Elisabeth of Austria’s Hermesvilla. Refuge of a restless spirit

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Elisabeth of Austria’s Hermesvilla Refuge of a restless spirit

Michaela Lindinger

Residenz Verlag

Elisabeth of Austria’s Hermesvilla Refuge of a restless spirit

Michaela Lindinger

Residenz Verlag

Contents The ‘monarch in her forest realm’


Sisi at Lainz


The Emperor’s Gift En Famille



‘A magical palace hidden and immune’

From Villa Waldruh to Hermesvilla


The Lainzer Tiergarten The Villa and the Park The Interior Rooms

45 53

The Viennese Getaway


The Lainzer Tiergarten and Hermesvilla after 1918 123 125 127 131


138 142 143 144

Unloved Legacies The Lainzer Tiergarten under National Socialism Demolition Imminent A “Friend of Hermesvilla” A Fin-de-Siècle Icon

What happened at Hermesvilla Literature Photo credit Acknowledgments & Imprint

‘Titania and the Ass’ in Elisabeth’s bedroom

The ‘monarch in her forest realm’

Sisi at Lainz 10

‘Suddenly she stood before me, a slender, dark woman. Her hair contrasted with a white parasol through which the sunbeams shone. In her right hand she held a black fan, which she leaned softly against her cheek. Her golden eyes were fixed on me, tracing the lines of my face as if driven to discover something therein. Had they found what they were seeking?’

Ludwig Angerer: Empress Elisabeth in 1864

The Empress of Austria was 53 years old when she was described in this way by a young student from Athens, whom she had summoned to a first meeting in the Tiergarten at Lainz. He was told that he should wait for her near Hermesvilla. Constantin Christomanos studied philosophy at the University of Vienna. He had grown up bilingual in German and Greek, and now he was meeting the philhellenist Empress for the first time on the recommendation of Nikolaus Dumba. Dumba knew practically all the important people in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. He was an influential industrialist and politician and, like the family of Christomanos, he also came from northern Greece. A prominent guest in the circles of the high nobility and the Imperial house, it was he who recommended the Christomanos brothers as language teachers to Franz Nopcsa, head of the Empress Elisabeth’s household. Elisabeth had expressed the desire to deepen the knowledge of Greek she had already acquired through several periods spent on Corfu. Her dream palace in Greece, Achilleion – named for her favourite hero, Achilles – had just been completed. In these early summer weeks of 1891, Elisabeth wondered out loud to her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph, about moving her permanent residence to Greece. Having found Anton Christomanos, a future doctor, unsuitable, she now walked with his brother Constantin through the Lainzer Tiergarten. The young Greek had a crooked, misshapen 11

Ludwig Angerer: Elisabeth with an Irish wolfhound, 1865 22

En Famille Because Hermesvilla was a private residence, it hardly ever hosted major celebrations. But sometimes family celebrations took place, whether on a bigger or a smaller scale. Elisabeth’s granddaughter Auguste of Bavaria celebrated her engagement in the ‘May-greening woods’ (Elisabeth) of the Lainzer Tiergarten in May 1893. As was usual among the high nobility, Auguste, the second child of Sisi’s daughter Gisela, see p. 24 married the Austrian Archduke Joseph August in Munich a few months after their betrothal. From then on, she lived on her husband’s estate in Hungary. A key political act in the life of Sisi’s favourite daughter, Marie Valerie, had taken place at Hermesvilla three years earlier. Since she would marry Franz Salvator of Austria-Tuscany on 31 July 1890, Marie Valerie had to renounce all claims to the throne before the wedding. The renunciation ceremony took place on 16 June 1890 in the splendid Tilgner-Saal. Marie Valerie’s betrothal had already been announced at Christmas 1888, but the wedding plans had to be postponed because of the drama at Mayerling (the murder of Mary Vetsera and suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf on 30 January 1889). Elisabeth’s visit to Hermesvilla in May 1889 was rather a turbulent one as she was still affected by the events at Mayerling, which her own egocentricity and blinkered focus on Marie Valerie had rendered her unable to foresee. Those years in which she occasionally stayed at Lainz she primarily spent travelling – or, one might say, on the run. In the months following Mayerling, she visited her homeland of Bavaria and various German spa towns. On the way back from Wiesbaden to Vienna, the imperial train was derailed. Reminded of her son’s tragedy, Elisabeth called out in distress: “People are born for unhappiness alone!” After the incident, Franz Joseph came to Hetzendorf in person and collected his wife, who was extremely nervous. She was driven straight to Hermesvilla to recover. In order to lift the gloomy mood, the ‘Empress’s friend’ Katharina Schratt, see p. 27 an actress at the Imperial court, was invited to several dinners. 23

