Tag Archives: Maria Theresa

Maria Christina: The Sister Who Got Everything

MariaChristinaWreck

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.

FullSizeRender

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!

Maria Theresa, the Original “Lean In” Woman

Theresia11-12The Habsburg dynasty was about to die out in the year 1740, when Emperor Charles VI died without a male heir.  He had seen this coming; he had worked during his entire reign to promote the Pragmatic Sanction, an agreement whereby members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire recognized his daughter, Maria Theresa, as his rightful heir even though she was a woman. He was not cold in his grave when many of the entities that had agreed changed their minds.

The young queen had to fight battles, both military and political, to hold on to power.  She married the man she loved, Francis of Lorraine. The Habsburg dynasty, instead of dying out entirely, became the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty. Francis was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, though, and Maria Theresa soon realized that she had to be the actual day-to-day ruler of her vast empire. She did it for 40 years.

MariaTFamily

In her spare time, she gave birth to 16 children.  She arranged politically advantageous marriages for them all over Europe, mostly strengthening Habsburg power with each marriage.  Poor Marie Antoinette got the short end of the stick, but the other children made out pretty well.

Giants

In the Hofburg at Innsbruck, Maria Theresa’s PR skills are on glorious display.  She redecorated a very grand reception room, called the Giants’ Hall. When she began her reign, the room came with paintings of Hercules and other characters from myth and legend.  Maria Theresa did away with all that; instead she filled the room with oversized portraits of herself, her husband and above all her many children.  Visitors to the palace had to pass through this room, basically plastered with Habsburg dynasty billboards, to reach the other rooms of the palace. Children who had died in infancy were pictured in the clouds.

MariaThereseHall

I don’t know why someone has not made a movie of Maria Theresa’s colorful life.  She is every bit as interesting as, say, her unfortunate daughter Marie Antoinette. Actually, there are not many biographies of Maria Theresa, and I don’t know of any historical novels about her.  I have a feeling, though, that Maria Theresa could have written a very modern book like Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In:  Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”

LeanIn

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