there is a calcinated head and a few blackened bones mixed with greasy ash.  This is all that remains of the driver George Turner who has been completely incinerated.

The lorry’s cushions are barely singed.  Again, the fire appears to have started inside the victim’s body…

That is not all.

On this same day, in Holland, near Nimegue, a shopkeeper William Ten Bruick is discovered dead, “burnt beyond all recognition”, according to the Police report, in his Volkswagen.  Once more, although all that is left of the driver is a magma of ashes, fat and calcinated bones, the car is only singed.  On top of which, the petrol tank is intact…

An investigation is ordered.  It gives no result.  And the Police Inspector who led it contents himself with writing in conclusion to his report:  “It seems that the victim was consumed by an interior fire of mysterious nature…”.

After which, he too files the dossier.

***

To be continued.

Saint Joseph of Copertino.

Brother Joseph once pulled with him into the air a mentally alienated person who had been brought to him and, holding him by the hair, maintained him in the air for a quarter of an hour, which had the effect of curing the unfortunate man…

These levitations took place several times in the presence of important witnesses.  Notably in front of Urbain VIII, a sceptic Pope whose opinion is asked by the Holy Office, disconcerted by the Franciscan’s flying prowess.  This time, the scene verges on burlesque.  Joseph, very intimidated, begins by prostrating himself and kissing the papal foot.  But his emotion is so great that he soon takes off under the Holy Father’s astounded gaze and remains for a long time stuck against the ceiling.

The most famous of Joseph of Copertino’s levitations is doubtless that which took place before John Frederick of Brunswick, in 1649, and which struck this Prince to the point of making him abandon the Lutherian religion.

Among the other notable witnesses of Brother Joseph’s ecstatic flights, we must cite Princess Marie de Savoie, the daughter of Catherine of Austria, and the surgeon Francesco de Pierpolo who reported the fact in his Souvenirs:

“At the time of Father Joseph’s last illness, I had to practise a cautery on the right leg, conforming with the orders of the doctor Mr Hyacinthe Carosi.  Father Joseph was sitting on a chair, his right leg on my knee.  I was already applying the iron for the operation;  I noticed that Father Joseph was ravished out of his senses and in complete abstraction;  his arms were extended, his eyes open and directed toward Heaven;  his mouth was half-open;  his breathing seemed to have completely stopped.  I noticed that he had risen about twenty-five centimetres above the said chair, but was still in the same position as before the ecstasy.  I tried to lower his leg and could not succeed;  it remained extended.  A fly had landed on the pupil of his eye;  the more I tried to chase it away, the more it seemed to persist in coming back to the same place;  in definitive, I had to leave it there.  So as to better observe Father Joseph, I kneeled.  Mr Carosi was examining with me.  We very visibly recognized that Father Joseph was ravished out of his senses, and that he was also really suspended in the air as I have already said.”

Finally, on 18 September 1663, at the age of sixty, Father Joseph of Copertino died at Osimo.

On this day, it was his soul that flew away…

***

This flying Franciscan is so extraordinary that the Americans made him the patron saint of aviation.

***

Saint Joseph of Copertino once flew over the heads of church parishioners to land on the Virgin's altar.

The sources for this story are numerous.  The most important ones are the biography of Joseph of Copertino written by Angelo Pastrovicchi, the enquiry of Domenico Bernino made by order of the Pope, the relation written by the Prince of Brunswick, the correspondence of the Grand-Admiral of Castille, the memoirs of Princess Marie de Savoie, the souvenirs of the surgeon Francesco de Pierpolo, of Cardinal Fachinetti, Bishop of Spoleto and of Doctor Hyacinthe Carosi.  There are also the witness statements of the little people, shepherds, bakers, artisans, who had witnessed in astonishment the monk’s flying exploits.  In fact, Joseph did not only fly in churches.  Very often, as we have said, he levitated in the street;  a phenomenon which was rather popular with the passers-by.  To the point where at Petrarubbia, crafty businessmen opened hostelries in the neighbourhood of the convent in which our Franciscan lived, to lodge the curious who came to see his flights…

