Donna Paola Margherita Maria Antonia Consiglia Ruffo di Calabria was born on 11 September 1937 at Villa Claudia in Forte dei Marmi, Italy, as the seventh and youngest child of Prince Fulco Ruffo di Calabria, a First World War flying ace, and Countess Luisa Gazelli, a descendant of the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution. Her grandmother on her father’s side, Laure Mosselman du Chenoy, was Belgian.
Donna Paola spent her entire youth in Rome, the Italian capital, where she completed her classical secondary education in Latin and Greek. In her youth, the young Italian noble was often as hailed as one of the leading beauties in all of Europe, and it was during this period that she made the acquaintance of His Royal Highness, Prince Albert of Belgium, Prince of Liège.
As one of the many events surrounding the coronation of Pope John XXIII in 1958, a reception was held at the Belgian embassy in the presence of the Prince of Liège as an official representative of the Belgian Monarchy, and Donna Paola Ruffo di Calabria. It was at this event that the pair met for the first time. Recalling her memories of the meeting in later years, Queen Paola has said of it, “We were both shy, so we only talked a little.” Despite the immediate shyness, however, the couple were smitten and soon developed a relationship. Prince Albert later proposed to Paola and their engagement was announced from the Palace of Laeken in the Belgian Capital in 1959.
The Royal Household originally wanted to plan a Vatican wedding, with a blessing by Pope John XXIII, however, despite the diplomatic mission to the Pontifical court being led by the groom’s father, former King Leopold III of Belgium, his aunt the exiled Queen Marie-José of Italy and the bride’s brother, the Prince Ruffo, the Belgian government denied the wishes of the court and refused to accept the proposal. The Pope understood the government’s concern, never agreeing to partake in the wedding ceremony. After some deliberation, an international scandal was avoided as the wedding was planned to take place on Belgian soil.
The couple were initially married in a civil ceremony which took place in the throne room of the Royal Palace in Brussels on 2 July 1959, before being married religiously in the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula, later that afternoon. The couple has three children: King Philippe (born on 15 April 1960), Princess Astrid (born on 5 June 1962) and Prince Laurent (born on 19 October 1963). Following the births of their children, the marriage began to seriously deteriorate in the late 1960s.
It is during this period that Prince Albert is believed to have fathered Delphine Boël (according to her own claims) with Sybille de Selys Longchamps. It is also believed that in this period, Princess Paola herself was also seeing other men. However, despite the struggles the pair have faced in their marriage, their relationship improved from the early 1980s, and the couple has chosen to stay together. In an interview for her 70th birthday in 2007, Paola addressed the subject, saying, “We’ve had our problems, but now we both say that we were meant for each other. We are very happy now.”
Albert, who was never expected to become king upon his birth, was suddenly thrust onto the throne following the death of his older, childless brother, King Baudouin in 1993, thus making Paola the sixth Queen Consort of the Belgians. As Queen, Paola devoted herself to many issues close to her heart, mainly in the social and cultural sphere. The Queen took a keen interest in the protection and preservation of Belgium’s heritage, making numerous visits to cultural sites, from Beguine convents to early 19th-century industrial facilities.
Queen Paola is interested in both new and traditional crafts and continues to this day to take every opportunity to encourage the exercise and teaching of craft professions. The Queen is also a fan of contemporary art and regularly supports major exhibitions and artistic performances both in Belgium and abroad. On the initiative of Queen Paola, contemporary artists have had the opportunity to design and make original works within the Palace of Brussels.
In 1992, Paola set up the Princess Paola Foundation (which soon became the Queen Paola Foundation the following year) which enables Queen Paola to focus on integration and training for young people. The Foundation’s activities are geared towards social integration, support for teachers at all levels of the education system and schools in socio-economically disadvantaged areas.
Following a reign of twenty years, King Albert II decided to abdicate in favour of their eldest son, Philippe, Duke of Brabant. The couple retained their titles of King and Queen and despite reducing their workload considerably, have continued to represent Belgium abroad occasionally, such as at the 2016 Easter Mass at the Vatican. Family plays a key role in Queen Paola’s life, and she enjoys spending time in the company of her twelve grandchildren and great-grandchild.
She also enjoys long walks in the forest with King Albert II, which offer an opportunity to appreciate the beauties of nature and the changing seasons. The former Queen is fluent in Italian, French, German and English. Less fluent, and the cause of occasional criticism, is her Dutch, the mother tongue of nearly 60 percent of Belgians. Queen Paola loves books and music and particularly enjoys travelling in Europe and Africa.
The Queen was admitted to hospital in Italy in 2015 following a vacation in the country. Although the court did not specify the cause for the hospital sojourn or even the stability of Her Majesty’s condition, some newspapers printed that the Queen had suffered a stroke. Despite this, the Queen appears to be in good health and continues to attend family events and occasionally events on the Belgian calendar.