Isabella of Bourbon-Parma

by Julia Meister

Isabella of Bourbon-Parma: Caught in the Rigid Corset of the Court

The empresses Elisabeth, Maria Theresa, perhaps Zita – for the most part, the collective memory stops remembering other Habsburg women at this point. Historiography is still too masculinised to come into contact with archduchesses or wives of emperors who mostly (exceptions prove the rule!) remained apolitical.

At this point I would like to intervene in an entertaining way and tell the life stories of “forgotten Habsburg women”, which in my opinion are no less important. There are numerous representatives of the famous noble family who achieved very special or even curious things in their lives and have quite unjustly been forgotten. These biographies are exciting contemporary testimonies of female social history, for it often happened that a Habsburg woman suffered under the social constraints imposed on women in history, and not infrequently also broke down psychologically as a result.

In the coming months I would like to tell you about selected Habsburg women who entered one of the most famous dynasties in world history, either by birth or marriage, and who deserve to be duly remembered.

To begin with, there is a Habsburg woman who has been in my thoughts for a long time and whose life story is as fascinating as it is tragic. We are talking about Isabella of Bourbon-Parma, first wife of Joseph II, the Habsburg reform emperor. Some of you may be familiar with the oversized painting from the workshop of Martin von Meytens, which can be found at Schönbrunn: Crowded closely together, “94 six-horse[ ] carriages and mounted[ ] as well as various[ ] guards on foot” enter the residential city of Vienna in an impressively symmetrical manner – the artist’s hand makes it possible – from the Belvedere to the Augustinian Church, with Isabella’s carriage in the front centre of the picture.

Einzug der Braut, Teil des Bildzyklus zur Hochzeit Josephs II. mit Isabella von Parma im jahre 1760; © Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsgesellschaft, Sammlung: Bundesmobilienverwaltung, Objektstandort: Schloss Schönbrunn, Foto: Edgar Knaack

In the middle of the Seven Years’ War, the beautiful Bourbon princess, who belonged to an Italian side line, was to marry Maria Theresa’s eldest son and heir to the throne, Joseph, in order to convince the starving population of the splendour and glory of a monarchy whose dynasty stood for iron continuity over the centuries.  It was also a way of strengthening the alliance with the Bourbons: In accordance with centuries of Habsburg tradition, nothing was better suited for this than a marriage.

But who was this southern beauty that Joseph II had chosen to share his life and henceforth reside with him in Vienna? Born on 31 December 1741, the daughter of Duke Philip of Parma and his wife Elisabeth of France spent the first years of her life at the Spanish court before moving with her mother to Versailles to live with her grandfather, Louis XV, at the age of eight.  The family then moved to Parma.  The melancholy that can be clearly seen in the young woman’s eyes when looking at her portraits was already evident in her adolescence, as Brigitte Hamann sums up. It is therefore not surprising that she was extremely fond of music and poetry. Isabella was also interested in mechanics, especially in the construction of automata, which was popular in the mid-18th century – the young girl was a real tomboy who defied prohibitions and sparkled with wit.

Isabella’s further course in life and her attitude towards men and married life may have stemmed from her parents’ marriage, which was unfortunate for her mother: Elisabeth was only twelve years old when she tied the knot with the nineteen-year-old Don Philipp. At fourteen, she gave birth to her first child, Isabella, who would later say of her mother that she was “more sister than mother” to her. The proud Elisabeth always felt uncomfortable in Spain; she was bored at this lacklustre court and became depressed. Her stay in Versailles – after all, her grandfather lived together with his mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and her grandmother under the same roof! – may have left its mark on Isabella, as moral standards here were considerably more lax than in Spain, where morals were strict.

At least Isabella quickly learned to protect herself from begrudging outside influences and acquired a thick skin: at the court near Parma, where she found herself surrounded by soulless courtiers, she wrote that one should by no means share personal thoughts with those persons; rather, it was advantageous to allow only superficial conversations and thus protect oneself from too intimate glimpses of the soul by others.

Even before Lisabella, as Joseph II was to call his future wife, meets her husband face to face, she begins a friendship with Archduchess Marie Christine, Maria Theresa’s favourite daughter, which will shape her short life. At first they approached each other through the written word: In July 1760 Isabella received her first letter from Mimi – as she was affectionately called; as was not unusual at the time, the two referred to each other as sisters.

In September 1760 Isabella was married per procurationem – that is, by proxy – to the heir to the Habsburg throne. It must have seemed a little grotesque when Prince Liechtenstein, who was in his mid-sixties, married the tender 18-year-old in Parma Cathedral as a substitute.

Joseph, her future husband, on the other hand, had supposedly more merits: He was the same age as Isabella, handsome, slim, intelligent, and the heir to the throne of a world empire. What more could a woman want? Joseph himself, who liked to hide behind mocking remarks, was already falling in love with the descriptions of his bride-to-be that Count Anton Salm sent him from the subsequent bridal journey from Parma to Vienna. It impressed him that Isabella longed for a sincere friend as a spouse, for he was far from being a youth purring amorous phrases.

