Tag Archives: Louis XVI

Maria Christina: The Sister Who Got Everything


A few months ago in the Albertina Palace and Museum in Vienna, I came upon a small painting that showed the wreck of a carriage–an unusual subject for such grand surroundings. The caption explained that the wreck was an event in the life of the palace’s one-time occupants, Archduchess Maria Christina and her husband Albert of Saxony.  The couple became Duke and Duchess of Teschen and joint governors of the Austrian Netherlands on their marriage. They received an enormous dowry, too, from the bride’s famously parsimonious mother, Empress Maria Theresa.

Maria Christina

Maria Christina

Who were these fortunate people, and why was their carriage wreck such a big deal? Having a painting of a private misfortune, which the victims survived nicely, was the 18th century equivalent of a Facebook post about a fender-bender. And the 18th century was a time when almost no one had access to anything remotely like Facebook. The answer lies in family favoritism.

Empress Maria Theresa, who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire for 40 eventful years, produced 16 children.  It seems that she only liked one of them: Maria Christina, who happened to be born on Maria Theresa’s own birthday.  Every other sibling was used as a pawn in the empire’s political ambitions.  They were all packed off to strategic foreign marriages, preferably with either royal cousins or other monarchs who might be able to help the far-flung empire. The unluckiest sibling was Marie Antoinette, shipped off to France as a teenager to marry the doomed Louis XVI and lose her head.

Prince Albert

Prince Albert

But Maria Christina was allowed to marry the man she loved, Albert, a minor princeling with no wealth and no throne. Her doting mother kept Maria Christina close, in Vienna, and built her a magnificent palace right next door to the Hofburg, seat of Austrian royalty.


Maria Christina’s portrait in the Albertina Museum shows her posing (smugly, if you ask me) with her lapdog. In contrast, Marie Antoinette, on arrival all alone at the border of France, was forced to strip down and leave behind every article of Austrian clothing because she became the property of the French state. No one told her, until the last moment, that she also had to leave behind her beloved little dog.

Years later, Maria Christina paid her kid sister a visit in France. I completely understand Marie Antoinette’s reaction. I’ve read that Marie Antoinette retreated to her private mini-palace at Versailles, the Petit Trianon, and pointedly did not invite her big sister along.

Sibling rivalry? There we have it, on a grand scale.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Marie Antoinette: A Tragic Habsburg


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!