***

His entourage did not at all see him as a saint.  This person who took off unexpectedly all the time horrified his Superiors who found it disturbing.  To the point that he was firstly excluded from the choir, then from the processions and finally from the refectory where his ascensions were casting trouble and provoking hilarity.  A man who suddenly leaves the table and goes to stick to the ceiling, causes laughter.  One day, during a luncheon, Joseph flew up with a sea urchin in his hand.  Everybody laughed.  Finally, the poor man was sent away to Assisi.  And as his levitations were causing disorder there too, he was sent to the Osimo convent where he finished his life.

***

The Inquisition was watching him.  The Inquisitors were wary of this flying man and suspected him of witchcraft.  They made him appear in Naples before their tribunal and only consented to absolve him on the express condition that he live in an isolated convent under constant surveillance…

***

As for whether or not the human body is capable of flying, all that can be said is that among monks and nuns, more than two hundred cases authentified by witnesses have been repertoried.  Notably Saint Teresa of Avila who was not only a great mystic, but also one of the masters of Spanish literature and one of the great intellectuals of her time.  When she entered into ecstasy she levitated, and her companions recount that they had found her an incalculable number of times floating half an aune (around sixty centimetres) from the ground.  She speaks of this phenomenon herself in her autobiography:

“This extraordinary thing gave me great distress, for I feared that it would cause a lot of talk.  So, I forbade the nuns to speak of it…”

Farther on, she adds:

“It seemed to me, when I tried to resist a little, that a great force under my feet lifted me into the air…  I confess that this threw me into great fear, truly a very great fear, the first times.  When the body is lifted like that from the ground, the senses are not abolished.  I remained sufficiently myself to be able to see that I was raised in the air…”

She again writes:

“Sometimes I was capable, at the price of great efforts, to oppose a slight resistance:  but then, I was broken like a person who had fought a powerful giant.”

And Bishop Yepes says that he saw her one evening,

“grip the bars of the grille and let out moans of distress”,

before letting go and rising towards the ceiling.  Another time, she clung to the mats on the floor and was lifted with such force that she dragged them with her in her ascension…

***

To be continued.

Saint Joseph of Copertino sometimes flew around in the air after having let out a great cry.

One day in 1645, the Grand-Admiral of Castille, Legate to the Holy See, goes to Assisi with his wife.  He wants to see with his own eyes a strange Franciscan, Brother Joseph, who has, it is said, some surprising faculties.  So surprising that the Inquisitors of Naples, suspicious by nature, have been surveilling him without benevolence for some time.

As soon as they arrive, the Spanish high dignitary and his wife tell the Porter monk the reason for their visit.  He leads them to the church where they are asked to wait.  After a moment, a monk around forty leaves the sacristy and walks a few steps in their direction.  He seems so intimidated that the Spaniards go to meet him, but suddenly the man flies up with a great cry, passes over them “like a big pigeon” and traverses the nave towards a statue of the Virgin.  When he reaches his goal, he rests for a few seconds, then, having let out another cry, takes off again, re-traverses the space and comes back to where he started…  He immediately returns to his cell in shame, while smelling-salts are administered to the Grand-Admiral of Castille’s wife who has fainted…

Who is this curious monk who, defying the laws of gravity, zooms around in the air?

He is called Joseph Desa.  He is born in Naples in 1603 into a family of poor people.  At seventeen, while he is learning the shoemaker trade, he manifests the desire to enter the city’s Franciscan monastery.  Refused because of his extreme ignorance, he turns to the Capucins who send him away, after eight months of noviciate, for physical and intellectual incapacity.  The poor boy is not discouraged and succeeds in being accepted among the conventual minor brothers of the Grotella convent, near Copertino, in the South of Italy, as a lay brother charged with heavy duties.  His extreme good will earns him the right, although he is practically illiterate, to be received among the choir monks.  Finally, he is ordained priest in 1628.

