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Looking at the birth of Marie Antoinette

Born as the last of the children of Empress Maria Theresia and the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis Stephen, the future Queen of France Marie Antoinette, was also the imperial couple’s fifteenth child and eleventh daughter. She was born on November 2 1755, the Feast of the Dead in Catholic Austria’s calendar and baptised under the names Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, but known within the family simply as Antoine, celebrating her name day on the Feast of St. Anthony. However, as Marie Antoinette’s biographer Antonia Fraser has pointed out, Marie Antoinette’s birthday was generally celebrated on the evening before, on a less ominous day in the Catholic calendar – November 1, All Saint’s Day, leaving St. Anthony’s Day as her own personal feast day.

Maria had been the established prefix used for female members of the imperial house since the reign of Leopold I, a practice that was continued by Maria Theresia, whose surviving sister had also been christened Maria Anna in her turn. This tradition was preserved by Maria Theresia, whose daughters all bore this first name in honour to the Virgin Mary, to whom the house of Habsburg was devotedly attached – prior to her marriage by proxy to the French Dauphin, the future Marie Antoinette would make devotions in 1769 at Maria Zell, arguably Austria’s most important national place of pilgrimage, with the venerated image of the Virgin, the “Great Mother of Austria”, the Magna Mater Austriae.

Marie Antoinette was born after a labour which lasted all day, at about 8.30 in the evening, after which her father, Emperor Francis Stephen, announced the birth to those of the court who were waiting in the next room. Accounts record that she was a small child. The future Marie Antoinette was born at the Hofburg, the imperial palace in the centre of Vienna that had been the acknowledged seat of government from the 13th century onwards, being the chief residence of the rulers of the Holy Roman Empire until Emperor Franz I/II who then became the first Emperor of Austria, the Hofburg palace then remaining the main residence of Austria’s Emperors until the downfall of the monarchy in 1918. The old baroque wing of the so-called Leopoldnischer Trakt or Leopoldine Wing, housed the apartments of Maria Theresia, who used them when not at Schönbrunn or Laxenburg, the latter imperial holiday residence which Marie Antoinette would particularly come to love.

Unlike the apartments at Schönbrunn however, Maria Theresia’s former rooms in the Leopoldine Wing are not accessible to the public, because they are within the Austrian Chancellery of the Federal President. The Leopoldine Wing still acts as the connecting tract between the Amalienburg – named after the Empress Amalie Wilhelmine, widow of Emperor Leopold I – and the Swiss Court, or Schweizerhof, the Swiss Wing housing the oldest parts of the Hofburg dating back to the 13th century and also containing the Hofburg Chapel, or Burgkapelle. The Leopoldine Wing dates back to the reign of Emperor Leopold I, after whom the Wing was named and by whom it was built in around 1660. It was originally designed by the architect Filiberto Lucchese but later rebuilt by Giovanni Pietro Tencala following the Siege of Vienna by the Turks.

Marie Antoinette was born in the room that corresponds today to the presidential salon, then known as the ‘Rich Room’ but now called the ‘Maria Theresia Room’, fittingly because this was the bedroom of the Empress and a large oil painting of her still hangs here.  A beautiful room in red, white and gold, it also contains a painting of the same room from the year 1919, an 17th century German astronomical clock and a pendant portrait of Marie Antoinette’s father, Emperor Francis Stephen.

Underneath this portrait is Maria Theresia’s escritoire, or writing desk, inlaid with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl.  This is an appropriate piece of furniture, because even directly after the birth of Marie Antoinette, Maria Theresia resumed her paperwork and the business of governing the country, although she had still not officially left her bed. The newborn Archduchess was baptised the following day, November 3, in the so-called “Anticamera”, a ceremony performed by the Archbishop of Vienna.

It is poignant to note that today within the Hofburg, some traces of Marie Antoinette remain, a fitting tribute within the sprawling imperial complex in which she was born. Within the Imperial Apartments in the so-called Boucher Room, may be found a series of tapestries from the Parisian manufactory Gobelin, which were gifts from Marie Antoinette’s spouse, King Louis XVI of France to Marie Antoinette’s brother the Emperor Joseph II, who visited France in 1777 and advised the young couple in matters relating to their childlessness. A happy result of the Emperor Joseph’s visit was that Marie Antoinette shortly after became pregnant and the delighted couple sent these tapestries among other gifts as a token of their gratitude.

In the Large Anteroom of the Hofburg can be found several charming paintings of Maria Theresia’s sixteen children, engaged in dancing and singing; among which is the famous painting by Martin Mytens of Marie Antoinette with her brothers, the Archdukes Ferdinand and Max, performing the ballet Il Triofo d’Amore by Metastasio. Marie Antoinette loved this picture and a version of it later found its way – to her delight – to Versailles. It hangs today in the Petit Trianon, her beloved retreat. A watercolour of Marie Antoinette with her beloved sister Maria Carolina by Antonio Pencini from 1764, is also held at the Hofburg. It is also charming to note that in the Silberkammer at the Hofburg within the Kaiserapartments, can be found two Sevres services, one with green ribbons which was a present from King Louis XV of France to Maria Theresia and another which was a gift from Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to Emperor Joseph II on the occasion of his 1777 visit to France.