The Two Marias – In Search of an Unlikely Link

In April 1792, an Austrian countess run away from her husband and child and eventually found herself living on the American frontier. Could Maria Carolina have something to do with this series of tumultuous events? And could her letters help unlock answer about one of the most interesting lives of the eighteenth century?
(Credit: Foto: Pexels, No. 262488)

Maria Carolina was certainly a formidable woman of her time. She ushered in far-reaching reforms in the Kingdom of Naples-Sicily and ushered out the entrenched pro-Spanish minister Bernardo Tanucci. She survived revolution, disease, and the complications of eighteenth-century childbirth, which, on that note, she endured eighteen times!


But there was another remarkable Maria alive during the same period. Maria von Born was the eldest daughter of the celebrated Habsburg scientist Ignaz von Born. She grew up in Prague before her father relocated to Vienna to work for the imperial court. She became as celebrated as her father—if not, in fact, more—as an intelligent, capable, and stunningly beautiful young woman. In 1785 she married the dashing Count Tomo Bassegli.


It was not her only marriage.


Ten years later, she married another man—an equally dashing military officer—in New York City. It was a bigamous marriage and it was also a dangerous marriage; it had cost her former life in Europe, where she had abandoned Tomo (and her first-born son) in the name of love for her new man. Quite how Maria von Born came to this life-changing moment and how she forsook her opulent life in Vienna might have something to do with Maria Carolina.


Her father, Ignaz von Born, provides the only clue thus far. In June 1788, Ignaz wrote a letter to his daughter’s mother-in-law, Katharina Bassegli (née Sorkočević). All was not well. Maria had no desire to relocate to the Bassegli family’s seat of power at Ragusa (Dubrovnik) since she had experienced harsh prejudice after the marriage due to her lower-born status than the noble family.


To make matters worse Tomo had fallen sick. It seemed to fall to Maria to support her husband, perhaps financially as well as medically by moving to warmer climes.


And so this is why Ignaz wrote to Katharina; one parent to another, expressing the deep fears of saying farewell to his daughter and son-in-law. Having accompanied them on their way to Venice, Ignaz wrote the letter to beg Katharina to keep him informed of whatever she knew about them in their new home since it was closer to Ragusa than Vienna: the court of Naples.


According to Ignaz von Born’s fatherly missive, Maria had been named a Dame de Palais by Maria Carolina and therefore invited to the Neapolitan court. The warmer weather may have helped soothe Tomo’s uncertain illness but it did not cure his longing to return to Ragusa. The reforming culture of the court may have also awoken his own interests in enacting such change—albeit in a much more radical way—as years later Tomo worked feverishly on a plan for an Illyrian Republic.


But herein lay the poison chalice for his wife Maria. She later defended her abandonment of Tomo as an act of self-preservation against his ‘Jacobin’ leanings which endangered their lives. Was it escape for love or from fear when she ran away in 1792 to North America?


The answer, or at the very least another clue, might lie within the correspondence of Maria Carolina. It is a question that project member Dr. Jonathan Singerton hopes to elucidate as he one day hopes to write the biography of Maria von Born.


By Jonathan Singerton

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