Empress Maria Ludovica
by Julia Meister
Empress Maria Ludovica – The Poet’s Immovable Muse
Emperor Franz II/I had, as is still partly known, more wives than numbers in his name. Exactly four wives stood by him – sometimes more, sometimes less long – during his life. The third wife of the Biedermeier emperor to be outlined here was Maria Ludovica Beatrix of Austria-Este. In a life spanning just 28 years, she experienced profound political upheavals, which she responded to with a clear political line. The educated, perceptive empress quickly won numerous admirers in poetry circles, including literary heavyweights such as Goethe. Napoleon, on the other hand, quickly became her designated arch-enemy.
But one thing after the other! After all, Maria Ludovica’s palpable esprit should not manifest itself here immediately in the first lines to the extent that events run away with us! It is due to her memory to recount it calmly in the following – in honour of an empress who has once again disappeared completely unjustly from (most) history books.
Born in 1787 and raised in Milan and at the pleasure palace of Monza, the young Maria Ludovica became acquainted with the uncertain political scene of Europe at the age of eight: in 1796, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, the family had to flee from Lombardy to Austria. Her parents, Ferdinand Karl, second youngest son of Maria Theresa, and Maria Beatrix d’Este, heiress to the Duchy of Modena, had no less than nine children in tow who had to be cared for. Via Trieste and Brno, they finally went to Wiener Neustadt in 1797, where Maria Ludovica enjoyed an education that included not only well-meaning motherly advice on posture and the importance of God, but also learning the German language.
Maria Ludovika Beatrix von Österreich-Este (Habsburg-Lothringen), Kaiserin von Österreich (Auftraggeberin), Johann Nepomuk Wirt (Medailleur), Gnadenmedaille, 1808 (Herstellung), Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. 4655, CC BY 4.0, Foto: Wien Museum (https://sammlung.wienmuseum.at/objekt/91694/)
Although girls in the 18th century usually learned little more than a bit of conversation, musicality and just languages, it is here – for little is known about the exact content of the lessons – that Maria Ludovica’s clear perceptive faculty and clear political line may have already been formed, which we will come back to later. Incidentally, Maria Ludovica never had a perfect command of the German language, which nevertheless gave her correspondence a certain non-conformist air.
As a result of her visits to Laxenburg Palace, Maria Ludovica became friends with Marie Louise, the Emperor’s four-year-younger daughter from his second marriage to Maria Theresa, Princess of the Two Sicilies. Franz, who was known for his sobriety and acted rather woodenly socially, thus saw his bride grow up, so to speak. The contrasting personalities of the brides-to-be – Maria Ludovica, in contrast to Franz, is described as “enthusiastic-sentimental[ ] and forward-looking genius[ ]” – made for attraction, as they so often did. He was “enthralled by the beauty and grace of his young bride”, as Martin Mutschlechner writes. In historiography, Emperor Franz is portrayed either as cool and calculating, or as lovably quirky and Viennese-angry. As always, there is plenty of room for interpretation. And: many a character is difficult to capture in writing; far too often, merely recording individual characteristics does not do justice to a personality.
In any case, Maria Ludovica seemed to have taken a liking to her cousin, who was almost 20 years older: When Marie Louise presented her with a letter from her imperial father on her 20th birthday, Marie Ludovica was deeply moved and even blushed with joy several times while reading it.
So it was hardly surprising that a few weeks later, on 6 January 1808, the marriage between the attractive, witty princess and the Emperor, who was walking down the aisle for the third time, took place. The couple were married by the Emperor’s brother, Archduke Karl Ambros, who, at just 23 years of age, was already the administrator of the diocese of Waitzen (Vác).
Even at the time of the marriage, the literary world did not miss the opportunity to pay homage to the young empress: In addition to August Wilhelm Schlegel, who wrote about the ceremony for the magazine Prometheus, which was read by Goethe, Madame de Staël, who was anti-Napoleonic, dedicated an entire chapter of her book De L’Allemagne to the spectacle.
