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Fit for an Empress: 2017 Exhibition for Maria Theresia

In March 2017, a major exhibition will be launched in Vienna to mark the 300th birthday of one of the most important figures in Austrian history, Empress Maria Theresia. Commemorated in the form of a huge statue on the Maria-Theresien-Platz in Vienna near where the so-called Ring borders the Museum district, the Empress is depicted unmistakably as both a woman and a ruler in equal measure, both themes of which are central to next year’s exhibition.

Ruling over the Hapsburg monarchy from 1740-1780, she married the hereditary Prince Franz of Lorraine (Lothringen) and Bar, who would eventually become the future Holy Roman Emperor Franz I. Stephan on the death of the Wittelsbach Kaiser Karl VII in 1745. In order to marry the Archduchess Maria Theresia, Franz Stephan had to renounce his beloved dukedom of Lorraine to appease the balance of European politics, receiving in return the Grand Duchy of Tuscany by way of compensation. As Maria Theresia’s father Kaiser Karl VI said, leaving no possible room for doubt on the matter: “No relinquishment, no archduchess”. It was a love match despite what would become a pattern of infidelities on the part of Franz Stephan, which resulted in sixteen children – many of whom would come to occupy thrones in their own right – thus becoming the political pawns on the chessboard of European marriage politics. Among these children were the future Maria Carolina Queen of Naples, Marie Antoinette Queen of France, future Austrian Emperors Joseph II and Leopold II. As a mother, Maria Theresia was extremely strict, taking the keenness of interest in both the education of her children and in time, in their marriages –  the correspondence between her and the future Marie Antoinette being a case in point, bearing witness not only to her political wisdom and good sense but also to the excessive control that she exerted upon her children, even from afar. Like an Empress, she ruled her children – although the source of her power and dominance arguably came not only from the strength of her personality itself, but because her hereditary territory itself had been severely threatened, shortly after she came to the throne. This was the invasion of Silesia by Frederick the Great, sparking the outbreak of the First Silesian War, resulting in her eventual relinquishment of Silesia at the close of the Seven Years War.

Maria Theresia was born in Vienna as the eldest surviving child of Kaiser Karl VI and his wife, Elisabeth of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, receiving the names Maria Theresia Walburga Amalia Christina, on 13 May 1717. Four years previously, her father Kaiser Karl VI had lifted Salic law in Austria, which would only allow male heirs to succeed him, confirming the right of Maria Theresia to be recognised as his hereditary heir, by the passing of the so-called “Pragmatic Sanction” in 1713. After the death of her father Maria Theresia was vulnerable, not only in terms of her grief but also in her inexperience and despite the desperate attempts of Kaiser Karl VI to get her recognised as his heir, many of the European powers failed to acknowledge her or accept the Sanction, seeing instead a way of staking their own claim on the Austrian crown lands; in due time this resulted in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

The exhibition will echo that hosted this year in Vienna to commemorate the centenary of the death of Emperor Franz Joseph (1830-1916) which took places across four sites, Schloss Schönbrunn, the Hofmobiliendepot (Imperial Furniture Collection), Schloss Hof and Schloss Niederweiden in Lower Austria. That the imperial palace of Schönbrunn will form a key location for the exhibition is a particularly apt choice, because it was Empress Maria Theresia who transformed the imperial hunting lodge of Schönbrunn, renovating it with the assistance of the Austro-Italian baroque architect Nikolaus von Pacassi, and giving it more or less the appearance that we recognise today. It is also the palace with which she is probably most closely associated. Appropriately, the exhibition is being organised by the Kaiserliche Wagenburg Wien/KHM-Museumsverband in cooperation with the Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges. m. b. H.

The first part of the exhibition, hosted in the Imperial Carriage Museum at Schloss Schönbrunn, entitled “Female Power and Zest for Life”, sets Maria Theresia as a woman in the context of her time, presenting her identity as feminine, within the hitherto traditional “masculine” role that she occupied – Empress of Austria being one of her titles, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia naming but two others. Her femininity, always celebrated and never denied, presents a contrast to say a Catherine II “the Great” of Russia, for example. She is represented as a woman first and foremost here –  through costume, riding equipment, coaches and carriages, for in her own words, “Spectacles must be”. These objects will be accompanied by unique lighting through the use of visual effects, to highlight the objects themselves.

The second half, at Schloss Hof, focuses on “Alliances and Enmities”, exploring the central themes of the Seven Years’ War, the wars of her reign, the Pragmatic Sanction and the question of a female succession. The third, at the Imperial Furniture Collection, will explore her family politics as Monarch and Mother, touching on her marriage politics and power politics through use of imagery, by which she sought to prove her legitimacy and right to reign. The final part of the exhibition at Schloss Niederweiden – extended by Nicolaus von Pacassi – will look closely at the reforms introduced during her marked modernization of the state, beginning with the period prior to her reign before these were introduced, so as to better understand their true impact.

The exhibition, Maria Theresia – Strategist – Mother – Reformer, will open on 15 March and run until 29 November 2017. The Empress is first and foremost being presented as a European political figure in her life and work, as well as one of the most outstanding personalities of her age, with the use of original objects in locations specifically connected with Maria Theresia herself. Maria Theresia’s private apartments in the Vienna Hofburg are not open to the public and today form the Presidential Chancellery of the Austrian President.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.