The pretty and charming Isabella of Bourbon-Parma (1741-1763) lived a double live at the Imperial Court in Vienna. She was adored by her loving husband, the future Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790), but, unknown to him, she had fallen in love with Joseph's sister. She became depressed, heard voices and became preoccupied with death.

Isabella Maria Luisa Antonietta Ferdinanda Giuseppina Saveria Dominica Giovanna was born in Madrid on December 31, 1741. Her father was the Spanish Prince Philip (1720-1765)1, who was Duke of Parma in Italy. Her mother was Elisabeth of France (1727-1759, to the right), the eldest daughter of Louis XV of France, and the only one who was allowed to marry. Elisabeth's marriage to Philip was not happy, and for nearly 10 years Isabella remained an only child. Her two siblings, Ferdinando and Maria Luisa, were both born in 1751.
As Isabella grew up, young Elisabeth of France became more a sister than a mother to her daughter. The two lived for a time at the court of Versailles before joining Duke Philip in Parma. When her mother died from smallpox in 1759, Isabella was distraught. Henceforth, she was convinced she would die young, too.

In 1760, when Isabella was 18 years old, a marriage was arranged for her to Archduke Joseph of Austria, eldest son and heir of the Empress Maria Theresia. A marriage by proxy took place in the cathedral of Padua. Afterwards, Isabella took leave of her family. She was escorted with much pomp to Austria by Prince Joseph Wenzel of Liechtenstein (1696-1772).
Joseph (to the left) was a serious young man with progressive ideas and a keen interest in French philosophers. Isabella did not read sentimental novels either; she read Bossuet and John Law. She could solve difficult mathematical problems, and was a talented violin player. Joseph was shy with women; he had not much ease of manner or small talk. Thus, Isabella took infinite pains to charm her awkward husband, and to give him pleasure in her company. "One must tell him the truth in all things," she wrote once, "and always meet him gently and tenderly." Isabella was a remarkable girl, pretty, intelligent, sensitive, and perfectly trained. Soon, her personality and charm fascinated the whole court of Vienna. Although their marriage was a political arrangement, Joseph fell deeply in love with his young bride. They were married in Vienna on October 16, 1760 and the festivities continued for days.

Joseph's "perfect wife" preferred the company of one of his sisters, Marie Christine (1742-1798, to the right), known as "Mizzerl". She was spontaneous, cordial, highly intelligent, humorous and shrewd. The two Princesses, the dark Bourbon and the blonde Habsburg, exchanged endless confidences, walked together in the gardens, sang and made music together2, and painted portraits of one another. Although they met each day, they exchanged long, loving, intimate letters. Isabella professed her Lesbian love for her sister-in-law, when she wrote: "I am writing you again, cruel sister, though I have only just left you. I cannot bear waiting to know my fate, and to learn whether you consider me a person worthy of your love, or whether you would like to throw me into the river.... I can think of nothing but that I am deeply in love. If I only knew why this is so, for you are so without mercy that one should not love you, but I cannot help myself." Isabella emphasized "that I love you madly, and I hope to kiss you well, also that I will be thrilled to see you, kiss you and be kissed by you!" Later she wrote: "I am told that the day begins with God. I, however, begin the day by thinking of the object of my love, for I think of her incessantly."

Both the Spanish and Austrian Courts were old-fashioned, stiff and formal. Isabella wrote in a letter: "A Princess cannot, like the poorest woman in a hut, relax in the midst of her family. In the high society in which she is forced to live, she has neither acquaintances nor friends. It is for this that she has to leave her family, her home. And why? To belong to a man whose character she does not know, to enter into a family where she is received with jealousy." In a feminist "Treatise over men" Isabella wrote that men are "good-for-nothings", "unnecessary animals", and "parasites of human company", who hold all power, and use it to repress women. Isabella also confessed that she was afraid of sexual intercourse with her husband. She regarded the deed as sinful and feared the resulting pregnancy. Interestingly, Isabella's mother, too, had always turned completely cold and rigid in her husband's arms. Joseph, infatuated and inexperienced, failed to notice his wife's misery.

