Marie Antoinette's Makeover
Last spring I read more than a dozen biographies of her and was surprised that very few historians or academics mention the fact that the young Austrian archduchess Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna Hapsburg von Lothringen underwent a comprehensive physical makeover to make her appearance more attractive to the French.
Negotiations to wed Antonia to Louis-Auguste, the dauphin of France and grandson of King Louis XV, began in 1766 when she was only ten years old. The talks dragged on for years, not atypical for a dynastic alliance. By 1768, Antonia's mother, the Empress of Austria Maria Theresa, still had no firm commitment from Louis XV. Something had to be done to hasten the process, as Austria (with Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia eager to chew off pieces of the empire) desperately needed France as a political ally.
In order to prove to Louis what a beauty her youngest daughter had become since their negotiations began, in 1768 Maria Theresa commissioned the French portraitist Joseph Ducreux to immortalize the then-twelve-year-old Antonia in oils. Antonia (who years later would confess "I am terrified of being bored" ) was notoriously too impatient and exuberant; and after five sittings, the result was disastrous. So Ducreux literally went back to the drawing board.
The result was this portrait of the thirteen-year-old archduchess, not completed until 1769. It was then sent to Versailles.
In order to create this image of teenage perfection Antonia's hairline had been altered. The first step was the removal of a woolen band that her governess had used for years to keep her unruly strawberry blonde curls off her forehead. The band had been so tight and had been used for so many years that it had resulted in hair loss, with bald patches near Antonia's hairline. In addition, her high Hapsburg forehead was judged too unattractive for French tastes and a Parisian friseur, or hairdresser, named Monsieur Larsenneur was sent to Vienna to soften the hairline and create a flattering new hairdo that would disguise the problem. The style, named à la dauphine, became all the fashion for the young Viennese. In Ducreux's portrait Antonia's hair has been lightly powdered.
But the new hairstyle was nothing compared to what Antonia's mouth had to undergo. Her teeth were crooked and in the early months of 1768 a French dentist, Pierre Laveran, was summoned to the Hofburg Palace to straighten them. Evidently, he used an 18th century form of braces. However, none of Marie Antoinette's biographers could enlighten me on the details (one did mention a device called "the Pelican" but had misidentified what the "Pelican" actually was, so it's a good thing I didn't take their word for it). [Since someone is bound to ask, the "Pelican" was a set of pliers used to pull teeth. The pincers or forceps end of the pliers was shaped like a pelican's beak, hence the name.]
After letting my fingers do the walking in cyberspace, I not only came across the technique that would have been used at the time, but the name of the dentist who did the work! Finding the name of Pierre Laveran, who came from a family of respected dentists, was the "eureka" moment. It was enhanced by my discovery of the technique that would have been used at the time, a horseshoe shaped device made of precious metal with perforations at regular intervals through which gold wires were threaded. The device, called "Fauchard's Bandeau" was a revolutionary technique developed by Pierre Fauchard, widely considered to be the father of modern dentistry (and orthodontics). Fauchard's 1728 treatise, "The Surgeon Dentist" (or, in French Le Chirugien Dentiste) was the dental Bible of the age.
Pierre Fauchard (1678 [?] - 1761]
Discovering Fauchard and his method of applying braces to someone's crooked teeth was a golden research moment for me. Taking the process one step further to find the name of the dentist who actually applied the bandeaux to Marie Antoinette's teeth, took it platinum.
Have you ever gone searching for information and stumbled upon exactly what you were looking for -- the tiny detail or tidbit of arcana that added additional authenticity to your novel -- even though you might be the only geek who would ever know (or care) that you hadn't made up the information?
What was it?
P.S. The photo below is a postscript to a comment I made on Kathrynn's recent post about Dark Heroes. We were discussing Brian de Bois-Guilbert in Ivanhoe, and I mentioned that I had adapted the novel for the stage and played Rebecca. That's me, of course, in the dark wig. Ivanhoe was played by the incomparable Ian Rose, who was my co-writer on the script and who also staged the fights.
Labels: marie antoinette