Tag Archives: Versailles

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!

Three Slugs and a Cabbage: Celebrating Andre Le Notre, Master Gardener


Actually, I should make that “trois escargots et un chou.” That was the tongue-in-cheek coat of arms chosen by the great French landscape architect, Andre le Notre, when a grateful King Louis XIV ennobled him.


Le Notre was born into a family of gardeners; his family lived in a house in the Tuileries, in the very shadow of the Louvre when it was still a royal palace.  He was a humble man; he always called himself “just a gardener.”  He never wrote any treatises on his work; he let his gardens speak for themselves. He developed the French formal garden into a sublime art form and an expression of the most current scientific thought as well.

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Le Notre worked on the formal gardens at Chantilly, Vaux-le-Vicompte, Fontainebleau, and many other chateaux.  His work culminated in the spectacular grounds at Versailles.  A more modest example of his work is at the Chateau de Maintenon, home of the King’s final and “secret” wife.


While wandering in this beautiful manicured garden, I could hardly bear to think of my raggedy yard at home.  Then I came upon a photo of the staff employed to maintain even this small and modest French formal garden, and I felt better!

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

Louis XIV: A Very Thirsty King

Louis XIV by Rigaud, Public Domain

Louis XIV by Rigaud, Public Domain

When Louis XIV, aka the Sun King, decided to build the palace to end all palaces at Versailles, he was as interested in the grounds as in the palace itself.  He envisioned a paradise of gardens, 50 fountains, many interconnected canals and little wooded glens.  All this took a tremendous amount of water–which the landscape of Versailles did not have.  But he was the King, and ALL the water in the land was his by right.  So he set his engineers to work changing the course of every river he could get his hands on.

Versailles, Copyleft Free Art License

Versailles, Copyleft Free Art License

It was impossible to operate all or even very many of the fountains at the same time, even as they were being built. Workers developed a system of tracking the king and warning other workers with whistles, so that whenever the king strolled into view of a particular fountain, water could gush forth.

By 1685, Louis had exhausted all the nearby sources of water.  By this time, he had taken up with Madame de Maintenon–whose Chateau happened to sit directly on the River Eure.  Never one to do things by halves, Louis ordered his engineers to divert the water 50 miles from Maintenon to Versailles.  And he wanted the job done in grand fashion, as the Caesars had done it.  So a viaduct was begun.  During the year 1685, 10,000 troops were pressed into service for the grand building project.  In 1686, 20,000 troops were hard at work.  Unfortunately, Louis had embarked on one of his many wars, and it was hard to justify using 1/10 of his entire military force to water his gardens. He was short of cash, too. The project was abandoned, still 18 miles short of Versailles.


Today the viaduct is a romantic ruin that only adds to the charm of the Chateau de Maintenon.


The River Eure runs undisturbed, and the Chateau’s gardens are well watered.  Louis XIV had to do without, for once in his long life.

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