By the end of 1761, Isabella was pregnant. She suffered from terrible headaches, and was constantly tired. She was bleeded, worsening her condition. Forced to stay in bed, Isabella occupied herself writing essays and dissertations, covering a broad range of topics, including education, the nature of masculinity, the superiority of all things French, and the failings of Italy.
On March 20, 1762, Isabella had a long, and complicated confinement. As a good husband, Joseph held her hand and tried to comfort Isabella during her ordeal. Finally, a daughter (to the right) was born; they called her Theresia. It took 6 more weeks before Isabella was finally able to leave her bed.

Like her paternal grandfather, Philip V of Spain (1683-1746), Isabella became overwhelmed by a deep melancholy. The infatuated Joseph didn't notice anything unusual, but to friends and to her ladies-in-waiting Isabella declared that she would die soon, and added that her little daughter would not long remain behind. Her letters reveal an increasing preoccupation with death: "Death is good. Never have I thought of it more than now. Everything arouses in me the desire to die soon. God knows my wish to desert a life that insults Him every day. If it were permitted to kill one's self, I would have already done it." "I can tell you that I am impatient to die at your bosom," she wrote to Mizzerl. Later she wrote: "I can say that death speaks to me in a distinct secret voice. For three days I have heard this voice."

In 1762, Isabella had 2 miscarriages, which intensified her depression. The Empress Maria Theresia wanted a male heir and frankly told her son that, in case of a next pregnancy, he should "restrain his lust" to avoid additional miscarriages. On December 12, one of Joseph's sisters, Johanna, died of smallpox at the age of 12 and the whole court mourned. It increased Isabella's preoccupation with death. Early 1763, she wrote to Mizzerl: "I will not survive the new year! I feel that my vital strength diminishes." and "My ailing body paralyses my mental health and my mental state undermines my physical condition."
Soon, Isabella (to the right) was pregnant again. The Empress declared that Isabella needed absolute rest and Joseph kept his promise of celibacy. After 6 months, however, Isabella sickened with smallpox. Joseph, who had been immunised by a childhood attack, watched by her bedside in anguish as she grew worse each day. She gave birth to daughter on November 22, who died soon afterwards. Feverishly, Isabella cried out: "My whole body burns, because I have sinned with my whole body!" She died 5 days after her confinement at the age of 21. To her father Joseph wrote: "I have lost everything, my adored wife, my only friend is no more! Grief-stricken and downcast, I hardly know if I am still alive."

The official court mourning period was not yet over, when the Empress Maria Theresia proposed a new marriage. Absorbed in his grief, Joseph at first refused, but later gave in. In January 1765, he married the Bavarian Princess Josepha (1739-1767). Her face and body were covered with sores and she had bad teeth. Joseph simply could not bear her and spent as much time as possible travelling. He remarked: "They want me to have children. How can we have them? If I could put the tip of my finger on the tiniest part of her body which was not covered with pimples, I would try to have children." His sister Marie Christine observed: "I believe that if I were his wife and so mistreated, I would escape and hang myself on a tree." The unfortunate Josepha was chronically ailing and soon became melancholy, too. She spent her days trying cures in the baths of Baden. After 30 months of marriage, she caught smallpox, too, and died within a few days.

Marie Christine refused a betrothal to a French Prince and held out firmly to a suitor of her own choice, Prince Albert of Saxony (1738-1822). He was a younger son with neither fortune nor prospect of a throne. In 1766 she got her way and their marriage was a very happy one. In 1769 another of Joseph's sisters married Isabella's brother. Isabella's only child, Theresia, was a merry and charming little girl. She succumbed to pneumonia on January 23, 1770 at the age of 7. Joseph, now Emperor Joseph II (to the right), never remarried; he preferred mistresses and "showed by the brevity of the encounters that it was merely a matter of need".

Copyright © 2004-2011 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.



  1 Isabella's father was a son of the mad King Philip V of France (1683-1746) and Elisabeth Farnese (1692-1766), heiress of Parma in Italy.
  2 Joseph was also font of music, but not very gifted. Once, after hearing a performance of one of Mozart's operas, he said to the composer: "Beautiful, my dear Mozart, but too many notes."


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