Maria Theresa: The Habsburg empress in her time
Princeton University Press, $72.99 hb, 1061 pp
Few Australians today will have heard of the Empress Maria Theresa (1717–80). And yet this queen of Hungary and Bohemia, archduchess of Austria, ruler of Mantua and Milan, who was also grand duchess of Tuscany and Holy Roman Empress by marriage, bestrode the eighteenth-century stage like a dumpy colossus. The mother of some sixteen children, she styled herself as matriarch for a nation, while the marriages she arranged for her children saw her emerge as a Queen Victoria-like figure: the central node in contemporary Europe’s game of thrones. She is, moreover, the sovereign whose likeness has probably been reproduced more than any other, via the celebrated Maria Theresa thaler, a twenty-eight-gram silver coin which became a trade currency around the Mediterranean for two centuries. Her daughter Marie Antoinette may be more famous, but was notably less successful. Unlike that more notorious cake-consuming queen, Maria Theresa died in her own bed, and Austria’s later tribulations only made her reign seem a golden age.