Column: Schönbrunn Palace: The house Maria built

The south side of Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace. (Photo by Don Knebel)

The south side of Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace. (Photo by Don Knebel)

Some Americans may remember that Maria Theresa of Austria was the mother of Marie Antoinette, who lost her head during the French Revolution. Most don’t know that Maria Theresa built a luxurious summer residence inspired by the French palace whose excesses contributed to her daughter’s demise.

In the 16th century, the Habsburg family, which ruled much of Central Europe until 1918, acquired a tract of land southwest of Vienna, called Schönbrunn, for royal hunting expeditions. In 1688, Leopold I commissioned a design for a grandiose palace on the site, intended to rival the Palace of Versailles. Financial realities prevented him from realizing his dream. When Leopold’s son, Charles VI, died without sons, his daughter, Maria Theresa, succeeded him. In 1743, she began building a baroque palace at Schönbrunn based on the original designs, eventually adding a floor to accommodate her 16 children, the second youngest of which was Marie Antoinette. When completed, Schönbrunn Palace contained 1441 lavishly appointed rooms, twice as many as Versailles. A Great Gallery evoked Versailles’ famous Hall of Mirrors.

The Schönbrunn Palace has long played host to history. In 1762, Mozart, then six years old, played the harpsichord for Maria Theresa and her family in a mirrored parlor, jumpstarting his career. In both 1805 and 1809, Napoleon lived in the palace after capturing Vienna. After Napoleon was exiled, his son by Maria Theresa’s great granddaughter, whose father Napoleon had defeated, occupied Napoleon’s favorite bedroom. In 1961, President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev met in the Great Gallery to try to reduce tensions following the Bay of Pigs.

Forty of the most important rooms of Schönbrunn Palace are open to the public, providing insight into the life of Maria Theresa, one of the greatest European leaders of her time. A trip to Vienna is not complete without a visit to Schönbrunn.

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