Isabella of Parma (Isabella Maria Luisa Antonietta Ferdinanda Giuseppina Saveria Domenica Giovanna; 31 December 1741 – 27 November 1763) was the daughter of Infante Felipe of Spain, Duke of Parma and his wife Louise Elisabeth, eldest daughter of Louis XV of France and Maria Leszczyńska. Her paternal grandparents were Philip V of Spain (in turn a grandson of Louis XIV) and his second wife, Elisabeth of Parma.
Born Isabella Maria Luisa Antonietta Ferdinanda Giuseppina Saveria Dominica Giovanna at Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid, Isabella was an Infanta of Spain and grew up at the court of her grandfather, Philip V of Spain. Her father was the Spanish Prince Philip (1720-1765), who was Duke of Parma in Italy. Her mother was the 14 year old Elisabeth of France (1727-1759), the eldest daughter of Louis XV of France. Isabella’s parents’ marriage was not happy, and for nearly 10 years Isabella remained an only child. Isabella was very close to her mother and was distraught when she died of smallpox in 1759. Henceforth, Isabella was convinced she would die young, too.
In 1760 a marriage was arranged between Isabella and Archduke Joseph of Austria, heir to the Habsburg Monarchy. After a marriage by proxy, Isabella was escorted to Austria. On 6 October 1760, at the age of 18, Isabella married Joseph II in a ceremony lasting for days. Joseph was thrilled with his new bride and overwhelmed Isabella with his love. In return, she increasingly locked herself away, so much so that shortly after their wedding, Isabella was plunged into melancholy.
The princess spent most of her time in the Viennese court, not with her husband, but with his sister, Archduchess Maria Christina, who later became, by marriage, Duchess of Saxony-Teschen. The two women loved each other deeply. During the few years Isabella and Christina knew each other, they exchanged 200 letters and “billets” while living at the same court. They spent so much time together that they earned the comparison with Orpheus and Eurydice.
Isabel and Maria were united not only by a shared interest in music and art but also by a deep mutual love. Every day they wrote long letters to each other in which they revealed their feelings of love. While the letters of Maria Christina showed her happy nature, Isabel’s feelings were mixed and, in her expressions of affection, showed a certain pessimism, reflecting her growing obsession with death.
However, as wife of the heir to the throne, Isabella knew that her duty was to give birth to a healthy heir. Despite this, the princess developed disquieted feelings toward her husband, spurred by anxieties over sexual intimacy and the possibilities of pregnancy. By late 1761, one year into the marriage, Isabella was pregnant. It was an especially difficult pregnancy, and Isabella suffered symptoms of physical illness, melancholy and lingering fears of death.* Joseph, infatuated and inexperienced, failed to fully understand his wife’s misery. On March 20, 1762, after nine months of mental and physical strain, Isabella gave birth to a daughter they named Maria Theresia. Isabella remained bedridden for 6 weeks after giving birth.
In August 1762 and January 1763 Isabella suffered two separate miscarriages that aggravated her mental unrest, causing her to fall into a depression that eroded her will to live. Isabella was six months pregnant with a baby girl when she contracted smallpox; this brought on premature labor ending in the death of the child, who was given the name Maria Christina. Isabella died a few days later. In total, out of four pregnancies, only one child survived infancy.
In 1763, Isabella fell ill with smallpox and gave birth three months premature, on 22 November 1763, to a daughter, Maria Christina, who died a few hours after birth. A week later, Isabella followed her daughter in death at Schönbrunn Palace. She was buried in Maria Theresa’s vault in the Imperial Crypt Vaults in Vienna. Joseph could not find comfort and did not recover from the death of his wife.
His second marriage (January 1765-May 1767) to Princess Maria Josepha of Bavaria was unhappy and did not produce children. Subsequently, in August 1765, Isabella’s father-in-law Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor died, and Joseph succeeded him as Holy Roman Emperor with the title of Joseph II. (In 1767, Maria Josepha died of smallpox.)
Isabel had predicted even before her death that their daughter would follow this same road shortly after. Her forebodings were fulfilled on 23 January 1770, when the little Archduchess Maria Theresa died at only seven years old of pleurisy. The loss was overwhelming for Joseph. After the death of his only child, Joseph withdrew increasingly from public life.