Johann Hieronymus Löschenkohl (publishing house), Franz II. (1768-1835, 1792-1806 römisch-deutscher Kaiser Franz II., ab 1804 österreichischer Kaiser Franz I.), 1792 minimum, Sammlung Wien Museum, CC0 (https://sammlung.wienmuseum.at/en/object/517290/)
German and Italian poems about Maria Ludovica were added, as were numerous praising envoys’ reports. Apparently the upper classes took a liking to the new empress from the very beginning, and she also occupied a special place in the emperor’s heart: Friedrich Weissensteiner describes the union between Franz and Maria Ludovica as the regent’s only love match.
When the newlyweds moved into Bratislava in September 1808 and Maria Ludovica was given the Hungarian queen’s crown, the proud Hungarians reacted with unusual rapture; the scenes were reminiscent of Maria Theresa’s charm offensive of 1741, which won over even the most sceptical magnate. The whole thing cost quite a bit – the banquet held for the occasion was laid out for some six hundred guests! Of course, the Viennese court pursued a certain goal with such ceremonial bombast, which was easily achieved here by Maria Ludovica: She managed to “inspire the Hungarians and motivate them to help financially and militarily”. The number of recruits was increased by 20,000, and also financially the estates now let some more money flow – a year before this would have been unthinkable! Not for nothing was the Empress praised in Hungary and elsewhere for her alert mind and knowledge of human nature; her own husband even accused her of having too much spirit. In any case, this marriage paid off for the Monarchy!
Even at this point, keen observers of the young empress noticed that she suffered a fainting spell during the Hungarian festivities. Here the tuberculosis that dominated Maria Ludovica’s life from 1810 at the latest was already on the horizon. The marriage of the two was certainly marred by the fact that doctors advised Maria Ludovica to refrain from pregnancy due to her fragile condition.
Francois Seraphin Delpech (lithographer), Charles-Louis Bazin (Artist), “MARIE LOUISE.”, before 1825, Sammlung Wien Museum, CC0 (https://sammlung.wienmuseum.at/en/object/453778/)
Nevertheless – or precisely because of this – she became a loving foster mother to the emperor’s stepchildren. For the future Emperor Ferdinand I, who always lagged behind his peers mentally and physically, Maria Ludovica organised suitable teachers without further ado, who eventually brought him up to a solid level of knowledge and also encouraged his talents in drawing and gardening. Maria Ludovica was equally fond of the Emperor’s favourite daughter Marie Louise, and so it naturally infuriated her immensely that she was not to be married to Maria Ludovica’s brother Franz of Modena-Este, as had been planned, but to her number one enemy: Napoleon! It was, as Dr Lorenz Mikoletzky writes, “a fact that Maria Ludovica could never get over”.
Her dislike is hardly surprising, given her unpleasant early contacts with the Corsican, who stopped at nothing. With her contempt, she also inflamed the Austrian people against Napoleon; in the year of the war in 1809, she even wrote to Archduke Johann that she wanted to be a man in order to serve the state and to campaign against the Corsican herself. She was also in contact with another famous opponent of Napoleon: Queen Luise of Prussia! Would the two of them have been more successful against the enemy than their husbands had they been allowed to exert more political influence?
Plagued by nausea and with psychosomatic complaints that were now getting worse and worse, she looked forward to the wedding that was to take place on 11 March 1810 per procurationem – whereby she naturally outwardly maintained all etiquette. Count Metternich, the mastermind of this union, made Maria Ludovica feel her newfound aversion towards him. The stepmother found it difficult to cope with Marie Louise’s departure, and from this point onwards a lively correspondence developed between the two women.
