Being Sissi

Sissi’s isn’t just a lavish costume: you momentarily forget yourself as you immerse yourself in the legend.

It’s a cold February morning and Madonna di Campiglio is covered in a blanket of white. The first really heavy snowfall of last season. A great omen, I say to myself, as I am going to photograph something particularly special. It isn’t every day that one has the privilege of immortalising the dressing of Empress Sissi, the most intimate event of the Habsburg Carnival celebrating the Princess’s connection with these mountains.

‘My’ modern princess is called Monica and she is a hotelier. When I arrive, she has just finished serving breakfast to her hotel guests, but her normal daily routine is about to evaporate like snow in the sun. Upstairs, in the dimly-lit bedroom, the intricate lace gown immediately transports us to the painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, the official court painter who put one of the most iconic images of Sissi on canvas.

The legend of Sissi continues to be reinventedThe metamorphosis begins. Monica shares an undisputed beauty with the Empress, not to mention a cascade of dark hair – it is said that Elisabeth of Austria’s hair weighed five kilograms and fell all the way to her ankles.

Hairdresser Marilena’s skilled hands gather Monica’s hair in a complex interweaving of braids, hairpins and clips. I see Monica become someone else right before my eyes, perceiving even the slightest change in her gaze and posture. It seems to me that this is something that transcends mere historical re-enactment. Sissi’s isn’t just a lavish costume: it is something more like the actual mask. You momentarily forget yourself as you immerse yourself in the legend.

Ah yes, the legend. The legend of Sissi continues to be reinvented, primarily fed by the big screen – from the sweetened interpretation of Romy Schneider, whose face is now, for many, synonymous with this historic figure, to the new Netflix series and the very recent complex version by director Marie Kreutzer (“Corsage”, released in Italy in December with the title Il Corsetto dell’Imperatrice [The Empress’ Corset]).

125 years after her death, Sissi is still so close to our heartsBut why, 125 years after her death, is Sissi still so close to our hearts? Undoubtedly because of her melancholy-imbued beauty. Because of her obsessive love for beauty coupled with her fear of ageing – once she turned thirty, she refused to have her portrait painted, leaving us with the illusion of eternal youth. Her frailties and her depression endear her even more to us. Sad princesses enjoy particular favour – just think in more recent times of Lady Diana, Grace Kelly or Princess Charlene of Monaco.
But I believe that there is an even deeper connection. Elisabeth von Wittelsbach could count on a culture as seductive as her own beauty, which was dangerous, especially by the standards of the time. 

Her views were never taken for granted – from her innate inclination towards ideals of liberty and justice to the political astuteness of her mature years when she embraced the liberal ideals of rebellious Hungarian aristocrats, so far removed from the empire she represented that was heading towards a relentless waltz-like decline.
An open-mindedness that also extended into her most private affairs – famously, when Katharina Schratt, star of the Burgtheater, became a constant companion of her consort Franz Joseph, rather than fight it Sissi stood aside. And this was not weakness on her part; far from it. Why should she deprive her husband of the chance of finding happiness in love?

‘May your friend support and comfort you on your journey,’ she told him one day. ‘And as far as I am concerned, I bless this joy of yours.’

Elisabeth was a creature of the plants and of the woods Finally, a modern outlook that also manifested itself in a passion for travel – the great escape, the best way bar none to resist the pain of living – and in a symbiotic relationship with nature. Elisabeth was a creature of the plants and of the woods and was intimately linked both to water – from Lake Starnberg, close to where she grew up, to the open sea that mirrored her troubled soul – as well as to the mountains and their peaks.

Elisabeth of Bavaria stayed in Madonna di Campiglio twice, once in 1889 and then again in 1894. ‘On the highest and most lonely peaks I can breathe more freely, while others would feel lost,’ she said.

It is easy to believe that the Empress would also have acclimatized to the light and dark of our century. Delicate yet, at the same time, independent, strong in her contradictions, Sissi is a sort of archetype of modern femininity – something that has ensured she remains lodged in our collective consciousness despite the omnivorous voracity of modern times that swallows everything and forgets everything. 


The commemoration of the House of Habsburg’s connection with Madonna di Campiglio returns from 19 to 24 February 2023 with many initiatives and new events. The arrival of the court is scheduled for Sunday 19 February at 5.30 p.m. ‘Tea with Sissi’ is to be held on Monday 20 at 5 p.m., followed by the official cultural opening ceremony. The festivities continue on Wednesday 22 with the ‘Habsburg Aperitif’ at 6 p.m. and the ‘Habsburg Dinner’ at 8 p.m. in all participating bars and restaurants. An undoubted highlight of the week is the ‘Habsburg period costume skiing event’ on the slopes of the resort on Thursday 23 from 10 a.m. Then, at 5.30 p.m., the town’s streets will come alive with the sound of traveling shows, again organized by Madonna di Campiglio’s Pro loco. The festivities finally come to a close on Friday 24 February at 7 p.m. with the magical ‘Emperor’s Grand Ball’, the most eagerly- anticipated fairytale evening of the week. 

All week:

Foto e video @credits Marina Spironetti

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