Maria Amalia of Habsburg Lorraina Parma

Maria Amalia of Austria, Duchess of Parma in Prague

Maria Amalia, Archduchess of Austria and Duchess of Parma, (1746-1804) was the daughter of Maria Theresia of Austria – Queen of Bohemia and Holy Roman Empress by marriage – and Emperor Francis Stephen. To ‘locate’ her historically, it is normally easier to refer to her simply as the elder sister of Maria Antonia – the Austrian-born Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. But Maria Amalia, born in Vienna, would, in fact, die in Prague and so is one of three daughters of the awesome Maria Theresia who does not, in fact, share the family vault in the great imperial crypt of the Habsburgs in Vienna, the Kaisergruft. In this, she is like her sisters, Archduchesses Maria Elisabeth and Maria Anna, who rest in Linz and Klagenfurt respectively. How then, did the daughter of Maria Theresia, come to live out her last days in Prague? And who was the woman behind her portrait?

It was customary for royalty sometimes to designate one daughter for the church, perhaps in imitation of the biblical figure Hannah, who gave Samuel, her ‘God-given’ child, back to God. Princess Bridget, daughter of England’s Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth Wydeville, seems to have been selected for the church early in life, a choice simply made for her by her parents. At other times, convents provided hallowed ‘solutions’ to the problem that a princess might present if, for diplomatic reasons, she was no longer marriageable, as a means of knowing what to do with her; a spiritual form of banishment.

There were yet other occasions, however, when the role of ‘Abbess’ was assigned to a royal princess, who was not in fact required to take the veil formally and instead presided over a Protestant model establishment of ‘noble’ ladies, who as ‘nuns’ were in no way – in contrast to their Catholic contemporaries – required to make vows that were in themselves binding, something probably best described as a ‘Damenstift’. Princess Amalie of Prussia became ‘Abbess’ of Quedlinburg and continued to be depicted in full court dress after she was painted; emphasising the fact that this was an honorary position over her establishment of ladies and no formal convent entry – so there was no wimple, shaven head or harshened, simple life. (Karin Feuerstein-Prasser, Friedrich der Grosse und seine Schwestern, Pg 233, 2006). Maria Amalia’s elder sister, Archduchess Maria Elisabeth occupied such a sinecure position as ‘Abbess’ in Innsbruck, in an abbey founded by Maria Theresia following the death of Emperor Francis Stephen in 1765; Archduchess Maria Anna became the first ‘Abbess’ of Prague’s Damenstift in 1766; situated within the Prague Castle complex in the splendid Renaissance Rosenberg Palace, the royal and imperial ‘Damenstift’ or Institute for Noblewomen, it was traditionally presided over by an archduchess from the imperial house of Habsburg-Lothringen.

Maria Amalia of Habsburg Lorraina Parma in Prague
Maria Amalia, Archduchess of Austria and Duchess of Parma (Attributed to Martin van Mytens, [United States public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Maria Amalia appears in the magnificent oil painting of the family of Maria Theresia and Francis Stephen by Martin van Meytens, made in around 1754-55; her portrait attributed to Mytens in the Children’s Room at Schönbrunn Palace shows her in a red velvet court dress with lace sleeves; there is something of Maria Theresia in her face, but she lacks the larger eyes of Marie Antoinette. She was also portrayed as Apollo in a group painting with her other sisters, Maria Elisabeth, Maria Charlotte and Maria Josepha, in work executed by the Johann Franz Greipel in the year of her father’s death. The Swiss-French portrait artist Jean-Etienne Liotard made an entrancing watercolour sketch of Maria Amalia in pink with lace sleeves, engaged in the feminine pursuit of embroidery, a suitably docile image which did not correspond to Maria Amalia’s later character, but there was a bitter reason for all this.

