As the seat of power from which the Habsburg emperors ruled over their vast empire – the furthest of which points extended from the modern Czech Republic to Croatia, from Italy to the borders of today’s Russian Federation – the Hofburg Palace has come to symbolise Austrian – and of course, Viennese – history itself. Walking around its vast complex, of which only certain areas are open to the public, is to feel that you are passing between random chapters of this history, beginning with the first mentions of the Hofburg in the 13th century with the so-called Swiss Wing, through to the construction of the Neue Burg (New Castle) in the early 20th-century, where today’s Hofburg Congress Centre is also located. Quite literally, the Hofburg is a book which is (partially) open to you, to browse.
The complex invariably bears the marks of the individual Habsburg rulers themselves, who added their extensions according to their own personal tastes and requirements; these areas becoming thus intrinsically linked with them, as well as historically significant because of the events that took place within them – during their own reigns and subsequently.
The Hofburg’s styles range from the unmistakably Gothic with the building of the Burgkapelle (Hofburg Chapel) to the baroque Josefsplatz, with its equestrian statue of Emperor Joseph II. Located on the Josefsplatz is the Court Library (within today’s Austrian National Library) with its magnificent Prunksaal containing some 200,000 books, including the 15,000 strong rare book collection of the great general and military commander Prince Eugene of Savoy – an acknowledged hero in Viennese terms, for his services to the Habsburg empire in the field, which broke the yoke of the Ottoman domination that had held much of Europe in its grip.
Next to the library is the Augustine Wing, which contains the Court Church of the Hofburg, the Augustinerkirche (Church of the St Augustin Friars) which formed the setting for important weddings within the Habsburg family, including that of the Emperor Franz Josef I to Princess Elisabeth in Bavaria and several by proxy, including that of the future Marie Antoinette to the Dauphin Louis-Auguste in 1770. Marie Antoinette’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa had herself married Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine here, too, in 1736. As part of the Neue Burg was the Kaiserforum – a project planned by the architect Gottfried Semper which was only partially realised, with the building of the Kunsthistorisches and the Naturhistorisches Museum in the 1890s and the south-west wing of the Burg overlooking the Burggarten, which was completed in 1913.
The Archduchess Maria Antonia – Maria being an established Habsburg prefix given to all the daughters of Empress Maria Theresia, to mark the dynasty’s special allegiance to and veneration for, The Virgin Mary – was born as the 15th child of Maria Theresia on 2 November 1755 at around 8.30 in the evening. She was one of 11 daughters to the imperial couple. She celebrated her name day – a day with probably even greater personal importance to her than her actual birthday – on the Feast Day of St Antony on 13 June. She was christened the day after her birth promptly, being baptised under the names Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna. Maria Theresia had abolished the practice of a public delivery, which was something however – as Marie Antoinette’s biographer Antonia Fraser has correctly pointed out – that the future Queen of France would encounter in her time, as being very much still de rigeur at Versailles.
Maria Theresia’s rooms at the Hofburg Palace were located in the so-called Leopoldnischer Trakt (Leopoldine Wing) which was built in the 1660s during the reign of Emperor Leopold I, after whom the wing takes its name. Today, these are part of the Austrian Chancellery of the Federal President and are therefore not open to the public. The Leopoldine Wing connects the much older Swiss Wing – with its famous Swiss Gate – to the Amalienburg and directly faces the Imperial Chancellery. Originally constructed under the Swiss-Italian architect Filberto Lucchese, it was later enlarged by Giovanni Pietro Tencala.Maria Theresia used the rooms in the Leopoldine Wing primarily during the winter. Summers were being spent increasingly at the imperial residences of Schönbrunn and Laxenburg, the former of which she had enlarged considerably under the direction of the Austro-Italian court architect Nicolo Pacassi. (The old Favorita – today’s Theresianum – the aptly-named favourite residence of her father Emperor Charles VI, ceased to be used by the imperial family following the Emperor’s death.) Although the childhood of the future Marie Antoinette was spent in Vienna between the Hofburg Palace and the imperial summer palace at Schönbrunn, it was the lovely baroque residence at Laxenburg some 12 miles outside Vienna near Mödling, that she grew particularly to love – also known as the ‘Blauer Hof’ (Blue Court). Today the former castle houses the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and is not accessible to the public.
The Leopoldine Wing is entered by means of the Adlerstiege (Eagle’s Staircase) up to the first rooms of Maria Theresia’s suite, the Bellariazimmer. These contain portraits of the imperial family, including Emperor Leopold I, the Emperor of the eponymous Wing – and paintings of Emperor Leopold I’s first wife, Margarita Teresa of Spain and of the future Emperor Charles VI, Marie Antoinette’s maternal grandfather and son of Leopold I by his third wife, Eleonore Magdalene of Neuburg. The second Bellariazimmer bears the strong imprint of Maria Theresia’s family and personality – again there are portraits of the Empress herself, her co-regent and eventual successor Joseph II, her husband, Francis Stephen – Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. Stephen since 1745 – and a further portrait of her mother, Empress Elisabeth Christine – together with two pastels by the Swiss-French painter Jean-Etienne Liotard, whose work she enthusiastically patronised. The Rosenzimmer (Rose Room) is so named after the supraporten – the oval oil paintings above the doors – which contain images of flowers. The Pietra Dura Room leads into the magnificent Spiegelsaal, or Mirror Room – which was where the courtiers gathered to await the news of the outcome of Maria Theresia’s labour with her fifteenth child. It was into this room that Francis Stephen emerged after the birth to announce the news of the birth of his (11th) baby daughter.
This child – the future Marie Antoinette – was born in what is today called the ‘Maria Theresia Room’, which was originally the ‘Rich Room’ – the bedroom of Maria Theresia and Francis Stephen. It was decorated with dark red velvet and embroidered in gold. The bed would have stood at the centre wall, where today a sofa stands flanked by flags, above which hangs an enormous portrait of Maria Theresia by the Swedish-Dutch court artist Martin van Meytens. Remarkably, the imperial bed has been preserved and is kept at Schönbrunn Palace – behind glass. The red velvet bed was originally made for the bedroom of Maria Theresia’s parents, Emperor Charles VI and Empress Elisabeth Christine at the Favorita – but was moved to Maria Theresia’s rooms in the Leopoldine Wing when Maria Theresia and Francis Stephen moved into the Hofburg in 1740. As with most state beds, it performed rather more of a ceremonial function in the business of court ritual as opposed to being a bed for actual use – so, it is unlikely that the future Marie Antoinette was born upon this bed and that a separate delivery bed would have been employed instead, as was the case for example with Marie Antoinette’s first child Madame Royale in 1778. The bed remained at the Hofburg until 1947, when the former bedroom in the Leopoldine Wing was converted into the Presidential Suite.As one might expect for this important room within the suite of the Federal President, the decoration is fittingly appropriate in the Austrian national colours of red and white. Also kept in this room is Empress Maria Theresia’s writing desk. This object is appropriate to the future Marie Antoinette’s birth in more ways than one – Maria Theresia worked before she left her bed – but also, is a testament to the sentiments of the tireless Empress. As Maria Theresia famously said: “My subjects are my first children,” and as such, despite having just become a mother for the 15th time herself, she saw it as necessary to continue her duties as a mother – to Austria – in another way too.