The Imperial Villa
Wedding presents arrived from every corner of the Habsburg dominions, but it was Archduchess Sophie, Sisi's aunt and now her mother-in-law, who gave the young couple the best and most treasured present of all. Immediately after the engagement, Archduchess Sophie opened negotiations to buy the former Eltz villa in Ischl from Dr. Eduard Mastalier, where Chancellor Metternich had stayed in summer, as a personal residence for the young couple in the family’s summer resort. Additional ground was acquired in 1854 to extend the estate. During the winter of 1853/54, prior to the wedding, the property was remodelled in order to have the house ready for provisional occupation the following summer after the wedding. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth took up residence in their new (but still unfinished) house for the first time at the end of July 1854, and the Imperial Villa became the Emperor’s official summer residence. On 23 August 1854 he received King Ferdinand of Portugal, the first official visit of hundreds that were to follow in his new home.
The 14 rooms of the villa were, however, completely inadequate as a residence for the head of a major power. The year 1854 was therefore a period of comprehensive planning for the development of the house and estate. The work of redesigning and extending the Villa was entrusted to Antonio Legrenzi, an experienced professional builder, who between 1855 and 1858 erected what was effectively a new building. A large extension and two new side wings gave the building its present ground form in the shape of a letter E – reputedly to symbolise Elisabeth, and if so a nice touch to demonstrate Franz Josef’s affection for his bride.
Legrenzi’s commission was restricted to the Villa itself. The design of all the other facilities was entrusted to Franz Rauch, head of the imperial gardens, who planned and laid out the park with gardeners from the Schönbrunn and Laxenburg palaces, near Vienna. He was also instructed to build a personal Cottage for the young Empress Elisabeth, specifically in “Elizabethan” (i.e. English 16th-century Tudor) style. This explains why the Cottage is built in a markedly different architectural style from that of the Villa and all the other buildings in the park.
Construction work started simultaneously on the Villa, the Cottage, the park and all the ancillary buildings and facilities in the spring of 1855, and continued during the following five years. Legrenzi died suddenly in 1858, and the Emperor appointed Franz Rauch to complete the remaining work on the Villa. Rauch was a favoured member of the staff of three emperors. In 1834 Franz Josef’s grandfather, Emperor Franz I, had sent him on a tour through France and England at his personal expense to study garden and park design. He was therefore already acquainted with the Tudor architectural style, and was well able to manage the Cottage project, which was completed ready for occupation by the 22-year-old Elisabeth in the summer of 1860.
Built of unpolished, rose-grey marble and almost surrounded by a wrought iron veranda covered in luxuriant creepers, the Cottage was designed as a day house with no regular sleeping accommodation. The expensive external facing materials are matched by the luxurious interior with its intricate parquet floors and lavish wood carving. The latter includes 16 figures from the Nibelungenlied, the early mediaeval epic that was committed to verse by an unknown Austrian poet around the year 1200. The composer Richard Wagner was already immortalising the saga in his great operatic cycle The Ring of the Nibelungs, a project that he would eventually complete under the patronage of Elisabeth’s cousin and most assiduous admirer, King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The marked extravagance here contrasts with the more restrained luxury of the Villa, and indicates, once again, that for Franz Josef nothing was too good for his Sisi.
There were, of course, further developments and modernisation over the years. The estate was further enlarged, and Franz Josef never missed an opportunity to beautify and care for his beloved residence in Ischl. During the following six decades, the Emperor and his family spent extended periods in the Villa, at the very least the summer months, although members of the family would also use it at other times of the year, especially after the completion of the railway in 1877 made access easier. Franz Josef spent a total of 82 summers, and celebrated 81 birthdays, in Ischl. Sometimes war, military manoeuvres or other factors would interrupt his usual pattern of residence, but in his entire lifetime the only years he missed his Ischl sojourn entirely were 1848, when he was with the army in Italy; 1878, when a crisis situation in the Balkans kept him in Vienna; and the war years 1915 and 1916. Otherwise, from his accession to the throne in 1848 up to 1914, the imperial court moved en bloc to Ischl, and from the mid-1850s the vast Habsburg Monarchy was ruled from Franz Josef's study in the Imperial Villa.