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Melancholy Princess: Isabella of Parma

The portrait by the Parisian painter Jean-Marc Nattier of the 17-year-old Princess Isabella of Parma, (1741-1763) – the best known that was made of her – seems in some ways to symbolise her short life. Today it is kept in the vast collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the city of Isabella’s imperial marriage. The painting is stored in the Gallery Depot and is not currently on display; unintentional perhaps, but actually mirroring much of what we know of Isabella’s character: outwardly entrancing, but inwardly withdrawing.

Almost with a kind of historical shyness, she has all but vanished into the shadows so that she is harder to find, indeed almost invisible. She belongs to that realm of women who are, however, not forgotten but need to be sought out. As we would expect, portraits of her exist in the places that symbolise importance in her life – Parma, Versailles and Vienna. Half-French and half-Spanish, she was a Bourbon by birth.

Isabella is something of an enigma. At first glance, the Nattier portrait is a delightful study of a young princess painted two years before her life changed dramatically. In addition to the formal court dress, a hint of her childhood might be seen in the lace strands that extend from her hair which perhaps recall something of the elegant Spanish mantilla, whilst the presence of pink roses traditionally symbolising joy underline the general sweetness of her appearance – undoubtedly one of the principal aims of the portrait, advertising her marriageability as a royal manikin in the window of the European dynastic politics of the time.

Princess Isabella Maria Luisa Antonietta Ferdinanda Giuseppina Saveria Dominica Giovanna of Bourbon-Parma was born at the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid on 31 December 1741. The palace of Isabella’s birth has all but disappeared, with the Retiro Park remaining from the palace complex which itself became the seat of the royal court during the construction of the Royal Palace on the site of where the Royal Palace of Alcazar had once stood. Isabella was the eldest daughter of Philip, Duke of Parma and Princess Louise Elisabeth of France, the eldest daughter of the French King Louis XV and his Polish-born spouse, ‘La Polonaise’, Queen Marie Leszczynska.

Thanks to Nattier’s brush, we have a graceful study of Princess Isabella, in a white court gown as an eight-year-old child, hanging in the Dauphin’s Second Antechamber at Versailles, the palace of her grandfather, King Louis XV and also the place of her mother’s birth. Nattier appears to have been a favourite choice of a painter at the court of Parma – the Duchess was painted by Jean-Marc Nattier with the nine-year-old Isabella in a charming study at Fontainebleau. Nattier painted the Duchess of Parma on several occasions, including in hunting dress. Isabella also features in the family portrait of the Duke of Parma by Giuseppe Baldrighi, now in the National Gallery of Parma, holding what appears to be an engraving, near a draped screen and standing below a parrot, probably a family pet. Nattier also, of course, painted the portrait in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Tragedy struck the year after this portrait was made, possibly the origin of the melancholia that would later develop into such a striking characteristic of Isabella’s in Vienna, but which may also have had a genetic origin. The Duchess of Parma died of smallpox at Versailles in 1759; Louis XV, her maternal grandfather, would too die of the same disease at the palace fifteen years later, attended to by his remaining unmarried daughters, the Mesdames, the aunts who had been ‘left behind’ at Versailles. Smallpox would also claim the life of the Austrian Archduchess Maria Josepha, another daughter of Maria Theresia, who died of the disease during her marriage celebrations in Vienna, when she was due to leave the capital for Naples, in 1767. With practical ruthlessness, the charming Maria Josepha was merely replaced by her sister, Archduchess Maria Carolina, instead.

The marriage between Archduke Joseph and Princess Isabella of Parma is commemorated in the splendid ‘Zeremoniensaal’ [Ceremonial Hall] at Schönbrunn Palace, in a cycle of paintings which themselves symbolically circle Austria’s matriarchal sun, Maria Theresia. Their placement emphasises the overriding dynastic nature of this very political marriage, with critical points of the ceremony immortalised in a room that proclaims the greatness of Austria and its formidable Empress. The union was living proof of the 1756 Treaty of Versailles, which confirmed France and Austria as allies, but also an affirmation of the third Bourbon Family Pact, made between Charles III of Spain and Louis XV and enshrined within the 1761 Treaty of Paris.

This magnificent series by the studio of van Meytens includes Isabella’s formal entry into Vienna on 5 October 1760, with its spectacular caravan of ninety-four six-horse coaches; the Swiss guards escort Isabella, who enters the imperial capital in a magnificent bridal coach of blue and silver, accompanied by Prince Liechtenstein who himself is in a golden carriage (Elfriede Iby, Schönbrunn Palace, Pg 29, 2003). It is clear Austria is welcoming Isabella as the bride of Maria Theresia’s heir.

The remaining paintings depict the ceremony in the Habsburg ‘wedding church’, the court church of the Augustin Friars; the banquet in the Hofburg antechamber and the supper and serenade in the Redoutensaal. In the portrait of the Serenade, the figure of the boy Mozart was added; Leopold Mozart would later write of the young Wolfgang’s first performance before the Empress at Schönbrunn Palace, in what was probably the Mirrors Room, in 1762. It is thanks to Leopold’s letters, that we have a description of the ‘Infanta’ playing the violin, which is assumed to mean the musically gifted Archduchess Isabella (ed. Cliff Eisen, Mozart: A Life in Letters, Pg 7, 2006).

Isabella’s entry into Vienna recalls the heralding of a foreign princess to her new home and the concomitant of that welcome – farewell to the old one that she had known. This was precisely the point; embarkation towards a new life from which she was not expected to return, indeed her return would be unwelcome – the very reason why Louis XIV chose these parting words to his niece, Princess Marie-Louise, future Queen of Spain, as she bade farewell for Madrid: “Farewell. For ever. It would be your greatest misfortune to see France again” (Antonia Fraser, Love and Louis XIV, Pg 206, 2006). Isabella’s mother, the Duchess of Parma, had been embraced by King Louis XV at the point of parting, whereupon the King, taking leave of this particularly beloved child, said to her coachman ‘To Madrid’ and his own, ‘To Versailles’ (Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Pg 67-68, 2000).

