What did Marie Antoinette really look like?

Where is she actually? Tourists who visit the Conciergerie in Paris and want to pay a visit to France's legendary Queen Marie Antoinette ask themselves this question again and again. She used to sit in her cell as a veiled mannequin, still waiting to be executed. They were simply disposed of after the rooms were renovated. Now it is missing.

There are places that lead, as it were, to the heart of a city, a nation, its soul. Gerhard Roth wrote "A Journey into the Inner Vienna" in 1991 and ended up in the "Gray House", where the guillotine stood. The Tower in London is such a place, the catacombs in Rome come to mind. And in Paris?

For many, such a magical place was and is the cell of Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna of Austria-Lorraine, known as Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, in the Conciergerie on the Île de la Cité, the oldest part of Paris.

The indictment spoke disparagingly of "the Austrian" and called her "the scourge and bloodsucker of the French"

So where the medieval royal palace once stood, she spent the last 77 days of her life before she was executed on October 16, 1793 on the Place de la Révolution.

This dark, damp, semi-underground dungeon was once not only the center of the Museum of French Revolutionary History, but also a place of pilgrimage. Many visitors stood patiently in line in front of the wooden bars through which one could catch a glimpse into this desolate cell. It actually seemed to be sitting there.

On a simple wooden chair, in front of a table with a crucifix, her face turned away from the viewer, guarded by a gendarme who never let her out of his sight even in the dramatic intimacy of this cold hole. No wonder, since she had tried several times, albeit in vain, to escape this cell and her death on the scaffold with the help of her last allies and friends.

This staging, as clumsily as it was executed, worked - perhaps precisely because of that: one inevitably began to whisper, approached this window as if one did not want to disturb them in their prayer. Because it seemed as if she was absorbed in prayer, a Bible in hand.

Poor Marie Antoinette, the refined, who had matured into a humble, humble and responsible woman through the long suffering in custody of that lavish party girl who had celebrated hundreds of lavish parties in Versailles while the people were starving.

There she sat in all her loneliness like a heap of misery: Marie Antoinette felt the whole wrath of the revolutionary terror. Her fate has carried her to the end in a calmness that no one would have thought her capable of, although she had no real legally measurable guilt on herself, except that of being the queen. In the end she was left to stand still.

Of course it was a mannequin wrapped in a black widow's costume. But nobody had a doubt: Marie Antoinette, or at least her ghost, was present in this gloomy room, almost palpable. This wonderfully dusty, patina-bearing staging gave nourishment to our imaginations, as it was in the last days of this dazzling figure.

Places where great injustice or misfortune has happened to people have always had their own fascination. It is no wonder that the cell in the Conciergerie has not only become a museum of French revolutionary history, but also a place of pilgrimage.

Not only for the royalists, but for everyone who was concerned about this fate with its maximum height of fall. Until recently there were people here who, to commemorate Marie Antoinette, lit grave candles in the anteroom of the cell or laid down a few roses. The place was alive, it had a presence.

This tradition ended in 2017. Largely unnoticed by the public, Marie Antoinette has been allowed to disappear without a sound, the doll has been taken away, the rooms have been refurbished, and all the sentimentalities that have been so well-liked here have been cleared from it.

The responsible Center des monuments nationaux was convinced that it was time to redesign the visiting rooms of the Revolution Museum. The exhibition organizers wanted a better understanding of the causes, events and locations of the revolution, they wanted to avoid an "anecdotal approach".

And that is why there is now no doll, no darkened dungeon, no more awed silence of the people who point to the veiled figure, hold their breath or even hit the cross.

Our time tends to document, to disenchant. Also in the museum. Mostly with gain in knowledge and therefore with good reason. In the meantime, after the restructuring, this place also seems to have reached the height of modern museum education, which so gladly dispenses with manipulative staging in order to do justice to history.

But does this also do justice to the whole story of Marie Antoinette? Doesn't it always include both: the presentation of historical facts, but also the allowance of the emotions, projections and rituals that these facts trigger to this day?

Which point of view has priority: that of historical studies, under which Marie Antoinette primarily appears as a historical figure on the chessboard of European power politics of her time? Or that of the people or that part of them who perceive this woman as one of the great tragic figures in world history and try to understand her "from within"?

What is certain is that people have always been interested not only in the historically correct approach prescribed by academic museum makers or national historians, but have also developed their own forms of appropriation, with their own legitimacy "from below", so to speak.

What is "more significant" there, what has priority? There are no true or false answers. There are only choices. For one or the other. In the conciergerie, the decision was made to be more sobriety.

In the end, a conciergerie that has been cleared of the admiration for Marie Antoinette is perhaps more compatible with national historiography than if this somehow always irritating, native Austrian would be preserved in such a disturbing memory that also refers to the inhumanity and terror of the French Revolution.

In the end, is it perhaps even about some kind of historical-political correction? The exhibition organizers are contesting a political decision. The rooms were simply overhauled and adapted to modern standards. Not more.

Who was this Marie Antoinette really? For their public prosecutor, the examining magistrate Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, a cold fanatic who, like so many of his comrades-in-arms, was soon to fall victim to the guillotine of the revolution, "l'Autrichienne", as she was contemptuously called, was the scourge and Bloodsucker of the French ". So he wrote it in his indictment, which was read on October 14, 1793.

And for the people? She was either a whore or a saint, a martyr or a sinner. Depending on the mood, zeitgeist, epoch. It seemed to be suitable as a projection surface, always also for the completely opposite - and so it was appropriated.

One of the few who really did justice to her was typically not a historian, but a writer, an Austrian on top of that: Stefan Zweig, who created the psychogram of this woman in his rousing biography "Marie Antoinette. Portrait of a medium character" from 1932. He portrayed her as one who was a prisoner from an early age, since she and Louis XVI at the age of fourteen. was forcibly married.

Nobody knows where Marie Antoinette's doll has gone. The spokeswoman for the Center des monuments nationaux speculates with a laugh in her voice that maybe she was simply thrown away. It is quite possible that the Queen's figure is lying in a box somewhere in the attic under the roof of the Conciergerie.

New exhibition in autumn

But the story of Marie Antoinette cannot be disposed of. She doesn't leave us in peace. Not even those responsible in Paris. The renovation work in the Conciergerie, at the place where a total of 2,700 death sentences were passed between 1793 and 1795, is far from over. The museum is to be enlarged in the next few years. But this is only the first step in a larger program of remodeling that affects the entire early medieval Palais Royal.

And Marie Antoinette? Where does it find its place?

A comprehensive exhibition entitled "Marie Antoinette Mania" is planned for this autumn, which will not only focus on her role in the bloody history of the French Revolution, but also on herself, on her life.

It should be about the abundance of very different images that there were of her during her lifetime, but especially after her death. You are trying to relaunch. And one can already be curious to see in what light she will appear this time, this unhappy woman who, even today, 225 years after her tragic end, is not so easy to say goodbye to the realm of the dead in history.