Bride and groom met for the first time in Laxenburg. With them: Maria Theresa and Franz Stephan. Unfortunately, we do not know how the first meeting went and whether, in view of the politically conditioned marriage between two strangers, they found each other somewhat congenial despite this. Joseph met a southern beauty with a dark complexion and dark eyes who presumably appealed to him immediately – the same was true of Joseph’s sister Marie Christine, who later praised Isabella’s pretty face with her mocking mouth in a letter.

Kaiser Joseph II. mit der Statue des Mars, 1775 dat., Künstler: Anton von Maron; ©KHM-Museumsverband; Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Gemäldegalerie; mit freundlicher Genehmigung; to Website

But before the friendship between the two women, which had already been hinted at, could blossom, a wedding was first celebrated, this time with the right groom! On 6 October, Joseph and Isabella got married in the Augustinian Church in Vienna. Whether it was the wedding ceremony, the court table, the souper or the festive serenade in the Redoutensaal (here, by the way, little Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can be seen, probably added later in 1763) – Meytens captured all of this in the cycle of pictures mentioned at the beginning of this article, with which Maria Theresa was able to show visitors to Schönbrunn Palace the imperial splendour for ever. People did not miss the opportunity to dine from a gold service specially made for the occasion and to indulge in the highest culinary pleasures of the Baroque while listening to exquisite table music. Unfortunately, there are no records of Isabella describing her state of mind at the lavish feast and the prospect of married life with Joseph. The heir to the throne was to show his loving side to Isabella at all times during the three years of marriage. He particularly appreciated his wife’s wit, which he himself strove for, but which was not – unlike Isabella’s – something he was born with. She concealed this talent from her mother-in-law Maria Theresa, who disliked irony and mockery.

With her emotional intelligence, her lovely appearance and her musical talent, Isabella of Parma quickly became popular with the entire court. She captured intimate scenes of imperial life in two paintings which, like the cycle of paintings mentioned at the beginning, can be seen at Schönbrunn Palace: St Nicholas’ Presentation shows the imperial family on the morning of St Nicholas’ Day; the children are delighted with the dolls and gingerbread presented to them. The painting Joseph at the Birthbed depicts the artist herself after the birth of her daughter Maria Theresa; her husband Joseph is sitting in an armchair by her bedside and has an open ear for the young mother. Whether Isabella really saw life together and especially her relationship with Joseph in this way, or whether at this point she was doing her mother-in-law the favour of producing pictures that were as pleasing as possible?

Isabella of Parma’s artistic talent has undeniably survived over the years and is also visible to today’s viewers. Of Isabella’s personality, it has become firmly anchored in the collective historical memory that her friendship with sister-in-law Marie Christine probably also had an amorous component.  But can this be confirmed or refuted on the basis of mere sources – the correspondence between the two women?

The fact is that this correspondence is characterised by an openness and emotionality that testifies to great spiritual closeness. Elfriede Iby writes of Joseph’s obvious love for his wife, which the latter, however, “only slightly reciprocated, since her heart obviously beat for Marie Christine […]”. The expectation of providing male offspring as quickly as possible weighed immensely on her, and eventually caused depression, even a death wish, which she described to Marie Christine in her approximately 200 letters and notes. Unfortunately, Marie Christine’s letters are no longer extant today, except for one piece of writing about Isabella’s personality.

Isabella’s instructions to Marie Christine on how to behave after the death of her mother’s beloved friend Maria Theresa seem particularly macabre, but characterised by great interpersonal knowledge and empathy:

Prinzessin Maria Isabella von Parma (1741-1763), Gemahlin von Joseph II.; Jean Marc Nattier d.J.; © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Gemäldegalerie, mit freundlicher Genehmigung; to Website

The Empress will open her heart to you above all, in the first sorrow over my death she will possess nothing so dear as you. In you she will see me revived, for she knows that you were my friend, that I adored you and that you loved me, all this will give you great power over her heart….

I therefore advise you as a friend … to throw yourself into her arms at the very beginning and at an hour when her pain will be the strongest. Tell her that you have lost a friend who may have been useful to you at times, and that you long to be guided and to pour out your heart, that you implore her to take my place in this, that you knew how much her time was taken up, but that you knew her kindness for you and therefore hoped she would never leave you.

It was not always only about morbid things: Isabella addressed her friend as “friend, […] heart, […] ass [as well as] old woman”, sometimes even as “lovely, adorable, dear, holy sister”; she wrote about being grumpy, about a mishap with her chamber pot or painful haemorrhoids.

