Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Isabella of Parma: "The Fate of Princesses"

Isabella of Parma, archduchess of Austria (born 31 December 1741)

Isabel María Luisa Antonieta was born a princess, the daughter of Felipe de Borbón y Farnesio, a younger son of King Felipe V of Spain, and Marie Louise-Élisabeth, the eldest daughter of King Louis XV of France. 

Isabella of Parma (right), with her cousin, 1743
(detail from a painting by Louis-Michel van Loo)
The girl, the eldest child of the Spanish prince and the French princess, was born in a royal palace, the Palacio del Buen Retiro, in Madrid, and spent the first years of her life there. 

She also spent several months of her childhood at the palace of Versailles, pampered by her maternal relatives. 

When her father was awarded the title of duke of Parma and Piacenza, regaining a title that had been lost by his mother's family, Isabella found herself living in the Farnese Palazzo di Colorno and in the Palazzo del Giardino in Parma. As palaces go, they were much less grand than she was accustomed to, more than a bit neglected, but, still, they were palaces.

Before going any further, I should say that Isabella of Parma, as she is best known to English speakers, had something to say about "the fate of princesses" (la sort des princesses), and, according to her assessment, the "fate" of a princess was not good. In a letter to her sister-in-law, she wrote:
What should the daughter of a great prince expect? Her fate is, without doubt, most unhappy. She is from birth the slave of people's prejudices; she is born only to see herself subjected to the weight of honors, to the innumerable bits of etiquette attached to greatness, although she is thrust into society [le monde] before she can barely stutter. The rank she holds deprives her of knowing the people who surround her--that rank, deprives her of the greatest pleasure of life which is given to all people, the [joy of] society. She often finds many things to make her unhappy, even in her own family. . . . And the many different characters at court and the all to frequent intrigues there put her in constant danger of corruption or of being caught up in some entanglement. [Nothing in such a life] compensates for the time she is obliged to waste on such unwelcome cares or boring ceremonies.  
   This is the portrait and life of a young princess who cannot find even in her own family the resources [she needs to survive] inside her little coterie--she is then forced to live in the middle of the great world, where she has neither acquaintances nor friends.
   This is not all. In the end, she must be "established." There she is, condemned to abandon everything, her family, her country--and for whom? For an unknown person, for someone whose character and thinking she knows nothing about, for a family that will perhaps view her with jealousy or, at the least, prejudice. A sacrifice to a supposed public good but more likely to the unfortunate policy of a minister who can find no other way for the two dynasties to form an alliance which he pronounces indissoluble--but which, immediately it seems advantageous, is broken off . . . 

In her edition of the letters written by Isabella to her sister-in-law, Marie Christine of Austria, Élisabeth Badinter describes the young woman as "the princess of four cultures" (la princesse aux quatre cultures), dividing her overview of Isabella's brief and difficult life geographically, and I've followed Badinter's fourfold division in what follows.

Isabella's early childhood (une petite enfance espagnole), from her birth, on 31 December 1741, until 26 November 1748, was spent in Spain. As the daughter of the king of France, Louise-Élisabeth was disappointed that she had been compelled to marry a man she considered beneath her, neither a king nor an heir to a throne. She was just twelve when she embarked on the two-month-long journey to Spain in order to join her nineteen-year-old husband and only fourteen when she gave birth to Isabella. And then, just two months after the birth, Felipe left his wife and daughter for the battlefield--he did not see his family again until Isabella was eight years old. Left behind, Louise-Élisabeth was consigned to a "melancholy existence," focused on her hope of establishing her Felipe in a "suitable" position outside of Spain.

Louise-Élisabeth displayed little affection for her daughter. Meanwhile, Isabella's grandmother, Elisabeth Farnese, queen of Spain, sent daily letters to Felipe during his absence, including descriptions of her granddaughter and anecdotes about her behavior and activities. Her only report of the relationship between her granddaughter and the child's mother occurred when the girl was three. The queen wrote that the little girl had thrown some tantrums, and that Louise-Élisabeth had reacted to them with notably harsh discipline (l'éxecution militaire).

Isabella would later describe her childhood in a letter to her sister-in-law, detailing her many "follies":
My childhood was noisy, a hundred thousand games were my invention, I jumped, climbed, made a splash, nothing was safe around me--not the most precious furniture or the most magnificent ornaments., nothing was safe. . . . I broke everything, I smashed whatever presented itself to me.
Isabella chased butterflies, rode pretend horses, played at war, turned somersaults, made--and fell off--a rope swing, she sang, she danced, and she was the despair of her "severe" governess. Her head was always filled with "a hundred thousand ideas." But, she writes, "In the end, I learned to be reasonable." 