Isabella’s future sister-in-law, Archduchess Maria Amalia – 14 at the time of Isabella’s marriage – would herself be married against her will to Prince Ferdinand of Parma, Isabella’s brother. So in the cases of both princesses, the courts of Parma and Vienna were duly exchanged, with Maria Amalia marrying much later. Another Italian princess married into Maria Theresia’s vast family in 1771; Princess Maria Beatrice d’Este became the bride of her youngest son, Archduke Ferdinand, future Governor of the Duchy of Milan.

A small room at Schönbrunn Palace, known as the Porcelain Room, depicts Isabella of Parma and Archduke Joseph, Archduchess Marie Christine and Prince Albert of Saxe-Teschen in a series of four framed portrait medallions. At the time of Isabella’s marriage, Marie Christine had not yet married.

Archduchess Marie Christine would be the only one of Maria Theresia’s daughters, her “Mimi”, who was permitted to marry for love, a sign of maternal favouritism which deeply embittered her remaining daughters, to whom she did not extend the same emotional privilege. Isabella of Parma, whilst adored as a nonpareil wife by her husband Archduke Joseph, herself developed a strong attachment to her sister-in-law, Archduchess Marie Christine, to the point of speculation over the nature of this attachment not being a platonic one, although certainly on this last will never be known. On Isabella’s side at least, it appears to have been a passionate female friendship – the future Queen Mary II of England’s letters to Frances Apsley could be a similar example – and we are probably wrong to view them in a lesbian light, although the language of them does hints at some kind of love. The letters of Isabella seem to have been the only ones preserved from this half of the relationship (Hanne Eckardt, Skandalöse Amouren im Hause Habsburg, Pg 17, 2013). Importantly, the publication of Rousseau’s epistolary novel La nouvelle Heloise in 1761, a year after Isabella’s wedding, celebrates the exchange of letters in a veritable overflow of emotion.

Certainly, Isabella’s devotion to Maria Theresia’s favourite daughter would have been a point that could have endeared her to her mother-in-law; what is known is that Isabella and Marie Christine clearly shared a deep, mutual affection, whatever its form. Marie Christine married Prince Albert of Saxony in 1766 – less than three years after Isabella’s death.

Importantly, Isabella’s mother-in-law the Empress, was still that impressive figure as painted by Mytens in Mechelin lace in the Ceremonial Hall at Schönbrunn; it was not until 1765 – two years after Isabella’s death – that the sudden death of Emperor Francis Stephen transformed her into a figure of frightening severity in a widow’s garb, who – a century before the English Queen Victoria – never abandoned mourning for her beloved husband and even created a memorial room for him at Schönbrunn Palace, known as the Vieux-Laque.

Isabella seems to have had a presentiment of her death; something which brought her melancholic streak to the fore and may have been further aggravated by pregnancy, the risk attached to which could have made her inclined towards morbid reflection. Her first child, Archduchess Maria Theresia, was born in 1762. With two terrible miscarriages in between, Isabella conceived again and gave birth to a second daughter, who was born prematurely and hastily given the name, Marie Christine. This was the name of the sister-in-law that Isabella undoubtedly loved and in itself, perhaps hints at the extent of Marie Christine’s importance to Isabella, that the name should be readily in her mind and given to the child who died a few hours after a traumatic birth. Like her mother, Duchess of Parma, Isabella died of smallpox – a week later, at Schönbrunn Palace on 27 November 1763. Archduke Joseph was distraught at Isabella’s death; their beloved daughter, Maria Theresia, would follow her mother at the age of seven. Isabella’s dear sister-in-law, Marie Christine, nearly died in childbirth in 1767 and the only daughter of her marriage to Prince Albert did die – Princess Maria Christina Theresa of Saxony – but Marie Christine survived where Isabella did not.

Isabella of Parma, Archduchess of Austria, was buried in the imperial crypt of the Capuchins in Vienna, the Kaisergruft; it is located within the Maria-Theresia-Vault, predictably dominated by the massive tomb monument to Maria Theresia and Holy Roman Emperor Francis Stephen, showing the imperial couple facing each other as on a sculpted bed. This was a work of exceptional skill by Balthasar Ferdinand Moll. Isabella’s tomb is ornate in comparison to the characteristically simple grave of her husband, the future Emperor Joseph II with whom she does not share it. Instead, Isabella’s monument is surmounted by a medallion portrait, not perhaps dissimilar to the medallions in the Porcelain Room at Schönbrunn. The tomb of her surviving daughter, Maria Theresia is close by, but that of the child she gave birth to prematurely, is to be seen beneath the feet of her sarcophagus, a sight that is both horrifying and heartrending in equal measure.

The tomb of Isabella is close to that of Joseph’s second wife, Maria Josepha of Bavaria, Holy Roman Empress on Joseph’s accession as co-regent on his father’s death in 1765. With the cruelty of dynastic necessity that did not view these things in emotional terms, Maria Josepha was proposed as a bride for Joseph less than two years after Isabella’s death. That said, this was a ‘kinder’ length of grief than that extended to other bereaved royals (and imperial) husbands – the future Tsar Paul I of Russia was married five months after the death of his beloved first wife in 1766.

Maria Josepha remained unloved by Joseph, all the more so because of the great love that Joseph had borne for Isabella, for which there seems to have been no substitute. It is undoubtedly this then that speaks the most for Isabella. Apart from portraiture, her legacy lies in the power of the memory that she left behind – even if history sometimes appears to have forgotten her.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.