Maria Sofia, a (forgotten) heroine: Sissi’s sister, she was the last queen of the Two Sicilies

Younger sister of the empress, with her courage she bewitched d’Annunzio and Proust. And she too was the victim of one of the first photomontages in history

“Tall, slender, with beautiful dark blue eyes and magnificent brown hair; Maria Sofia had a noble bearing and at the same time very graceful manners”, wrote Amedeo Tosti in the volume Maria Sofia the last queen of Naples.

Maria Sofia Amalia of Bavaria, wife of Francesco II, was the last queen of the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, even if only for a little over a year. The life of the young and courageous sovereign has fascinated writers such as D’Annunzio (who defined her as Aquiletta bavara) and Marcel Proust (who spoke of her as the queen of her soldier among the soldiers on the ramparts of Gaeta).

Born on 4 October 1841 in Possenhofen Castle in Bavaria, Maria Sofia Amalia she was the third daughter of Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria and Princess Ludovica of Baden, as well as the younger sister of the much better known Elisabetta, known as “Sissi”, made famous by the films with Romy Schneider.

Maria Sofia was exuberant, independent, nonconformist: she rode like an Amazon, hunted in the woods, practiced fencing, swimming, gymnastics and dance, she loved music. She even smoked small cigars in public, imitating her father.


In an interview with the reporter Giovanni Ansaldo, now elderly, Maria Sofia remembered: “We, five o’clock daughters of Duke Max… We wore all five black braids, drawn around just above the ears and on the forehead, in the manner of the peasant women of Oberbayern. Then we all took off. Elizabeth became Empress of Austria, Elena became Princess of Thurn und Taxis, Matilde married Luigi Count of Trani, Carlotta the Duke of Alencon, but of all five I was the one most predisposed by nature to enjoy life “.

On December 22, 1858, Francesco II, future king of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and Maria Sofia were already officially engaged. The girl was seventeen and she knew her betrothed, who was 22, only through a portrait of a miniature.

The marriage should have strengthened the link between the Habsburg crown and that of the Bourbons of Naples: Francis II he was the son of Ferdinando II and his first wife Maria Cristina of Savoy. The choice of the future husband was also influenced by the religion of Maria Sofia, who was Catholic: Francis had been raised more as a monk destined for religious life than as a future sovereign.

Of a shy and reserved nature, he had been educated by the Piarist fathers according to strict moral and religious precepts. Francesco’s mother, Maria Cristina, had died in childbirth, not yet twenty-four, in giving birth to her only child. Ferdinand, less than a year later, had remarried to Maria Theresa of Habsburg-Teschen with whom he had had 12 other children.

Francesco “repressed, controlled by his father, succubus of his severe stepmother, was devoted above all to spiritual reading and religious practices. Few friends, no sport. He was little expert in the use of weapons. As for female relationships, they were taboo: both for the iron education imparted to him by his severe stepmother, both for physical problems “writes Aurelio Musi in Maria Sofia.

The last queen of the south. The marriage between Francesco and Maria Sofia was celebrated by proxy on January 8, 1859 and a few days later the bride left Austria and was escorted to Trieste, where she embarked for Bari reaching the city on February 1, 1859. Here she finally met for the first time her husband and father-in-law, King Ferdinand II, now very ill. On 7 March the royals left for Naples, but Ferdinand’s conditions worsened further.

The following May 22 the king died, Francis ascended the throne and Maria Sofia became queen consort. It was not easy for Maria Sofia to settle in the court of Naples, with a weak and bigoted husband, educated in the cult of his mother, called the Holy Queen (later declared blessed in 2014) and a mother-in-law who did not disdain power and tried to influence the stepson, as he had done with her husband, without any effort, since, even more than his father, Francesco was completely submissive to the will of his stepmother.

The indomitable Maria Sofia, unlike her husband, did not allow herself to be subdued by her mother-in-law, on the contrary she soon entered into open conflict with the king’s stepmother, when she understood Maria Theresa’s real desire: to have Francis II deposed to put her firstborn on the throne.

Despite clear evidence of a plot hatched by his stepmother, Francesco did not feel like accusing Maria Theresa and exclaimed: “She is my father’s wife!”. Maria Sofia was queen of the Two Sicilies for less than 2 years, from 1859 until the capitulation of Gaeta, on February 13, 1861.

The young sovereign gained enormous popularity during thesiege of Gaeta, where the court had taken refuge on 6 September 1860, to attempt a last resistance to the Piedmontese troops. From the battlements of Gaeta she instilled courage in what remained of the now annihilated Bourbon army.