The following lines prove how much Isabella seems to have fallen for Marie Christine:

Most gracious lady, to be absent from you is a torture that cannot easily be transferred … No more joy, no pleasure, everything becomes tasteless, … nothing else can be hoped for but sadness and pain, the most pleasant things lose their pleasantness. Music itself, the consolation of all men, is never enough to bring the confused thoughts into order … when one is sad, one can find nothing better than holy and sad readings … How consoling are the descriptions which one finds in them, how joyful are the tears which they squeeze out; to see most unhappy people enlightens the pains one feels … what can compare with the joy one feels when one can fall at your feet again? I hope I will soon have that grace …

Schönbrunn, 23.Oct.1761

Isabella is not sparing with her expressions of love – she writes to Marie Christine that she “dies of love and embraces you most tenderly”, or that she “kisses her arscherl [arscherl]”. Her feelings for Joseph, if one can speak of them at all, were hardly ever discussed. Not for nothing did she write in her treatise on the male sex that it was selfish, acted more irrationally than animals and was particularly concerned with flattering its ego. Proto-feministically, Isabella sketches the woman’s position as that of a companion to the man in such undertakings; the man knows very well that the woman is superior to him and for this reason suppresses her. Is this, as Ursula Tamussino concludes, an indication of Isabella’s feelings towards Joseph?

Nevertheless, on 20.03.1762 Isabella gave birth to a daughter named Maria Theresa. Isabella’s motherly love was limited, as Marie Christine notes in her characterisation of her friend. Two miscarriages followed in 1762 and 1763. Again and again Isabella was drawn to thoughts of death: “When will my soul free itself from the fetters that bind it to this machine in order to fly towards its eternal dwelling? It is there that I need no longer fear being separated from the one I love… .” And later: “What have I lost in this world? I am of no use, I only do bad things. […] If it were permitted to die voluntarily, I would be tempted to do it. Perhaps God will show me mercy and take me to Himself soon.” Words of a severely depressed woman who found no fulfilment in the rigid corset of the court and the role envisaged for her.

Thus, when Isabella of Parma died barely a month before her 22nd birthday, on 27.11.1763, she most probably regarded her death as redemption – unfortunately, no definite statement can be made on this today due to a lack of sources. Joseph tirelessly cared for her, who had the smallpox and was struggling with death between 18 and 27 November. On 22 November she even gave birth to another daughter, Christina, who died after an emergency baptism. Isabella suffered from heavy bleeding as a result of the birth; her skin was covered with purulent pustules. Of course, bloodletting, which was used for all illnesses at that time, could no longer help. Although Isabella took a little food and liquid in the last days, she fell into delirium again and again. On the evening of 26 November, her condition deteriorated so drastically that she only regained consciousness once more, only to say goodbye forever on the morning of 27 November. The life of a princess who combined so many favourable character traits with external beauty and artistic talent; a future empress who broke down at the barriers of the court – how much potential died here as a result of the stubbornness of her time?

On request, we will send the complete text including footnotes by e-mail to interested readers.


„Erzherzog Joseph am Wochenbett seiner Gemahlin Isabella von”. In: akgimages. Online: [15.11.2020].

Hamann, Brigitte: „Isabella von Parma.“ In: Die Habsburger. Hrsg. v. Brigitte Hamann. München 1988, S. 170-172.

Hrazky, Josef: „Die Persönlichkeit der Infantin Isabella von Parma (mit Teiledition ihrer Briefe und Aufsätze).“ In: Mitteilungen des Österreichischen Staatsarchivs, Wien 1959, Bd. 12, S. 174-239. Online: [11.11.2020].

Iby, Elfriede: „Die kaiserliche Familie. Maria Theresia, Franz Stephan und die Gründung der Dynastie Habsburg-Lothringen.“ In: Maria Theresia. 1717-1780. Strategin, Mutter, Reformerin. Hrsg. von: Elfriede Iby, Martin Mutschlechner, Werner Telesko und Karl Vocelka. Wien 2017, S. 172-181.

Iby, Elfriede: „Festliche Staatsakte und wie Künstler sie zelebrierten. Die josephinischen Hochzeiten am kaiserlichen Hof.“ In: Iby/Mutschlechner/Telesko/Vocelka 2017, S. 182-189.

Iby, Elfriede und Telesko, Werner: „Hofmobiliendepot Möbel Museum Wien. Familie und Vermächtnis.“ In: Iby/Mutschlechner/Telesko/Vocelka 2017, S. 257-315.

„Isabella von Parma“. In: Kapuzinergruft. Online: [11.11.2020].

Juen, Cornelia: „Künstlerische Ambitionen innerhalb der Familie. Die Blaugouachen im Schönbrunner Porzellanzimmer unter der Lupe.“ In: Iby/Mutschlechner/Telesko/Vocelka 2017, S. 155-159.

Lenders, P. und Hamann, Brigitte: „Marie Christine.“ In: Hamann 1988, S. 312-315.

Mutschlechner, Martin: „Ein Hochzeitsalbum – die Hochzeit Josephs II. mit Isabella von Parma“ . In: Die Welt der Habsburger. Online: [30.10.2020].

Pangels, Charlotte: Die Kinder Maria Theresias. München 1980.

Tamussino, Ursula: Isabella von Parma. Wien 1989.

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