It is at this moment that everything starts.  A witness, a Copertino shepherd, tells of the event during the procedure for the beatification of the strange Franciscan two years after his death.

“I was guarding my flocks, near Grotella.  On Christmas Eve, Brother Joseph came to find us, me and the other shepherds of the plain, and asked us to come to play the musette in the church to celebrate the Nativity.  We went.  While we were playing, Brother Joseph was so joyful, that he started to dance and stamp his feet in the nave.  Suddenly, he sighed and let out a great cry.  At the same time he flew into the air and, in the middle of the church, flew like a bird onto the main altar where he embraced the tabernacle.  From the middle of the church to the main altar, the distance could be fifty canes (that is to say twenty-five metres).  He remained like that, kneeling on the altar, hugging the tabernacle, for about a quarter of an hour.  After which, he came back down without any help from anyone and went away from us, his cheeks and eyes bathed in tears…”

This little seance of ecstatic levitation would be followed by many others.  We cite a few among the seventy cases consigned in the acts of the procedure and authentified by witnesses.

One day, on the Feast of Saint Francis, while he was following the procession, Joseph suddenly flew to the church’s pulpit which was at a height of fifteen palms (three metres) and landed on the edge of it where he remained balanced for a long time on his knees, his arms outstretched in the form of a cross.

One Holy Thursday evening, in front of the main altar where the whole community is praying, he suddenly lets out a great cry and flies through the air to the tabernacle.  Annoyed, the Superior has to order him to come back to his place;  which Joseph, obedient, does in gracious floating flight.

On 10 July 1657, while he is on his way to the Osimo convent, he has a vision, falls into ecstasy and flies to an almond tree situated one hundred and fifty palms away (thirty metres).

Sometimes, a simple remark sets off the phenomenon:  one day, he flies onto an olive tree because a priest, Don Antonio Chiarello had said to him:

“What a beautiful sky God has made, Brother Joseph!…”

And he remains on his knees for half an hour on a branch that is seen to sway as if a bird had landed on it.  But when he comes out of the ecstasy, he is unable to descend and a ladder has to be brought to him.

A pious image, a religious chant, a blade of grass which moves him, a leaf from a cherry tree whose texture he admires or an animal are sufficient also to put him into ecstasy and make him weightless.  An anecdote furnishes proof of it:  one Sunday, when he has just heard the parable of the Good Shepherd, he goes into the monks’ garden and meets a lamb.  Enthusiastic, he takes it on his shoulders and flies with it.  The monks keep asking him to come back down but he floats for two hours above the trees…

Soon the little Franciscan’s levitations multiply.  He perches on steeples, flies over gardens, lands on loggias and even indulges in a sort of “buzzing” over a group of nuns who are completely panicked.  Even better, the guards of the Assisi Treasury see him one day passing over their heads flying backwards, and landing behind them on the church’s paving stones where he then starts to spin like a top.

He sometimes uses his gift to help others.  One morning, near his convent, seeing some workmen trying to plant a tall, heavy cross on the summit of a hill, he flies above them, raises the cross as if it were a simple stake and plants it in the hole that had been prepared for it.

But Brother Joseph of Copertino does not content himself with flying alone.  On sevaral occasions, he takes a companion in his levitation.  One day, at Saint Claire’s Church, at the moment when the chant Veni Sponsa Christi erupts, he rushes to the convent’s Confessor, takes him by the hand, hauls him from the ground and makes him turn with him in the air…

To be continued.