Edmund Ellinger: Gisela and her husband Leopold of Bavaria, 1872 24

Victor Angerer: Elisabeth’s sister Sophie von Alençon, 1871 25

Towards the end of her life, Elisabeth had to deal with another big shock at Hermesvilla. In May 1897 she was informed of the death of her youngest sister Sophie Charlotte, see p. 25 who had died in a fire at a charity bazaar in Paris. Before she arrived at Hermesvilla, Elisabeth had also gone to Cap Martin, South Africa, to recuperate, and had spent some time at Lake Geneva, too. However, she arrived at Hermesvilla in a poor physical state. To avoid damaging her health even further, Elisabeth was spared the gruesome details about the death of Elisabeth and Franz Joseph’s Offspring her sister, who had once been betrothed to Ludwig II, fairytale king of Bavaria. Following her marriage at age sixteen, Sophie Charlotte’s body was completely Elisabeth became pregnant right away. charred, and her identity could only be This physical state was especially hard for established by checking the state of her her to accept, because she felt bulky and teeth. Franz Joseph was summoned right restricted in her movement. But her primaaway, but he could not console his disry task as Empress was to provide an heir to tressed wife, whom this blow of fate had the throne. She had two daughters in quick rendered ever more fragile. succession, of whom the first, Sophie, died The spring of 1898 in Vienna was at just two years old – probably of typhoid. once more cool and damp. In spite of After the birth of Gisela, her second daughthis, Elisabeth had decided to stay at the ter, Elisabeth was distressed at the immiforest palace in Lainz following a health nent prospect of a third pregnancy. This cure, but she complained daily of the pregnancy had the desired outcome: on unpleasant weather. Mist cloaked the 21 August 1858, Crown Prince Rudolf was Lainzer Tiergarten morning and night, born. Rudolf would never become Emperor; as it so often did. In July, Elisabeth finally he shot himself at Mayerling at the age of left Hermesvilla and drove to Bad Ischl. 30. After her coronation as Queen of HunHer final days at the ‘magical palace’ gary in 1867, Elisabeth decided to undergo were over. one final pregnancy for political reasons. In the course of the 1890s, Franz Her youngest daughter, Marie Valerie, was Joseph became ever more sentimentally born ten years after Rudolf. Elisabeth had attached to Hermesvilla. For him, the hoped to produce a new King of Hungary, house in the dark forest represented all and so had chosen to give birth in Budathat remained of his life with Elisabeth, pest. Despite her initial disappointment at who was away almost constantly. Often, having another girl, Marie Valerie became once she had left, he walked through the Empress’s favourite child. her empty quarters on the upper floor, perhaps hunting after memories: 26

Rudolf Krziwanek: Katharina Schratt, around 1873 27

‘A magical palace hidden and immune’

From Villa Waldruh to Hermesvilla 36

Empress Elisabeth handed down her self-image as a legacy to those who came after her. However, the legend that took hold after her death at the age of sixty outstrips her life by far. Over the decades, the ‘Sisi Myth’ increasingly acquired a momentum of its own. Elisabeth might be astonished if she could see just how far this myth today exceeds even her own self-stylisation. The legendary Austrian monarch can herself be viewed as a European site of memory, since the term ‘lieu de mémoire’, coined by French historian Pierre Nora, encompasses nonmaterial as well as topographical memory culture. Hermesvilla in the Lainzer Tiergarten is a very special place of remembrance Picture postcard, because it commemorates a specific person, as well as a place around 1899 where this person lived for a time. Here, where Sisi spent many months as an older woman (in the perception of her time), you can trace the real life of a historical figure who has long since become a legend. Her ambivalent personality, her relationship with herself and many tragic elements in her life make Sisi an ideal projection space for literature, science and art. Depending on the period, her characterisation has reflected socially relevant issues. Myths, too, could find their perfect niche in her. In the wake of Brigitte Hamann’s biography (The Reluctant Empress: Elisabeth of Austria), which has since become a classic, The ‘Poetic Diary’ the image of Elisabeth as ‘modern wo­ man’ of conflict has predominated since Only a very few people in Elisabeth’s time the 1980s; but the supposedly ‘glittering knew that the Empress wrote poetry in the era of the Danube Monarchy’ has also style of Heinrich Heine. Her work is not become famous worldwide with Sisi as valuable from a literary perspective, but its role model. Elisabeth’s poetry, with its it gives us a useful insight into her feelings frequent expression of longing for death, and her way of thinking. She deposited also permits us to stage the world-famous the poems in Switzerland, because only Viennese fin-de-siècle – and, connected in democratic government did she see a with that, the fall of the Austro-Hungarian future. Thanks to Elisabeth’s biographer empire and monarchy – in ideal fashion Brigitte Hamann, Elisabeth’s poems were as a dance with death, as in the musical published for the first time in 1984 under ‘Elisabeth’ (which premièred in 1992). the title ‘The Poetic Diary’. Just like Princess Diana a hundred years later, Empress Sisi became a mediagenic 37

Entrance hall, 1899


Room belonging to Marie Valerie, 1899

Marie Valerie’s bedroom, 1899


The Viennese Getaway

The Lainzer Tiergarten and Hermesvilla after 1918 120

Karl Schuster: Marie Valerie and Franz Joseph at the Penzing meadow with Hermesvilla in the background, 1908

