Who was Margarita Teresa?

Sep 17, 2019 | blog, The Empress | 0 comments

Born into the Spanish line of the Habsburgs, Margarita Teresa’s (1651-1673) birth was the product of one in a long line of avunculate—that is, interfamilial—marriages within the distinguished royal family. Her father, King Philip IV of Spain, married her mother, who was also his own niece, in order to produce a male Hapsburg heir and therefore maintain the Spanish throne. While male children were prized as heirs, female children were politically vital too; promised marriages were strategic elements of peace and trade treaties across Europe. While her older half-sister was betrothed to the French Dauphin, Princess Margarita Teresa was pledged to her uncle, the future Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Leopold I.

In order to hold the future Emperor’s interest, King Philip IV commissioned regular portraits of Margarita Teresa by Diego Velásquez and other skilled painters at his court. Once completed, the portraits were sent to Austria to be examined by little Leopold. Many—perhaps all—of these portraits survived. Viewing them in sequence, you can see the Infanta grow from a cherubic five-year-old to a precocious eight year-old who has already perfected her regal gaze.

The stylized portraits of the young Infanta by Velásquez and others now hang in museums across Europe. You’ll find a few in the Louvre and a couple more in the Prado. But the largest number are displayed in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, where galleries upon galleries are filled with Habsburg portraits. Walking among them, you’ll notice the eerie resemblance. Generations of intermarrying bred a distinctly Habsburgian look: unusually long faces, distinctive noses, large eyes, and prominent jaws unite them all.

Margarita Teresa’s childhood years were spent at the Spanish Court, where the etiquette and education of nobles and royals was modeled on the extremely prescribed ways of the French court. Little Margarita grew up amongst legions of courtiers, ladies-in-waiting, and her extended royal family at the Royal Alcázar of Madrid. The seat of Spanish royal power, the Alcázar was a 9th-century fortress that underwent continuous expansion and beautification projects at the urging of generations of Habsburgs. By the time Margarita was born, the medieval Alcázar had grown into a vast, baroque labyrinth of hallways that wound around two public courtyards.

Inside the decadent Spanish Court, music wafted not just from the royal chapel but from every corner of the Alcázar. Professional musicians played chamber music at social gatherings, with King Philip IV himself often joining in. A passionate and highly skilled musician as well as a statesman, the King valued both the personal benefits of musical study and the political expediency of a highly refined court. He was also keenly aware of the propagandic value of musical patronage.

The apple of her elderly father’s eye, young Margarita would have witnessed firsthand King Philip IV’s love of art, music, and theater. At his instruction, her education included extensive musical training.
Imagine, for a moment, you are the young Infanta. Born into immense wealth but with a future so prescribed, even your wedding plans are already set in ink. From the age of 5, your little body is coaxed into restrictive corsets and elaborate silks to sit for portraits for your future husband to inspect. Trained in the art of etiquette, your every movement is scrutinized by the nobility who swarm through your halls.

Perhaps what drew young Margarita to music and theater isn’t so different from what drives us today, eager spectators and performers alike. After all, music can be a powerful salve, a welcome distraction. Learning an instrument or listening to masterful playing can be a liberating experience. Elation, entertainment, escape–maybe those are some of the reasons young Margarita immersed herself in music, ultimately becoming both patron and muse for some of the 17th-century’s most important composers.  While her life was short, Empress Margarita Teresa’s impact on the history of Europe, portraiture, theater, and most of all music was immeasurably vast. In next week’s blog, we’ll dive into the fantastical wedding celebration of Margarita Teresa and Emperor Leopold I!

And don’t forget, tickets for The Empress: Margarita Teresa (October 18-20th) as well as season passes for our full 2019-2020 Year of the Woman are available NOW in our online store!

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