First of all, after the mental strain, Maria Ludovica, together with another stepdaughter, Leopoldine, went to the spa in Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary) in the Czech Republic. Everything of distinction met there – crowned heads as well as artists. The day after her arrival in June 1810, a fateful meeting took place, the literary fruits of which still give us an insight into the nature and soul of Maria Ludovica: the Empress met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was 61 years old at the time. The intelligent young woman impressed the poet so much that he wrote several poems about her. She honoured his praises with, among other things, a golden box bearing an engraving of her name amidst a wreath of brilliant-cut diamonds. He brought German literature closer to her, who until then had mainly preferred Italian and French authors. He wrote to Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar that Maria Ludovica was an extremely interesting conversationalist, very particular in her opinions but always coherent and eloquent, whose friendly cheerfulness evidently won his heart for her. He even goes further when he writes to Karl Friedrich Reinhard that making the acquaintance of such a wonderful empress at his age would be like the sensation of dying at sunrise. Maria Ludovica seems to have made an immense impression on Goethe, who had certainly already met all kinds of special personalities in his life!
What the empress thought of Goethe in return, we do not know. He was too insignificant for his contemporaries, who generally preferred scribblers like August von Kotzebue. Together with Goethe, Maria Ludovica staged small plays with other spa-going nobles in Karlsbad as well as most likely two years later in Teplitz (Teplice). This was fashionable in aristocratic circles at the time, people liked to show themselves on stage, to present themselves. The acting empress must have been a memorable phenomenon!
In May 1812, at the Dresden Congress of Princes, Maria Ludovica even met her great enemy. The Empress was visibly uncomfortable, especially as Napoleon peppered her with questions and it seemed as if he wanted to question her in a slyly charming way. She answered matter-of-factly and tried to diplomatically hide her dislike for him. As was to be expected, the congress did her no good at all in terms of health, and so she was glad to be able to leave for Prague at the end of May for a family reunion, the organisation of which she took over. Marie Louise and Napoleon also took part.
Maria Ludovica was an empathetic person who reacted very emotionally to the adversities of life and sometimes with bouts of psychosomatic illness. These very human reactions make her so sympathetic to posterity, as we can absolutely understand her compassion.
On the occasion of the Dresden meeting, for example, when Napoleon almost persuaded her husband Franz to accompany him on his Russian campaign: Maria Ludovica reacted with heavy tears, and, as she wrote to her mother, felt more dead than alive.
The next major event that demanded a great deal of her strength was the Congress of Vienna, which took place between September 1814 and June 1815, in the course of which the political order of Europe was to be restored. Coughing and severely emaciated due to her miserable state of health, Maria Ludovica nevertheless still appeared at balls, gala receptions and theatre performances. She even did not miss a wild boar hunt in the Lainzer Tiergarten! This proves the strength of will of this woman who knew that skilful networking was the be-all and end-all in politics and her presence was therefore essential. Did she privately try to steer the emperor a little politically? We do not know for sure, but it was not Maria Ludovica’s way to conceal her political opinions.
The news of Napoleon’s lost battle of Waterloo in June 1815 delighted the Empress so much that, despite illness, she hurried to Baden to tell Marie Louise about it. She remained steadfast in her convictions to the end.
In the autumn of 1815, as Maria Ludovica’s strength dwindled more and more, she set off on a tour of Italy with Emperor Franz, during which time her cough also worsened and she finally even found it difficult to speak. In Milan, she once again visited the Palazzo Reale, the castle of her childhood, and met her beloved mother Maria Beatrix. She was particularly pleased about one thing: her eldest brother was appointed Duke of Modena and could thus finally take over her grandfather’s inheritance.
In the last days of March 1816, the end seemed near: Maria Ludovica had already received the last rites in Verona, then surprisingly recovered enough for her husband to dare to leave for a visit to the troops. Fortunately, Marie Louise was also in Verona, so that she was able to stand by her stepmother when her health deteriorated rapidly once again. According to Marie Louise, the last days of Maria Ludovica, who had once been so full of life, were marked by extreme melancholy; she constantly consulted the doctors as to whether she would fully recover.
It was all to no avail: on 7 April 1816, at the age of just 28, the Empress died after the Emperor had returned to her bedside in concern. The Emperor lost probably the only woman he had ever loved. And Maria Ludovica’s soul mate Goethe also wrote about Maria Ludovica’s death that it had left him in a state whose afterfeelings were never to leave him.
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