The Imperial Villa (Kaiservilla) in the Upper Austrian spa town of Bad Ischl, which is set to become the European Capital of Culture next year, came to life from mid-August until the end of September 2023 with a unique exhibition.
It was opened to the public to commemorate the emperor's birthday on the day of the 170th anniversary of the famed betrothal of Franz Joseph I and Elisabeth of Bavaria. It was then and there that the immortal myth named Sisi was born. A myth underneath which hides a fascinating personality.
Event of the century
It was a warm August day in 1853 when Archduchess Sophie decided to invite members of her royal family to a summer gathering in Bad Ischl. The occasion was the upcoming 23rd birthday of her eldest son, Emperor Franz Joseph. Among those invited were Sophie's sister, Duchess Ludwiga, and her daughters. The older sister Helena was joined by the 15-year-old Elisabeth, called Sisi. The gathering of the imperial families culminated on August 19th in an event that happens once in a century. After all, many might remember the romanticized film version of the imperial betrothal from the first part of Ernst Marischka's movie trilogy.
Empress Elisabeth in her iconic diamond star dress
When the bride said "I do"
This August and September, the chambers and halls of the imperial summer residence turned, at least in part, into the venue of the famed betrothal of the penultimate Austrian imperial couple thanks to a unique exhibition. It documented the time when Elisabeth of Bavaria said "I do" to Emperor Franz Joseph. The exhibition produced a constant feeling that the visitors were just about to see the beginnings of the big love story and the imperial engagement with their own eyes. The successful exhibition was put together by renowned Austrian historian and expert on the lifestyle and story of Empress Elisabeth, Martina Winkelhofer.
Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth started writing their very own love story in the imposing halls of the imperial summer residence. The magical moment of the couple's first date, an afternoon tea together with their families and imperial courtiers, was recreated in the Kaiservilla's Gray Hall. The skilled hands of masterful pastry chefs under the supervision of the curator and her team prepared tables laden with food, closely following historical records of delectables from the imperial kitchen. The visitors had the opportunity to learn about the favorite desserts of Emperor Franz Joseph and his court, presented on an original service set from the Imperial Villa's collection. The treats were just asking to be tasted and played with the senses and taste buds of the visitors.
It didn't take much. Cakes and tea and heaps of love.
From engagement to immortal icon
The visitors could not only set out on a journey of learning about the notorious love story but also a journey of Elisabeth's growth throughout life. The exhibition mapped out the transformation from Bavarian princess and imperial bride into legendary Austrian empress whose life still fascinates many to this day. Exhibits were on display that would normally not be available to the public. The visitors were able to lay eyes upon a portrait of the future empress at the time of the famed betrothal in Bad Ischl for the very first time. A fairytale gown inspired by the famous diamond star dress was the centerpiece of the exhibition that drew the eyes of the visitors. The 28-year-old Sisi was immortalized wearing the luxurious gown from the workshop of 19th century's most famous dressmaker, Karl Friedrich Worth, by painter Franz Winterhalter. Although the original dress wasn't available for the occasion, the exhibition staff presented a more modern but equally fascinating version of the diamond star dress from the workshop of brilliant Austrian designer Anton Krug. The hand-sewn tulle gown embroidered with gold and silver inlay was the best possible representation of the icon that was the legendary Empress Elisabeth. It was an inspiring exhibition, with the sad part being that it only lasted a little over a month. The Imperial Villa is worth a visit any time of the year, however.
The penultimate Austrian imperial couple's betrothal was popularized by the first installment of the famous movie trilogy by Ernst Marischka called Sissi