Elisabeth of Austria

7 February 1869.  Prince Rudolf, Archduke of Austria, who is heading for his eleventh birthday, is being rewarded for his excellent school marks.  He is attending a theatrical performance for the first time, in his parents’ company.  The play, The Enchanted Prince, is perfectly appropriate for the Archduke.  Franz-Josef is most satisfied with his son’s studies.  The boy is passionate about History;  a Life of Alexander the Great that he reads all the time has to be snatched from his hands.  But his sensitivity is developing in parallel with his intelligence.  Ill-luck having unfortunately caused him to witness a young man’s suicide in the Schonbrunn park, he has been particularly marked by it.

His mother is fighting boredom.  She can no longer confront Vienna.  How can she support the permanent criticism, the jealousy and the pettiness when, in five hours by train, she can be at Ofen or at Godollo, feasted, acclaimed, loved?  She is therefore absent from Vienna at the inauguration of the new Opera House, on 25 May, the first Ringstrasse edifice to be finished.  Vienna is being transformed, and is growing bigger.  The new theatre has been built with inspiration from the plans of the Paris Opera House and those of the Chatelet Theatre.  It has cost six million florins.  The Habsburgs have always spent colossal sums of money for music.  It is therefore a long tradition, which is being continued by Franz-Josef with this performance of Don Juan by Mozart, given in front of two thousand seven hundred spectators, by an orchestra of one hundred and eleven musicians.  For the Ascension, the Empress consents to put in an appearance in the Saint Etienne Cathedral, after three hours of dressing and hairdressing.  The Belgian Ambassador affirms:

“If she hadn’t come, I believe that there would have been a revolution”.

In June, the Empress flees to her native Bavaria.  A shadow, however, hangs over this stay:  she has taken only Maria-Valeria with her.  Gisela and Rudolf are at Bad Ischl with their grandmother.  Franz-Josef asks her to come back.  Sissi agrees, but remarks to him:

“I make concessions and sacrifices for you, I hope that you will do the same for me.”

Just the idea of returning to Austrian soil is a “sacrifice”.  Elisabeth doesn’t want anything to do with what is happening in Vienna.  This is a mistake.  But it is too late.  She is punishing the Viennese, when only the Court is “guilty”.

In Autumn, Franz-Josef has to go to Egypt for the inauguration of the Suez Canal, one of the ultimate prides of the immense economic work of the French Second Empire.  The Emperor does not want to miss the opening of the new scientific and technical marvel by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who has succeeded, in ten years, in vanquishing the desert and all sorts of financial and political difficulties.  Will Sissi accompany him?  In definitive, no.  The voyage looks like a long one, charged with official manifestations.  A new correspondence, very rich, begins between the spouses.  They are unable to live constantly together, nor one without the other, as their daily letters show.  In all points of view, they miss each other.  With military precision, Franz-Josef describes to Sissi the stables, the Arab stallions and the eight hundred Court horses of Sultan Abdul Aziz, and the feasts on the illuminated Bosphorus, worthy of the Arabian Nights.  A tone of complicity and lightheartedness characterises these epistolary exchanges.

After a strong tempest, the imperial yacht Greif has joined, on 16 November, the most extraordinary pacific meeting of boats from all the nations of Europe.  There are eighty ships at anchor.  Empress Eugenie is representing the French Emperor.  Quite naturally, she forms with the Austrian Emperor, a prestigious official couple.  He is seated on her right at the banquet given by the Khedive Ismail Pacha.  Sissi makes an affectionate scene of jealousy to Franz-Josef:

“…  So there you are once again with your dear Empress Eugenie.  I am very jealous because you are flirting with her while I am alone here and cannot even take revenge.”

Sissi can be reassured;  Franz-Josef is above all annoyed by the banquet, which comports thirty courses and is late beginning.  Seven thousand people have to be fed in the middle of a desert…

While the Emperor is on his way home, Sissi learns that her sister Maria, ex-Queen of Naples, who has finally reconciled with her husband, is on the point of giving birth in Rome.  The pretext for leaving is convenient.  She must, however, obtain permission from the Emperor.  So, she goes to meet him at Trieste.  Their meeting is brief but Franz-Josef does not retain his spouse.