After Elisabeth’s murder in September 1898, her favourite daughter, Marie Valerie, inherited Hermesvilla. The Archduchess had known the house in the Lainzer Tiergarten for many years due to her numerous visits together with her mother. The Achilleion on Corfu, incidentally, went to Gisela. Elisabeth’s little-cherished daughter, who was married and living in Munich, could make absolutely no use of her inheritance and sold the property off as quickly as possible. It came into the possession of the German Emperor Wilhelm II. Marie Valerie, who had ten children in all, immediately began to adapt Hermesvilla to the needs of her ever-growing family. Once the rooms had been photographed in 1899 for record-keeping purposes, many pieces migrated from the Empress’ holdings to other palaces, such as Kaiservilla at Bad Ischl, or the imperial stock. Franz Joseph supported the ‘child-friendly’ transformation of the house and enthusiastically welcomed the grandchildren who came along at more or less yearly intervals. He often spent time with his descendants at Hermesvilla, since he had been granted the ‘lifelong usufruct’ of the house. This rule meant that he was allowed to stay at the villa whenever he wished, and he did so quite frequently. When, in 1911, the house finally became too small for Marie Valerie and her dependants, it passed to the Hofärar: the Crown Estate Office. This new ownership status was very important after the end of the monarchy, because Hermesvilla was now state property and no longer part of the imperial private holdings. As a result, after 1918 it came under the management of the Republic of Austria, while private possessions such as Kaiservilla were not confiscated. The archducal family around Marie Valerie moved to Schloss Wallsee in Lower Austria, a private Habsburg holding. The descendants of the Archduchess, who died in 1924, live there to this day. Franz Joseph spent the night at Hermesvilla for the last time in 1912. He died in November 1916, two years after the First World War began. Hermesvilla’s period of decline began in 1918, after the end of the monarchy. The new republic had more pressing things to do than to worry about the maintenance of a small palace, of little art-historical significance, in a remote wood. Most people 121

were glad that the imperial court was over and done with, and only a few shed a tear for the old system. The Viennese were hungry and cold. There wasn’t enough accommodation. Traumatised soldiers were coming home and the city was full of refugees. Shell-shocked soldiers, invalids with prosthetic limbs and on crutches, beggars, tuberculosis sufferers – these were the daily reality. Countless widows, fiancÊes abandoned forever and daughters in mourning-dress stood in line every day for a little bread.

Elfriede Mejchar: Hermesvilla with barred windows, around 1960


Unloved Legacies However, the question arose of what to do with the legacy of 600 years of Habsburg rule. A public authority was set up for this purpose: the Oberste Verwaltung des Hofärars (Supreme Administration of the Crown Estate Office), which was also responsible for Hermesvilla from 1919 onwards. The officials of this authority had to deal with the assets of the past monarchy. Subsequently, the Federal Ministry for Trade and Commerce, Industry and Construction was established; Hermesvilla was allocated to this institution in 1921, once it had started operations. In the same year, the Kriegsgeschädigtenfonds (Fund for War-Affected Persons), which had been created in 1919, took over the administration of the Lainzer Tiergarten and therefore, in 1922, also the management of Hermesvilla. The Fund for War-Affected Persons, an endowment fund, was formed by taking over the assets of the House of Habsburg. The net yield from this fund was intended to go to the widows, orphans and wounded of the First World War; after all, it was the Habsburgs who began the fatal conflict. From 1919, the Lainzer Tiergarten was opened to the public on Sundays, although an entrance fee had to be paid. Saturday afternoons were soon added to the schedule. However, it would mostly have been nannies with their children who went walking in the park at this time, since Saturday was still a full working day back then. The main objective of the Fund for War-Affected Persons was to turn its real estate into cash. Parts of the Tiergarten were authorised for clearing (Friedensstadt). The value of the Lainzer Tiergarten, today the beloved recreation ground of many Viennese citizens, was not as yet a concern; the area was held to be of little interest and there was an intensive hunt for buyers. A golf course and an allotment area were built. There were plans for a forest cemetery and a pet cemetery, and even a dog-racing track was envisaged. The end of the old hunting grounds seemed alarmingly near when the Fund for War-Affected Persons went bankrupt, not least because of the world economic crisis of the 1930s, and was dissolved in 1937. In that year, the federal government 123

A Fin-de-Siècle Icon The journalist and writer Camill Hoffmann, from Cisleithania (Old Austria), remembered the murdered Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary in his own way in a kind of memento mori. He knew Hermesvilla and the Hohenauer pond in the Lainzer Tiergarten in which Sisi once bathed. His Symbolist poem, at the juncture of the cult of beauty and the obsession with death, would surely have met with the approval of the Empress of Austria – this misunderstood icon of kitsch who still has the power to entrance new audiences – who, oscillating between melancholy and self-reliance, perfectly symbolised the unique Viennese fin-de-siècle. The Swans Since the silent Empress died, they say, the swans are ailing; their appetites are failing. Upon the dead shore they sulk and mope. We let them be; we have given up hope. But here is the tale a servant tells: The midnight moon is high and round, the trees are blue, the pond is blue. No hinges creak, no footsteps sound . . . A tall slim woman comes into view. At the water’s edge the white swans stand; she feeds each one from her own pale hand. She has been spotted now and again, but nobody saw how she came and went.


Joseph Albert: Elisabeth around 1865 133


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