The day Marie Antoinette was beheaded, I was standing by the side of the road when the cart taking her to the guillotine passed by. People in the street were screaming insults and shaking their fists at her. She was dressed in a simple white chemise, her hands tied behind her back. The Queen’s hair had been cut off so it wouldn’t interfere with the executioner’s blade.
When the cart arrived at Place de la Revolution, Marie-Antoinette stepped down, without assistance, and slowly climbed the scaffold steps. After accidentally stepping on her executioner’s foot, she whispered to him: “Pardon me sir, I didn’t mean to.” Those were the last words of the last queen of France before putting her head on the butcher’s block.
Once decapitated, Marie Antoinette’s head was help up for all to see. The crowds went wild and ran to the scaffolding to dip their handkerchiefs in her blood.
“So this is a revolution”, I said to myself.
My name is Toni O and I knew Marie-Antoinette well. I met her while performing as an extemporaneous poet. In Italy, poetesses such as myself are known as “improvvisatrici.” To be an improvvisatrice, that is, an improviser, is to be a woman who knows how to adapt, who knows how to take what she has to meet her needs. Like a bricoleur, whose skill is that of taking what’s at hand to create something new, an improvisatrice takes her knowledge and experience to create and perform extemporaneous poetry. I was quite good and recited in such a way that even the stones could understand me.
In Italy, I am known as La Tonya maybe because of my fair skin and dark hair (my Irish mother always claimed that my coloring was the result of some survivor of the Spanish Armada mating with a local woman). I was quite famous in Turin and thus often invited to perform in some of the best salons. It was here that I met Maria Teresa Luisa of the Savoia family who was pushed into marrying Prince de Lamballe, Louis XIV’s grandson. Oh what an unhappy marriage that was. The prince was such an arrogant rich womanizer who made his young wife suffer so much. But all that changed when he got a venereal disease and died. Ha, talk about Divine Justice! Princess de Lamballe was only 19. Finally, freed from her unpleasant husband, she was ready to begin a life of her own.
Now living in France, Princess de Lamballe cleverly used her title to be introduced in court. She was promptly presented to Marie-Antoinette, now wife of the future King of France. Marie-Antoinette, always somewhat intimidated by members of the French court, felt at ease with the young princess from Turin. Maybe because Marie-Antoinette saw that they had something in common—they were both outsiders. The two women became close friends so Marie-Antoinette appointed the Princess de Lamballe as the superintendent of her household, the highest rank possible for a lady-in-waiting at Versailles, causing much irritation among the court’s many insignificant social climbers.
After Louis XVI became king, he gave his 19 year old wife the château, Petite Trianon, and its surrounding park. He, too, like his wife, found court life a bit suffocating and the Petite Trianon offered a breath of fresh air from the stuffy rituals and formalities of Versailles not to mention the backstabbing, petty, social climbers whose squalid gossip often made Marie-Antoinette ‘s life a chore. Being very fond of the performing arts, Marie-Antoinette had a theater built where she herself would act. All Marie-Antoinette wanted to do was to play and escape the hostilities of Versailles.
At Versailles, nothing was improvised. There were rules for everything even for getting up out of bed. Poor Marie-Antoinette. Every morning she was forced to go through The Levee, the get up out of bed ceremony: Around 8 a.m., specially appointed women come in to wake up the queen. A tub was then rolled into her room where royal bathers washed her then wrapped her in taffeta. Once back on her bed with a breakfast tray, court intimates were admitted just to watch the queen eat her meal. These kind of ceremonies and formalities went on all day long. Even the most intimate of acts was turned into public pomp. A royal reality show. So it isn’t difficult to understand why Marie-Antoinette escaped to her Petit Trianon whenever possible.
One day Marie-Antoinette was feeling particularly down. She wanted to break with the routine, to improvise, to play. ”Novelty is what I need,” she told Princess de Lamballe. Well, Novelty is my middle name so the princess told her about me and my extemporaneous recitations. That’s how I got invited to the Petit Trianon.
I did not have an easy childhood and from an early age learned the importance of adapting in order to survive. That’s why improvising as an actress and poet came quite easily to me. Some improvisatrice work as street artists but I prefer performing in the homes of rich people who are perpetually bored so that anything out of their typical, futile routine makes them quiver with elation. As a performer, once in front of an audience easily drugged by entertainment, I would ask for a topic on which to base an extemporaneous poem. The other evening a young man, totally without imagination, looked at the fan I was holding and said “Fan, talk about your fan”. So I took my fan and made it dance in front of his face while reciting Pignotti’s related tale. After all the practice I’ve had, I know well how to play the coquette. For an hour without pause, I swished and swayed continually inventing myself along the way. My fan is magical, I whispered out loud, because all I have to do is shake it in my hand to have a cool breeze embrace me. And with that I began walking around the room to fan some worn out faces. Some men, unaccustomed to such audacity, tried to climb inside my eyes hoping for more. Then I would quickly close my eyes and flutter away.
Now that I have properly introduced myself, it’s time to get back to Marie-Antoinette.
(from “TONI O, The Beholder” 2021 ©)
John Forsyth’s Remarks on Antiquities, Arts, and Letters, During an Excursion in Italy, in the Years 1802 and 1803 +