On 8 December, having arrived in Rome, which she has never visited, she is met by her sister and brother-in-law, who reside in the Farnese Palace.  Pope Pius IX visits her.  After this inevitable concession to her official role, Sissi literally disappears in Rome, which she visits incognito.  The diplomatic and aristocratic corps are unable to convince her to come to a reception.  Her sister gives birth on 24 December, the day of the Empress’ thirty-second birthday, and Sissi, devoted to the point of circulating in a simple neglige at night in the Farnese Palace to help the mother, catches a cold.  With her mania for treating herself in strange ways, she drinks donkey milk.  Miracle:  she is cured.  The real remedy is, however, completely different:  it is an invitation to a hunt in the countryside around Rome, which she immediately accepts.

Christmas without the Empress.  At the Hofburg, the family is used to Elisabeth’s absences but, in secret, no-one is happy about it.  When she comes back, the Court’s humiliation will be total:  she avoids Vienna, and goes to Godollo, where she spends long hours on horseback.

The Emperor is very absorbed by the French political situation, which is worrying in this 1870 Spring.  Franz-Josef has already charged his Ambassador in Paris to assure the Emperor of the French of his support in a war against Prussia.  But he underlines as well that it is wise to be prudent.  Having arrived in Bad Ischl in June, Elisabeth, forewarned that Franz-Josef will not be able to join her as they both wished, declares, crushed:

“I only hope that there is not another war, that would be awful.”

To be continued.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

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.

Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria.

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.

Princess Sophia, Archduchess of Austria.

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.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

Worried about his isolation on the European chessboard, absorbed by the tension which is mounting in the Piemont, Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria is devoured by his public life.  Empress Elisabeth (Sissi), deprived of maternal joys, has to resign herself to family joys.  Having only just given birth, she was unable to attend, on 24 August 1858, the marriage of her sister Princess Helena in Bavaria to Prince Maximilien of Tour and Taxis, heir to one of the most powerful Bavarian families.  But another marriage and more rejoicing come to brighten the political climate, which is becoming more and more sombre.  At eighteen, her sister Princess Maria marries, by procuration, on 8 January 1859, in Munich, Prince Francesco, Duke of Calabra, heir to the throne of Naples.

One week later, she is in Vienna.  The two sisters, radiant, remain close to each other.  Childhood memories are the best rampart against the world’s greyness.  Maria, smaller and darker than Sissi, seduces the Court.  A ball is given in her honour.  The Empress appears at a ball for the first time since the death of her daughter.  Eighteen months of sadness have not been completely effaced by Rudolf’s birth, but what charm, what painful maturity are hers when she appears on Franz-Josef’s arm.  These few days with her sister have given her strength.  Gaiety returns with the preparations for the real marriage.

At the end of January, Elisabeth accompanies her sister to Trieste, forseeing the fear of a young girl pushed into the arms of a prince whom she has never seen.  Sissi married for love, Maria for State reasons, with, among other handicaps, that of not speaking Italian, while her husband doesn’t speak German.

Back in Vienna, a feeling of uselessness inhabits Elisabeth.  She gets in the way in political conversations, she is an intruder in her children’s apartments, and she suffers to be deprived of her spouse, taken up with European politics.

Piemont arms itself and, on 9 March, prepares to mobilise against Austria.  To this bad news is added, on the same day, that of the renunciation of his rights by Sissi’s eldest brother, Prince Louis-Wilhelm, Duke in Bavaria.  Scandal:  he wants to marry an actress, Henrietta Mendel.  She is beautiful, but her beauty is not enough and, in both Munich and Vienna, this unfitting marriage causes a stir.  Two days later, exasperated by clever propaganda, the Emperor of Austria addresses an ultimatum to the King of Piemont, Victor-Emmanuel.  The trap works.  Napoleon III has been waiting for this injunction.  The ultimatum is, of course, rejected three days later and presented like a veritable declaration of war.  The political combat becomes a duel between the two emperors.  One, in Vienna, is only thirty-years-old and diplomacy is his weak point.  The other, in Paris, is fifty-years-old and has a lot of experience of the customs of the European reigning families.  On 3 May, France declares war on Austria “which has put itself in the wrong”.

Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria.

This bad news obliges Franz-Josef to go to Italy to take command of his troops.  He has to move quickly to be the first to occupy Turino and prevent the junction of the Piemontais and French troops.  Franz-Josef announces his departure to Sissi.  The unhappy Empress panics, she begs him to stay.  As he refuses, she asks to accompany him.  She cannot conceive of being away from her husband during these grave times.  Franz-Josef, having taken care of a mountain of problems, leaves, on 29th, against his Ministers’ advice.  Sissi follows him, she remains in the imperial train as far as Murzzuschlag, one hundred kilometres from Vienna.  The goodbyes in the little station are heartrending.  The Empress cries, she makes Franz-Josef promise to take care of himself, she multiplies advice to the aide-de-camp general, Count Grunne.

A couple crushed by the separation, that is the image of Sissi and Franz-Josef, whom war distances from each other for the first time.  Sissi doesn’t stop praying.  Three days later, the Emperor writes to her his first letter from the Front.  He is in Verona where he sees that the greatest disorganization reigns among his troops.  Amorous, he says in his letter:

“I take advantage of these first instants of my day to tell you again how much I love you and how much I long for you and our dear children…”

They had only left each other three days before.

Sissi writes back to Franz-Josef, begging him to let her come, she is ready to accept any conditions.  He still refuses.

“There is no place for women and I cannot give a bad example.”

Elisabeth is constrained to inutility.  Empress Eugenie has remained in Paris, but she is assuring the Regency and presides the Council of Ministers.  And she has no mother-in-law…

On 4 June, at half-past-eight in the evening, one first great victory is in the hands of the French and the Piemontais.  The village of low cottages with ochre and pink walls, where the affrontment takes place near Milan, is called Magenta.  A victory that is dearly paid;  four thousand dead on the French side, ten thousand killed on the Austrian side, twenty-five thousand wounded or ill.  And Lombardy is lost.  Three days later, Napoleon III enters Milan.

Sissi opens a hospital at Laxenburg and writes every day to the Emperor:

“Do you still love me?”

Franz-Josef loves her, but the debacle is there and, plunged into a report on the causes of the Magenta defeat, he hardly has time to cast an eye on the daguerreotypes of Sissi and the children that she sends him, accompanied by a bouquet of dried flowers.

“My love, my beautiful angel”,

writes the Emperor;  and this overwhelming appeal:

“I beg you, in the name of your love for me, control yourself, attend public manifestations, visit charities, you would not believe how much you can help me by doing this.  This will give courage to the population and will maintain the morale that I so much need…”

The next day, to the South of Garde Lake, at five o’clock in the morning, formidable French cannons shake a village perched at the top of a cliff.  The hill, crowned by a tower which symbolises Austrian domination over Lombardy, is called Solferino.  After twelve hours of combat under a crashing storm, the Solferino tower and the surrounding villages are lost.  The count is frightening:  seventeen thousand dead on the Franco-Piemontais side, twenty-two thousand dead on the Austrian side.  A butchery.  In the middle of the disembowelled cadavers and smoking ruins, a young Swiss bank trader vows to create an efficient auxiliary health service.  His name is Henri Dunant, he will found the Red Cross.

Two days later, at Verona, Franz-Josef writes to Sissi:

“I had to order the retreat.  Here is the sad story of an appalling day.  I earned experience and I learned to know the feelings of a beaten general.  (…)  My only consolation, my only joy is to go now to join you, my angel…”

To be continued.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

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…

Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria.

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.

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