Maria Amalia had been passionately in love with Prince Charles of Zweibrücken, but to fulfil the dynastic webs spun by her mother to secure her ambitions for a second Italian alliance in addition to that with Naples, Maria Amalia was instructed to marry Prince Ferdinand of Parma, five years her junior, whilst her other sister, Maria Charlotte – later known as Maria Carolina – was allotted to Prince Ferdinand, future King of Naples, in place of the beautiful Maria Josepha, who died of smallpox before her Neopolitan wedding. This understandably left Maria Amalia resentful of her mother, and their relationship remained difficult as a result. In cruel contrast to the political marriages she required of her daughters in a painful playing out of her expectation of them being ‘born to obey’, Maria Theresia had herself enjoyed a passionate marriage with Emperor Francis Stephen and would singularly allow her favourite eldest daughter, Marie Christine, to marry the man of her choice, a fact which deeply upset her other daughters, who were denied this personal luxury. Maria Amalia was later described as being no longer on ‘speaking terms’ with Maria Theresia (Antonia Fraser, Maria Antoinette, Pg 120, 2000); Maria Amalia later developed a forceful personality, but then bitterness had also been added to the example of her mother’s own dominant character. Maria Theresia herself seems not to have seen how her own behaviour was a living contradiction to what she expected from her daughters or had enjoyed herself in her own marriage. As Duchess of Parma, Maria Amalia acquired the byname of ‘La Signora,’ a name which implies the fear that probably hid behind the misogyny of this ugly phrase: ‘The Lady.’

Maria Amalia’s husband, Prince Ferdinand of Parma, was the brother of the French-Spanish princess who had married her brother, Archduke Joseph, Princess Isabella. The marriage took place in 1769 per procurationem in Vienna’s Augustinerkirche, the traditional wedding church of the Habsburgs, where Maria Theresia had married Francis Stephen of Lothringen in 1736; a second ‘Italian’ wedding ceremony was performed in the Ducal Palace of Colorno. Louis XV of France, Ferdinand’s grandfather, would take a quasi-voyeur interest in his grandson’s wedding night with Maria Amalia, which again proved the fact that privacy could not be allowed on a matter which was of such public, dynastic interest. (Ibid, Pg 70).

Despite the fact that seven children were born, the marriage predictably was an unhappy one. Maria Amalia’s dominant nature probably helped her forge her own personal emancipation within a marriage that had been forced upon her; a similar parallel might be seen in George III’s sister, Carolina Mathilda, the English-born Queen of Denmark, whose reinvention of herself within a desperately unhappy marriage shocked society but was also the result of a new-found strength, an inner rebellion against the choice for her life which had been made for her.

With the entry of Napolean’s troops into Parma, Ferdinand surrendered his Duchy, as the result of which the newly-created Kingdom of Etruria was bestowed upon their son, Prince Louis of Parma. Much of Eturia comprised of what is now Tuscany; in fact, Maria Amalia’s father, Emperor Francis Stephen had been given the Duchy of Tuscany as a recompense package which enabled him to cede his own Duchy of Lothringen (Lorraine) in 1736 and marry Maria Theresia as part of the exchange bargain, which as Maria Theresia’s father, Kaiser Karl VI had made clear in unforgiving terms: “No renunciation, no archduchess’. (Ibid, Pg 8).

Following the death of Ferdinand in 1802, Maria Amalia was forced to abandon Parma and in a strange full circle of history, returned to Habsburg territory to live out her widowhood, choosing Prague as her place of residence. She died in Prague in 1804 and is buried in the magnificent Cathedral of St. Vitus, on the top of Castle Hill, which also contained Rosenberg Palace in its complex of which her elder sister, Maria Elisabeth had been nominal ‘Abbess.’ Symbolically though, for a daughter of Maria Theresia, her heart returned to Vienna – the city she had left as a twenty-three-year-old Archduchess in 1769 – literally.

Her heart was interred in the ‘Herzgruft’ [Heart-Vault] contained within the Augustinerkirche in Vienna, the church in which she had been wed to Parma by proxy, the entrance to which may be reached through the iron door of the Loreto Chapel; a personal place of devotion for the Habsburgs. Again though, the connection with Maria Theresia remained; Maria Theresia had been crowned Queen of Bohemia in St. Vitus Cathedral in 1743 when Maria Amalia was aged only three.

But Maria Amalia is accorded due dignity in death. She shares her place of burial with other exalted, earlier Bohemian Kings and Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors; fittingly, the tomb of Duke Ferdinand of Parma lies far from Prague, fittingly in Fontevivo, north-west of his former Duchy – an ironical but accurate comment on the distance that had existed between the royal couple in life. She also shares the crypt with four other queens – Blanche of Valois, Anna of Bavaria, Anna of Schweidnitz and Elisabeth of Pomerania – the four wives of Bohemia’s great King, Charles IV.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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