In the most serious moments Maria Sofia did not lose heart, contempt for danger was a constant in her behavior. The queen was the soul of the resistance and abandoning her crinolines, she was transformed into a soldier. She tried to encourage the Bourbon soldiers, distributing them medals with rosettes made by herself, wore masculine clothes covered by a large Calabrian cloak and went to visit war hospitals to assist the sick and wounded.

When the situation worsened due to lack of food supplies and the typhus epidemic, the king pleaded with her to leave the stronghold, but Maria Sofia wanted to stay. Unfortunately, despite his spending without reservations, in February 1861 the last resistance was defeated and the royals took refuge in Rome, where Francis set up a government in exile, recognized only by the Holy See and Austria, before being definitively dissolved in 1866.

The exiled king saw himself infamously nicknamed Franceschiello by chroniclers of the time, who wanted to ridicule the figure of a sovereign without his own kingdom.

In February 1862, a ferocious smear campaign against Maria Sofia was also set up, through a photomontage (one of the first in history) which portrayed the young naked woman, in lascivious poses, and moreover in front of a portrait of the pontiff.

The photos turned out to be skillful manipulations: the queen’s face had been mounted on the body of a prostitute portrayed without veils. The investigations led the papal police to the arrest of Antonio Diotallevi and his wife Costanza Vaccari, authors of the gesture.

In 1862 the marriage between Maria Sofia and Francesco had not yet been consummated, perhaps due to the king’s phimosis and therefore the couple had no children. During the Roman exile the pasionaria Maria Sofia ended up falling in love with an officer of the papal guard, the Belgian count Armand de Lawaysswith whom she had an affair and, according to allegations never really confirmed, she became pregnant.

To hide the pregnancy Maria Sofia moved to Possenhofen, where, on the advice of her family, she decided to give birth in secret to avoid the scandal. On November 24, 1862, in the convent of S. Ursula in Augusta, she gave birth to two twins, Daisy and Viola: Daisy was entrusted to the family of Lawaysse (but she died a few years later) and Viola to her maternal uncles.

A year after giving birth, Maria Sofia decided to confess the affair to her husband. The relationship between the spouses paradoxically improved, Francesco underwent an operation to reduce phimosis and the couple managed to consummate the marriage. Maria Sofia became pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl, called Maria Cristina Pia who was baptized by her aunt, the empress Sissi.

Unfortunately, the child lived only three months, died on March 28, 1870 and the couple had no other children. In 1867 Francesco’s stepmother died of cholera. Following the capture of Rome by Italian troops and the dissolution of the Papal State on 20 September 1870, Maria Sofia and Francesco moved to Paris.

They lived without great economic means, because the Savoy had confiscated all the assets of the Bourbons, and the Italian government promised their restitution only on the pact that Francis renounced any claim to the throne of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, a gesture that he never accepted, replying indignant: “My honor is not for sale.”

Francesco died at the age of 58, in 1894, in Trentino, during one of his trips to undergo thermal treatments. In Paris, Maria Sofia continued to keep a little girl alive Bourbon court in exile, never ceasing to hope to regain the lost kingdom.

She was accused of having made friends with the enemies of the Savoy, with anarchists such as Gaetano Bresci and earned the nickname of queen of the anarchists. Maria Sofia you probably hoped to exploit the hostility against the Savoy monarchs to destabilize the kingdom of Italy.

During the First World War he sympathized with the central empires, in conflict with Italy. Despite her aversion to the Savoy, Maria Sofia used to visit the camps of Italian military prisoners in Germany. The Italian soldiers, unaware of the identity of Maria Sofia, now elderly (she was over seventy years old), were amazed and intrigued by the aging lady who spoke their language with a mixed inflection of German and Neapolitan and distributed bon bon and cigars.

Maria Sofia died in Munich, due to severe pneumonia, in 1925. The remains of Francis II, Maria Sofia and their daughter Maria Cristina, reunited after various vicissitudes, rest today in the crypt of the Basilica of Santa Chiara, in Naples, where they were transferred with a solemn ceremony in May 1984.

In 2020 the opening of the cause for the canonization of Francis II was announced, therefore the deceased sovereign is currently recognized by the Church with the title of Servant of God. In a last interview released shortly before her death to Giovanni Ansaldo for La Stampa of Turin, Maria Sofia stated: «I am eighty-three years old. One more than the honorable Giolitti. I am very old ».

And then, showing two watercolors that depicted Vesuvius. «My king painted them. No, my king was not an imbecile … as they say ». And finally, with her mischievous smile when she was a girl: «You can see it. I am poor. And I live here by permission of a nephew of mine. The Savoys were not chic with us Bourbons… ».

Maria Sofia, a (forgotten) heroine: Sissi’s sister, she was the last queen of the Two Sicilies