Isabella of Parma, 1749,
Versailles, painting by Jean-Marc Nattier
By the terms of the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, ending the war of the Austrian Succession, Isabella's father regained the duchy of Parma. On their way from Spain to join Felipe, now duke of Parma, Isabella and her mother spent ten months with the French court at Versailles in 1749 (l'impromptu de Versailles). The girl loved France--as she would write to her sister-in-law, she was "adored" in France, a country "made for gaiety." There she was "received like a gift from heaven."

But her stay with the French royal family was brief. By 20 November 1749, she was in Parma, meeting her father for the first time. 

About her time in Parma (jeunesse et adolescences italiennes, 1749-60), Isabella is not kind. The climate is either too hot or too cold, she tells Christine, and the people are ignorant, incapable of thought. And those unthinking people did not have a good opinion of the new duke and duchess of Parma. Isabella writes that, although she was still just a child, she was determined to leave right away--her parents compelled her to stay "in spite" of her wishes.

Although she would spend a decade in Parma, Isabella claims she was never reconciled to her life there. Her parents quickly added two more children to the family, a son and heir born in January 1750 and a second daughter born in December of the same year. Isabella mentions neither in the memoir she addresses to her sister-in-law, but she cared for both of her younger siblings, and sent regular reports to her father about their health and well-being--her mother was frequently absent, often in France, while her father lived apart from the children for most of the year. 

Isabella's mother retained her emotional distance from her eldest child--Badinter notes that Louise-Élisabeth's coldness to Isabella was a concern for many of her acquaintances, who commented on the relationship. The duchess of Parma was also on the receiving end of advice to be more loving to her daughter. The marshal of France warned Louise-Élisabeth's that her treatment of Isabella might make arranging a desireable marriage for the girl more difficult, the French ambassador to Parma later writing to the marshall to reassure him that more attention was being paid to the young girl.

Fears about Isabella's prospects in the marriage market proved unfounded. In the summer of 1759, Louise-Élisabeth secured a very desireable marriage for her daughter with Joseph, the son and heir of the Holy Roman Emperess Maria Theresa. The marriage was briefly delayed by the untimely death of Louise-Élisabeth on 6 December 1759 (she was just thirty-two years old and had developed a case of smallpox), but Isabella and Joseph were married by proxy in Parma on 7 September 1760, and six days later, the nineteen-year-old Isabella was on her way to Vienna.

About her departure from Parma on 13 September 1760 (l'archiduchesse d'Autriche), Isabella would later write, "I left Italy without regret" ("Je quittai l'Italie sans regret"). The wedding took place on 6 October, the lavish ceremonies memorialized by a cycle of paintings by Martin van Meytens.

Isabella of Parma, 
portrait by Jean-Marc Nattier,
dated 1758

Although her new husband was delighted with Isabella, she was not particularly thrilled with him. Nevertheless, she soon became pregnant. Eighteen months after her marriage and following a difficult pregnancy, on 20 March 1762, Isabella gave birth to a daughter, Maria Theresa. Two more pregnancies quickly followed: Isabella miscarried in August 1762 and again in January 1763. 

In November, once again pregnant, Isabella developed a fever. Suffering from smallpox, the same disease that had killed her mother, Isabella went into labor months early. She gave birth prematurely on 22 November. The  baby, a girl, was baptized but died. Isabella lived for a few more days, dying on 27 November 1763. She was just twenty-one. 

Isabella's daughter, the Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria, born on 20 March 1762, died on 23 January 1770, at the age of seven.

Despite her brief life, Isabella of Parma, archduchess of Austria, has gained a degree of recognition for her writing, notably the two hundred letters addressed to her sister-in-law, Joseph's sister, the Archduchess Maria Christina. For a complete list of Isabella's composition, including these letters, as well as letters to her husband, "divers morceaux interessantes," and "divers morceaux instructifs," click here. And for once I'll link you to the Wikipedia entry for Isabella of Parma--it has an excellent chart, describing the topics she writes about, including religion, philosophy, education, and history (click here). 

Isabella's life has also drawn attention for her passionate love for her sister-in-law, the Archduchess Maria Christina (see the entry at Making Queer History, for example, and Victoria Belim-Frolova's analysis at Bois de Jasmin) and for her complicated mental health issues--her difficult relationship with her mother, her fear of death, and her depression (see Emily Zorevich's "The Mental Afflictions of Isabella of Parma, 'The Melancholic Princess,'" for example). 

Some details of Isabella of Parma's life in English are available in extended biographies of her husband, Archduke Joseph, who later became Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, and even in biographies of the Empress Maria Theresa. In addition to Badinter's edition of Isabella of Parma's letters (linked above), which has a great biographical introduction, there are two fairly recent biographies: Ursula Tamussino's Isabella von Parma. Gemahlin Josephs II (1989) and Ernest Sanger's Isabelle de Bourbon-Parme : La Princesse et la Mort (2002).

If you don't read French or German, I recommend Monieck Bloks's three-part biographical essay on Isabella of Parma, available here.