Queen Paola of Belgium (born Donna Paola Ruffo di Calabria on 11 September 1937) is the wife of the former King Albert II and was Queen of the Belgians from 1993 until his abdication in 2013 in favour of their eldest child the current King Philippe of Belgium.
She was born in Forte dei Marmi, Tuscany, Italy, the seventh and youngest child of the World War I Italian flying ace Fulco, Prince Ruffo di Calabria, 6th Duke of Guardia Lombarda (1884–1946). Her mother was Luisa Gazelli dei Conti di Rossana e di Sebastiano (1896–1989), a matrilineal descendant of the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution. She is of Italian and Belgian ancestry and was hailed as one of the leading beauties of Europe in her youth.
Queen Paola 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.
Ademarus Rufus, who died in 1049, held the title of Comes in southern Italy and Siggerio Ruffo became Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II’s grand marshal of the Kingdom of Sicily in 1235. The family divided into two branches after the 14th century: the Ruffo di Calabria and the Ruffo di Scaletta, to the former of which the Queen belongs.
Queen Paola’s brother, Don Fabrizio Ruffo di Calabria-Santipau (1922–2005), head of the entire family from 1975, was historical heir to the titles of Prince of Scilla, Prince of Palazzolo, Duke of Guardia Lombarda, Count of Sinopoli, Marquis of Licodia Eubea, Count of Nicotera, Baron of Calanna and of Crispano, Patrician of Naples.
Queen Paola is related to historically eminent Roman and southern Italian noble families, including the Colonna, Orsini, Pallavicini, Alliata and Rospigliosi. Among her distinguished ancestors of the French aristocracy were the American general Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette and the Dukes of Noailles.
Since the fall of the Italian monarchy in 1946, the Princes Ruffo di Calabria have become connected by marriage, in addition to the Belgian royal family, to such formerly reigning dynasties as the Orléans, the Savoys and the Bonapartes.
In 1958, the Prince of Liège went to the Vatican to witness the coronation of Pope John XXIII. At a reception at the Belgian embassy, the Prince met Italian Donna Paola Ruffo di Calabria. “We were both shy, so we only talked a little,” Paola said later about their first meeting. Shy but smitten, Prince Albert later proposed marriage to Paola, and she accepted. Their engagement was announced at the Chateau of Laeken in 1959.
The Royal Household wanted to organise the wedding in the Vatican, and to have it blessed by Pope John XXIII. Albert’s father, King Leopold III of the Belgians, his aunt ex-Queen Marie-José of Italy, and Paola’s brother, the Prince Ruffo, sent a diplomatic mission to the pontifical court. However the Belgian Government never accepted, and objected to the wish of the court. The Pope understood the government’s concerns, and never agreed to participate in the wedding. Finally, avoiding an international scandal, the Prince of Liège married Donna Paola Ruffo di Calabria at St. Goedele Cathedral in Brussels on 2 July 1959.
The couple have three children:
Philippe, King of the Belgians, who married Countess Mathilde d’Udekem d’Acoz in 1999 and has 4 children.
Princess Astrid, who married Lorenz, Archduke of Austria-Este in 1984 and has 5 children.
Prince Laurent, who married Claire Louise Coombs in 2003 and has 3 children.
By the late 1960s, the marriage had deteriorated. There were even rumors of divorce plans. By the early 1980s, however, the couple’s relations had improved. In the end, Albert and Paola chose to stay together.
For her 70th birthday interview, Paola, by then Queen of the Belgians, said, “we’ve had our problems, but now we both say that we were meant for each other. We are very happy now.” On May 17, 2016 Paola became a great-grandmother to Archduchess Anna Astrid, the daughter of her eldest grandchild Prince Amedeo of Belgium, Archduke of Austria-Este.
In 2015 Queen Paola was admitted to hospital, after vacation in Italy. The court announced that she had to cancel a planned visit to the Bienale in Venice. Further communications were kept private. The queen sent a message to Grosio, where she was expected to visit the residence of her aunt the Marquesa Margherita Pallavicini Mossi. Papers believe that the queen suffered from a stroke during the holiday