In various places in Vienna, I’ve encountered the proud features of Marie Antoinette, the Habsburg-Lorraine daughter of the redoubtable Empress Maria Theresa. Poor Marie Antoinette was packed off to France at the age of fifteen to marry the Dauphin who became the most unfortunate Louis XVI. We all know her story: wealth, power, frivolity, and finally the guillotine at age 37. I am always surprised that no one in Austria seems particularly sympathetic to Marie Antoinette. The captions under her images mostly mention only her name, and then only as “Archduchess of Austria.”
The Habsburgs held on to power by judicious marriages all across Europe, and Marie Antoinette was a pawn in this real-life “Game of Thrones.” Once she was sent to France, she literally became the property of France. In a biography, I read that when she was handed over, she was stripped of all her clothing and dressed in clothing provided by the French State. At the last moment, she had to leave her little dog behind, too. He was the only vestige of her happy childhood in Vienna. She never saw her home or any of her family again, except perhaps for a visit by one of her brothers. Her mother wrote her frequently, scolding her for laziness and urging her to work for Austria’s interests–as if she had any say in government.
In Paris, I’ve visited both Versailles and the damp, chilly cell on the banks of the Seine where Marie Antoinette spent her last months. The Conciergerie is still a terrifying place, even for a tourist today. It is all too easy to imagine the horror of being a prisoner there. In Marie Antoinette’s letters, she often expressed a wish to see her beloved home in Vienna again. From what I’ve read of Marie Antoinette, she deserves a little more sympathy than history has given her.
Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!