Amazons and the Politics of Gender Equality during the “Century of Women” – from the illustrations of the Opera Talestri, regina delle Amazzoni (1765) by Maria Antonia Walpurgis

Johann Benjamin Müller, Tempio di Diana con ara accesa, etching on paper, 24,4×31 cm (sheet size), sheet no. 2 for Maria Antonia Walpurgis, Talestri, regina delle Amazzoni, Leipzig: Breitkopf, 1765.

It was not without reason that the brothers Jules and Edmond de Goncourt – who gave their name to what has become France’s best-known literary prize – referred to the 18th century as the siècle des femmes. With the “question of women”, first framed in the 15th century by the writer and philosopher Christine de Pizan, the debates surrounding the nature and role of women and equality between the two sexes had been boiled down into a single “problem”; now, in the Age of Enlightenment, it had once again become a focus of intellectual ferment. The era that saw monarchs such as Maria Theresa and Catherine II taking the reins of power put the querelle des femmes squarely back on the agenda.

Inspired by her proto-feminist precursors, Princess Maria Antonia Walpurgis Symphorosa of Bavaria (1724–80) – whose all-round artistic talent as a composer, poet, singer, and painter was entirely consistent with the image of the femme savante, the woman of learning – had the idea for an opera seria titled Talestri, Queen of the Amazons. The work was written in Dresden, where Maria Antonia resided following her marriage to Frederick Christian, the Prince-Elector of Saxony. The opera takes up the mythical theme of the ancient animosity between the Amazons and Scythians, projecting onto this dramatic background a tale of forbidden love between the Amazon princess Talestri and the Scythian prince Orontes. The plot wends its way through a web of intrigue and travesty, farcical episodes, and contrived complications, moving from diametric oppositions at the outset to the reconciliation of duty and love in the mind of the Amazon.

An edition of five of the seven illustrations included in the published score of 1765 can be found in the collection of theatre artwork in the Performing Arts Archives of the Akademie der Künste. The second etching for the first act of the opera, “Tempio di Diana con ara accesa” (“Temple of Diana with lit altar”), gives a particularly insightful picture of Maria Antonia’s idea of the kingdom of the Amazons as a place where power, status, and influence are exclusively in the hands of women. Far from recalling the original Pontic lands of the ancient warrior women, the interior view conforms to the Baroque architecture the author was familiar with. The same applies to the Amazons’ attire: in addition to their weapons, helmets, and coats of armour, they are also wearing corsets and domed hoop skirts. In the middle of the room stands the towering statue of Diana, the virgin goddess of the hunt, always adept at punishing men who violate the private sphere of women. In this setting, the fate of Orontes, the sole male figure, is to be decided: having dressed in female garb and sneaked into the company of women, his disguise has now been exposed, and he is shown on his knees.

As the only extant example of an 18th-century illustrated opera score produced at a German-speaking court, the visual depiction of Talestri also provides important insight into the author’s artistic vision. (1) The artists Johann Benjamin Müller and Ferdinando Antonio Bibiena were commissioned to create the visual material, with Maria Antonia presumably being involved in this too. She herself was active as a painter and may have been somewhat familiar with the art of engraving, which was practised by some of her illustrious contemporaries (such as Madame de Pompadour).

The political and autobiographical context in which Maria Antonia wrote her opera is key to understanding this work. Talestri premiered in Dresden in 1763, following the return of the composer’s father-in-law, Augustus III, who had been forced into exile by Frederick II’s Prussian army. In the absence of the elector, the country had been ruled by the young electoral prince and princess, with Maria Antonia becoming involved in the political affairs that weighed on her physically disabled husband. At the time of the premiere, in which she played the protagonist as prima donna, the electoral princess could not only boast of extraordinary virtuosity but was also possessed of considerable political acumen, which she had acquired during wartime. Just like Talestri, Maria Antonia was about to assume her country’s highest office – as Electress of Saxony and, after her husband’s death, as regent for her underage son. In this context, her choice of Amazons as the heroines of her opera was not just an expression of her taste as an erudite feminist. They are potential figures of identification for an ambitious politician who was able to “orchestrate” her “vision of female power” with the help of poetry and music. (2)

In Maria Antonia’s work and life, the female role model of the femme savante or wise Minerva and the motif of the femme forte or spirited Amazon overlap to produce an ideal of equality that the French writer Madeleine de Puisieux put into words in 1750: “We have the same right to every public office as [men do]. Nature has given us a genius that is as capable of fulfilling these offices as theirs is. Our hearts are as receptive to virtue as our minds are to science. We lack nothing either in spirit, strength and courage to defend a country or in sagacity to govern it.” (3)

(1)    Christine Fischer, “Engravings of Opera Stage Settings as Festival Books: Thoughts on a New Perspective of Well-Known Sources”, Music in Art 34, no. 1 (2009), p. 74.

(2)   Christine Fischer, “Instrumentierte Visionen weiblicher Macht”: Maria Antonia Walpurgis’ Werke als Bühne politischer Selbstinszenierung (“‘Instrumented visions of female power’: Maria Antonia Walpurgis’ works as a stage for political self-portrayal”), (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2007).

(3)    Madeleine de Puisieux, La femme n’est pas inférieure à l’homme (“A woman is not inferior to a man”), (London, 1750), p. 137.

Author: Elena Pascalau, Research Associate in the Performing Arts Archives of the Akademie der Künste

The collection of theatre artwork held by the Akademie der Künste now comprises a total of some 5,500 sheets. It was amassed by the Gesellschaft für Theatergeschichte (Society for theatre history) from 1902 on and transferred to Berlin University in 1923. The first mention of the acquisition of “rediscovered materials relating to the history of theatre […] that had belonged to the Gesellschaft für Theater-geschichte prior to 1945” appeared in a work-in-progress report of the Akademie der Künste (East). The collection was inventoried on index cards and some of the prints were restored and mounted on standard cardboard. Elena Pascalau lists and researches the collection from an art-historical and theatrological perspective.

Published in: Journal der Künste 20, May 2023, p. 62-63