The Duchess is still among us
Parma, the “petite capitol”. A duchy city with a noble past, Parma still shows traces of one of its most illustrious characters: Marie Louise of the House of Hapsburg who with her arrival in 1816, left a permanent mark on the city.
The first child of the Emperor of Austria Francis I, she was born in Vienna on December 12, 1791. At the imperial Austrian court, she received a rigorous education, in which the artistic disciplines were given extreme importance. In 1810, her marriage to Napoleon was celebrated in Vienna and, three days later, the young bride moved to Paris. Here, however, she did not fit in, both due to her shyness and her imperfect French, which put her at risk for social gaffes.
On March 20, 1811, a much awaited son was born, who received the title of King of Rome. In 1813, Napoleon named Marie Louise Regent of the Empire: it was the year of his defeat at Leipzig and the beginning of Napoleon’s decline. All of the territories under the Republic were invaded by the Allies and Napoleon was forced to give up the thrones of France and Italy. Marie Louise, bewildered by these enormous political tumults, refused to join her husband in Fontainebleau and instead sought refuge in Orleans. In the meantime, the European powers met at the Congress of Vienna and gave her the Duchies of Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla.
After having left her son in Vienna, the Duchess took over in her territories on April 20, 1816, taking up residence and her administration in the state of Parma. From that moment, she became the benefactress of her capitol and the protector of its culture and arts.
Her reign can be considered one of the political successes of Austria in Italy during those years: a culturally illuminated woman and sovereign with an open mind, even if she was from the austere court of Hapsburg, she ruled the Duchy commendably, making use of very competent political and administrative collaborations.
And it is in this way that the construction of public works began, such as the Villetta cemetery, the bridges over the Taro and the Trebbia and the Regio Theater. Her determination to make Parma a center of civilization and culture was constant and she patroned many artistic, social and economic initiatives that in the 1700s, under the guide of the minister Guillaume du Tillot, earned the city the nickname “the Athens of Italy.”
One of the first decrees under her government was that of April 16, 1816, before her arrival in Parma, regarding the reconstruction and reopening of the Academy of Fine Arts, which had been closed in 1796 and made into a simple painting school.
Another very important step in enriching the arts in the ducal city was the naming, in November of 1820, of Paolo Toschi as the Director of the Galleries and of the Schools of the Academy of Fine Arts. The Duchess wanted all of the masterpieces taken during Napoleon’s rule to be returned to their original locations. On March 23, 1820, with a decree, a new civil code was drawn up and published, which definitively ended even the last remaining traces of French rule.
After the movements of 1831, Marie Louise’s politics changed: her interventions, even if minor, became more substantial and less just for appearances, as well as being more closely related to the needs of the city. In response to hygienic needs, between 1836 and 1837, in the area of the Ghiaia (a gravel covered square) a complex of Butcheries was build, which brought together all of the meat-selling stores.
Back from a trip to Vienna, Marie Louise died, at the age of fifty six, on December 17, 1847: after her death, not only were her monuments and munificence remembered, but also the tradition in Parma of exalting the humanities can be traced back to her rule.
Even today Parma’s people love the “Violetta”, the flower symbol of the city and a perfume loved by Marie Louise, flowers that even today decorate her tomb; they also love the “Duchess” cake, a delicious dessert that can be found in all of the best pastry shops of Parma.
The relics, a precious testimony of the life, customs and art of the Duchy from 1748 to 1859, can be admired at the Glauco Lombardi Museum, located inside the Palazzo della Riserva, in front of the Regio Theater.
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