The Commonplace Book of Marie Louise of Austria, Duchess of Parma

Image of an open manuscript book with a red cover

Contributors: Diego Saglia and Francesca Sandrini

Location: Salone delle Feste, tavolo 3; Museo Glauco Lombardi, Parma.

Description: This object, a commonplace book, speaks to a number of questions: What did a European female ruler from the Romantic period read? And how did she respond to the works? And was this reading also a creative, ‘writerly’ act?

Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise of Austria, Duchess of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla from the Congress of Vienna (1814/15) to her death in 1847, was a keen reader who kept several diaries, akin both to English commonplace books and the French practice of extraits et mélanges. There she transcribed longer and shorter extracts from the books she read, as well as her own observations and reflections. This commonplace book in our exhibition is the most significant and representative of them. This kind of artefact was in fact a relatively common phenomenon among women (and men) of the middle and upper classes all around Europe; yet, this specific example offers insights into a woman whose life blended public and private aspects, officialdom and intimacy, in peculiar and significant ways. Mixing reading and writing, reception and creation, Marie Louise’s commonplace book may be argued to be ultimately a vehicle for authoring both one’s own book and, in turn, one’s own Romantic self.

Exhibited at Parma’s Museo Glauco Lombardi, the book is a refined object, elegantly bound in red Morocco leather, bearing golden embossed stamps decorated with palmette motifs. In the centre of the cover is the monogram ‘ML’ with intertwined cursive figures and surmounted by a closed crown. The second page features a header reading ‘Extraits & Mélanges’ in Indian ink. The book consists of 136 sheets collecting extracts from literary works transcribed by Marie Louise and interspersed with her own thoughts and reflections, in French, German, English, and Italian (the pages have numbers in pencil by Glauco Lombardi).

Although there are no dates anywhere in the book, internal evidence suggests that its composition may date from the 1820s as it contains references to Lady Morgan’s Italy (1821) and Stendhal’s Rome, Naples, Florence (1826), together with quotations from much earlier works. Furthermore, a few references to the Duchess’s morganatic husband and advisor Adam Albert Count von Neipperg suggest that composition could have extended into the later 1820s, possibly until Neipperg’s death in 1829.

The book is part of Marie Louise’s rich autograph manuscript material preserved in the Museum, an institution dedicated to the Duchess and Napoleon I, as well as to the city’s nineteenth-century history, and based on the collection assembled by Lombardi (1881-1970). It is also an instance of the rich production of writings characterizing the Hapsburg family (letters, notes, literary extracts, travel diaries, etc.), a passion that sometimes bordered on graphomania and was paralleled by voracious reading habits. Interestingly, this is not an album amicorum containing dedications and autographs of friends and relatives, as well as public figures, another very popular form at the time, especially cultivated in Napoleon’s family circle (Charlotte Bonaparte was particularly fond of it). Marie Louise’s commonplace book only contains transcriptions and original writings from her own pen, and is thus also an expression of what she called ‘the taste for occupation’, that is the need for women to keep busy and avoid idleness.

The selected passages are mostly from fiction, memoirs, and moralizing treatises by contemporary or recent female writers, and mainly from French-language sources. Their themes are generally related to the Duchess’s personal and family life, as well as to historical events of which she was a direct and sometimes a major witness. Such excerpts are interspersed with personal commentary which, though infrequent, is of great interest. The thread running through the extracts is the female dimension, touching upon such issues as society, family and the affections, happiness, virtue, love and marriage, motherhood, relations between the sexes, the contrast between city and country life, or private and courtly existence. Marie Louise also selected passages from recent works of political and economic history, frequently mentioning outstanding figures she knew personally – from Joachim Murat and Eugène Beauharnais to Klemens von Metternich and Napoleon himself.

Among the most frequently quoted writers are Madame de Montolieu, Madame de Genlis, Madame de Staël, and Lady Morgan. The last two stand out for their unorthodox political views: anti-Napoleonic the former, Whig and liberal the latter. This possibly unexpected aspect of the Duchess’s commonplace book bears witness to her cultural cosmopolitanism and multilingualism. Although most of it is in French (and most English works feature in French translation), there are also several extracts in German (in Gothic script), some in English, and one in Italian (from Carlo Goldoni). As to her knowledge of English, it is Marie Louise herself who provides a useful testimony of it in this diary. On meeting Sir John Burke, an Irish colonel who was passing through Parma, she told him she had read Ossian in English, to which he replied “But you must not have understood anything” – a bluntly rude affirmation that was very far from the reality, and which the Duchess interpreted as impertinent bravado on the part of her guest. Marie Louise’s commonplace book broadly mirrors contemporary literary taste in Europe, since many extracts centre on such distinctly Romantic themes as nature and natural contemplation as a nurturing influence on the human subject, love, ethics, and the “care of the self”, and an interest in the neo-Gothic, Troubadour and neo-Renaissance aesthetics (which the Duchess also cultivated in her watercolours, of which the Museo Lombardi has a rich collection).

An instance of how Marie Louise’s transcription is also an act of authorial creation through critical commentary relates to one of the most Romantic of all the works in her diary – Byron’s The Bride of Abydos (1813). Page 37 of this commonplace book contains an entry on ‘Zuleika or the Bride of Abydos traduit de l’anglais de Lord Byron’. Here the Duchess notes that the prose translation does not do justice to what she imagines the original must be, before going on to transcribe two excerpts that have particularly struck her: the passage where the hero Selim describes to his beloved Zuleika his sensation of freedom on secretly leaving the palace where her father, the suspicious Pacha Giaffir, kept him under surveillance (ll. 825-34); and the passage in which Selim compares Zuleika’s presence to a rainbow in the midst of the storms of life and other images of hope and serenity (ll. 880-91). These passionate outbursts counterbalance the more staid emotional expressions in other fragments, and so contribute new facets to the exploration and outlining – indeed the writing or authoring – of the self which is implicit in Marie Louise’s creation of her commonplace book.

Focusing on the British context, William St. Clair remarks that Romantic-period commonplace books delineated forms of ‘reading and writing’ (p. 224) usually associated with ‘young women from the upper income groups’ (p. 225). He also warns that ‘these books cannot give us a window into the minds of the compilers’, since they tend to be ‘written in accordance with generic conventions’ (p. 229). Marie Louise’s commonplace book undeniably follows these conventions, yet it is also the result of a deeply personal operation, stamped with her personality and unique experience. Both conventional and peculiar, the Duchess’s commonplace book bears witness both to the nurturing of a private self and to the structuring of a public identity and agency, and is thus a fascinating testimony of the inextricability of authorship and self-authorship in Romantic-period European culture.

Provenance: Marie Louise of Austria; Albertina Montenuovo Sanvitale; Sanvitale Family; Glauco Lombardi (since 1934).

Date: ca. 1820s

Creator: Marie Louise of Austria, Duchess of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla

Subject: Marie Louise of Austria, Duchess of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla

Media rights: Museo Glauco Lombardi, Parma

Object type: bound Manuscript (136 pages)

Format: leather, paper, ink, closed 22,2 x 20,2 x 2,3 cm

Publisher: Museo Glauco Lombardi, Parma

Catalogue Number: inv. 1598


David Allan, Commonplace Books and Reading in Georgian England (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Valeria Orlandi, “Extraits et Mélanges”: Le letture di Maria Luigia, Undergraduate Thesis, University of Parma, 1985-86.

Francesca Sandrini (a cura di), “Les jolis paysages di Maria d’Asburgo e la pittura di paesaggio nel ducato di Parma”, Quaderni del Museo 14 (2013).

William St Clair, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge University Press, 2004).