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Inside the room where Marie Antoinette was born

The Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria – Maria being an established Habsburg prefix given to all the daughters of Empress Maria Theresia to mark the dynasty’s special 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, a ‘small, but completely healthy Archduchess’, as the Court Chamberlain Khevenhüller recorded in 1755.

She was one of eleven daughters born to the imperial couple. Her name day was a day with even greater personal importance to her than her actual birthday, celebrated on the Feast Day of St Antony on 13 June. She was christened the day after her birth, given the names Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna. Maria Theresia had abolished the invasive practice of a public delivery, something the future Queen of France would encounter in due time, as being very much still de rigeur at Versailles.

What of the room of her birth? 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, although the dynasty had occupied the vast complex since the thirteenth century. Today, these rooms are part of the Austrian Chancellery of the Federal President and are therefore not open to the public, with the exception of Nationalfeiertag, on 26 October each year. 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 these rooms in the Leopoldine Wing primarily during the winter, with the court spending summer 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. Laxenburg was essentially an imperial holiday home, which Marie Antoinette adored and would forever associate with her Austrian youth.

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 formidable Empress, 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 this, her fifteenth child.  It was into this room that Francis Stephen emerged after the birth to announce the news of the birth of his baby daughter.

This child – the future Marie Antoinette – was born in what is today called the ‘Maria Theresia Room’, which was originally the ‘Rich Bedroom’ of Maria Theresia and Francis Stephen. The bed would have presumably 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. This may be glimpsed in the evening standing in the Hofburg courtyard, whenever the windows of the Presidential Chancellery are left open, allowing the Empress to look out from her rooms in the Leopoldine Wing once more.

By Vigée-Lebrun – https://www.khm.at/objektdb/detail/2423/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1021832

Remarkably, the imperial bed has been preserved and is kept at Schönbrunn Palace behind glass, the sole surviving state bed of the Viennese court. The bed is of red velvet with magnificent ‘precious’ gold and silver embroidery was originally commissioned for the bedroom of Maria Theresia’s parents, Emperor Charles VI and Empress Elisabeth Christine at the imperial residence of the Favorita but was transferred to Maria Theresia’s rooms on the piano nobile of the Leopoldine Wing when Maria Theresia and Francis Stephen moved into the Hofburg in 1740. Maria Theresia inherited the bed. As with most state beds, it performed a ceremonial function in the business of court ritual as opposed to being a bed for actual use, hence the term ‘bed of state’. So it is most 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 own first child Madame Royale in 1778. The bed of state remained at the Hofburg until 1947, when the former bedroom in the Leopoldine Wing was converted into the Presidential Suite. It is a spectacular symbol of royal power and the state and is an extraordinary survivor in its own right.

As one might expect for this important room within the suite of the Federal President, the delicate decoration is fittingly appropriate in the Austrian national colours of red and white. 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, a testament to the sentiments of the tireless Empress. As Maria Theresia importantly said: “My subjects are my first children,” and as such, despite having just become a mother for the fifteenth time herself, she saw it as necessary to continue her duties as a mother – to Austria – in another way too. Certainly, her subjects were treated as children first whilst she ruled over her own children, firmly holding the sceptre. We might compare this with the charming Liotard pastels of children hung at the Schönbrunn Palace, contrasting with the formal portraits of her own children.

When we think of Marie Antoinette’s future from the perspective of later historical knowledge, we might feel sympathy as to what lay ahead. She never returned to Vienna when she set out on her momentous journey to Versailles. To do so, of course, during her marriage would have been regarded as a personal failure if her union with Louis Auguste later Louis XVI, had remained unconsummated, which legitimised the possibility of an annulment. The consummation was the physical embodiment of the marriage union and the bond between the royal and imperial houses of France and Austria.

But Marie Antoinette never returned to the land of her birth. What poignantly remains of her at the Hofburg on public view can be found in the Silberkammer. It is a Sevres 1777 porcelain dinner and dessert service ‘with green background’, given to Joseph II as a gift of gratitude for his visit to France, which also included a conversation with Louis XVI regarding the intimate problem of the consummation of the Austro-French marriage.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019

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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.