I returned from my recent trip to Vienna bring back not only an obsession with Johann Georg Pinsel, but also with Isabella von Parma (1741-1763), who lived at the same time as the mysterious 18th century sculptor. Isabella was one of the most remarkable personalities of the 18th century, admired for her achievements in art, music, and philosophy. The reason I became fascinated with her, however, was an excerpt from a letter she wrote to her sister-in-law, Marie Christine of Austria. “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.”
I am once again struck by the narrow lenses through which we see women in history. In many books Isabella is repeatedly described as “mad,” “tragic,” or “odd.” People search for the roots of her melancholy moods in the family tree and discuss at length the mental problems of her father and her mother’s cold attitude. What about the fact that princesses in the 18th century were little more than breeding mares, and Isabella had half a dozen miscarriages during her short marriage to Joseph II of Austria? The couple was under enormous pressure to produce a male offspring to the Hapsburgs.
In a letter to Marie Christine, she writes,
“What should the daughter of a great prince expect? Her fate is unquestionably most unhappy. Born the slave of the people’s prejudices, she finds herself subjected to this weight of honours, these innumerable etiquettes attached to greatness… In the end the effort is made to establish her. There she is condemned to abandon everything, her family, her country–and for whom? For an unknown person, whose character and manner of thinking she does not know… sacrifice to a supposed public good, but in fact rather to the wretched policy of a minister who can find no other way for the two dynasties to form an alliance which he pronounces indissoluble–and which, immediately it seems advantageous, is broken off…”*
Joseph, it must be said, experienced similar anxieties on the eve of his marriage, a desire for companionship mixed with the apprehension of marrying someone he hasn’t even seen. But Joseph was taken with Isabella, especially with her erudition, wit and learning, even if he remained too immature to fully appreciate her. Remember, he was the same emperor who complained to Mozart that his music had too many notes.
By the time she was twenty, she was already impressively accomplished, having had written several treatises on education, philosophy and military strategy. She wrote music and directed plays, painted and created interior designs, some of which can still be seen at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. The complex and rich personality of Isabella comes best of all in the letters she shared with Marie Christine between 1760 and 1763.
“The confusion which reigns in a certain drawer which lives in my room, where are to be found together and without rhyme or reason a political tract, a pile of letters, a comic opera, a vaudeville, a treatise on education, a clavier part, some moral reflections. A sermon jostles a treatise on all types of foolishness, prayers are mixed up in a paper devoted to declaring my love to you, letters from the emperor muddle up with letters of a hundred persons who are indifferent to me, and with those letters which are so dear to me and constitute the sweetness of my life.”*
Historians debate whether the relationship between Isabella and Marie Christine was more than platonic, but it seems like an irrelevant discussion to me. Prince Albert, Marie Christine’s husband, collected and preserved the letters after his wife’s death as proof of Marie Christine being friends with such a brilliant personality as Isabella. (Apart from one letter, Marie Christine’s correspondence didn’t survive.) But love can come in many forms and Isabella’s letters are full of passion. When I read them, everything around me recedes, and all I’m conscious of is the strength of her emotion and longing.
“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.”
“My dear angel,” “my most precious treasure,” “my consolation,” says Isabelle to Marie Christine. “I am madly in love with you, virtuously or diabolically, I love you and I will love you to the grave.”
Isabella lived but for a short time after writing that letter. She contracted smallpox and passed away at the age of twenty two. Realizing that she would soon die, she wrote to Marie Christine offering advice on how to navigate the complicated court life of Vienna and win the confidence of Maria Theresa. Isabella’s death left the entire royal family in morning for far longer than etiquette required, and Joseph never fully recovered from losing his wife and companion.
As for Marie Christine, she must have followed Isabella’s advice, because she was the only one of Maria Theresa’s daughters to make a love marriage. Her suitor was Prince Albert of Saxony (1738-1822), a handsome and impeccably educated man, but with neither riches nor throne. Their marriage was very happy, and with Marie Christine’s generous income, the couple amassed an impressive collection of art, now at the Albertina in Vienna, and build a palace in Brussels, where they resided until the revolution in 1792. The Royal Castle of Laeken is the current residence of the Belgian royal family.
Unfortunately, Isabella’s letters aren’t translated into English, and the only full version is
“Je meurs d’amour pour toi…” Lettres de Isabelle de Bourbon-Parme à l’archiduchesse Marie-Christine 1760-1763. Édition établie par Élisabeth Badinter. La Lettre et la Plume. Éditions Tallandier, 2008. The women like most of the European nobility at the time used French, although a couple of Isabella’s letters are written in German. Another source is Hrasky Josef. Die Persönlichkeit der Infantin Isabella von Parma, Mittelungen des österreichischen Straatsarchivs. 12. Wien, 1959, although Hrasky suppressed some of the raunchier letters. The princesses were not above discussing such mundane matters as hemorrhoids and chamber pots.
*The translated quotes I used in this article come from the excellent biography of Joseph II by Derek Beales, pp. 72-76.
First image: Isabella von Parma by Jean-Marc Nattier. Second: by Anton Raphaël Mengs.