Two Duchesses (Part Two)

For those who are still with me, we now go back in time to look at the life and travails of Maria Luisa of Bourbon-Parma (1782–1824), queen of Etruria, duchess of Parma and duchess of Lucca. Her father was Charles IV of Spain and her mother Maria Luisa of Parma (a formidable lady, accused of poisoning her daughter-in-law, Princess Maria Antonia of Naples and Sicily, who in fact almost certainly died of tuberculosis).  She had thirteen siblings, including an elder sister, also Maria Luisa, who died in 1782 at the age of nearly five, and several others who died in infancy; her mother also had ten miscarriages. As was the custom of the time, such children as survived to their teenage years were married off advantageously, often to members of the wider family: her sister Maria Amalia (1779–98) was married to her own uncle, twenty-four years older than her, and died after giving birth to a stillborn son at the age of nineteen.

Maria Luisa’s mother, by Anton Raphael Mengs, who may also have painted Elisa’s father. (Credit: the Prado Museum, Madrid)
The elder Maria Luisa as queen of Spain, by Goya. (Credit: the Prado Museum, Madrid)

Charles IV and his family have been immortalised by Goya, not completely to their advantage. In the famous group portrait where Goya himself lurks behind his canvas on the left, Maria Luisa, her husband (and first cousin) Louis/Lodovico and their son Charles Louis/Carlo Lodovico (1799–1883) are on the far right.

Francisco Goya, La familia de Carlos IV, 1800–1. (Credit: the Prado Museum, Madrid)

Louis’s destined wife was in fact the unfortunate Maria Amalia, but when the shy and frequently ill prince came to Spain to meet her, he found her sullen (possibly just shy too?) and preferred her younger sister. Apparently, Maria Amalia was married off to her own uncle because it was against protocol for a younger sister to be married before an elder: the two pairs shared a ceremony on 25 August 1795, when Maria Luisa was thirteen and Louis twenty-two.

Maria Amalia, by an unknown painter. (Private collection)
Maria Luisa, aged thirteen, by Agustín Estève. (Credit: The Hispanic Society of America)

They spent the first years of their marriage in Spain, and the match seems to have been a happy one, in spite of Louis’s health problems. But inevitably Napoleon intervened: the kingdom of Etruria was cobbled together in Italy as a quid pro quo for the return of Louisiana to France, along with a great many other land-swaps/grabs too complicated to delay us here (famously, the French sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803). But Louis and Maria Luisa ended up in Florence , the capital of their short-lived kingdom, in 1801 with their son. It did not start well: it was noted that Louis now spoke Italian with a Spanish accent, and Maria Luisa could barely speak it (the level of her education at the Spanish court is not clear). They were given the Pitti Palace to live in, but this Medici building was almost devoid of furniture since the departure of the ousted last grand duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand III (yet another cousin, who got Salzburg in exchange for Tuscany, but later returned). Perhaps through stress, Maria Luisa suffered a miscarriage; her husband’s health continued to deteriorate, and (like Elisa before her) she was full of good intentions but received a very unenthusiastic welcome from the Florentines: Ferdinand had been popular, and the local economy was in ruins.

Goya’s sketch of Louis for the family portrait above. (Credit: the Prado Museum, Madrid)

The couple returned to Spain in October 1802 for another family double wedding, but the pregnant Maria Luisa gave birth to a daughter, Maria Luisa Carlota (1802–57) at sea, and it was thought unlikely that either would survive. Happily, they did, though they missed the wedding. Charles IV insisted that they stay in Madrid until December (during which time Louis’s father died), and eventually got back to Italy early in 1803. Louis was by now so ill that he rarely appeared in public: to conceal his condition, Maria Luisa took on his public role, as a result of which she was decried for keeping him prisoner while she frolicked in public. He died after an epileptic fit on 27 May 1803, and Maria Luisa, aged twenty, became regent for their four-year-old son.

The family, by François-Xavier Fabre. The picture is dated 1804, so perhaps this is a memorial? (Credit: the Prado Museum, Madrid)
An 1803 coin showing the young king Carlo Luvdovico and his mother, the regent of Etruria.

She tried to improve the lives of her subjects, developing industries and spending heavily on education, and holding parties at the Pitti in an effort to increase her and her family’s popularity. However, as you have probably anticipated, Napoleon had another cunning plan: on 23 November 1807, the newly appointed French ambassador told her that she was to leave Florence immediately because Spain had ceded Etruria to France. After protesting uselessly to her father, she left on 10 December 1807, and, meeting Napoleon in Milan, was offered the throne of yet a new country: the Kingdom of Northern Lusitania, which would come into being after the French and the Spanish had conquered Portugal; she would also have to marry Lucien Buonaparte (yes, he’s back!). Both refused, she because her sister Carlota was already queen of Portugal, and he because he didn’t want to divorce his wife. The long game was, of course, that having used a Spanish army to defeat and annexe Portugal, Napoleon would throw out the Spanish Bourbons and make his brother Joseph king of Spain. This resulted in the Peninsular War, and the rest is Wellington. Meanwhile, Elisa became grand duchess of Tuscany …

The widowed Maria Luisa and her two children in 1807, by Wilhelm Titel (who trained at Greifswald). (Credit:  Segretariato Regionale del Ministero dei Beni Culturali di Firenze)

Maria Luisa returned, despite efforts by Napoleon to make her settle in Nice or Turin, to the Spanish court, which unsurprisingly was riddled with unrest. Her oldest brother, Ferdinand, had been plotting to overthrow his father and his unpopular chief minister, Godoy, and the French took this opportunity to invade Spain under the guise of sending troops to Portugal, while Napoleon invited father and son to Bayonne, so that he could helpfully mediate between them.  Maria Luisa  could not travel with the rest of the family, as she and her son both had measles: on the day they left (2 May 1808) Madrid rose in revolt against the French occupiers but were crushed by General Joachim Murat, whom you will remember as king of Naples and Napoleon’s brother-in-law.

Both Charles and Ferdinand were ‘persuaded’ by Napoleon to abandon the crown of Spain in exchange for money and palatial French residences. Maria Luisa pleaded to keep Parma for her son, and at one point Napoleon seemed to agree, but when she had travelled as far as Lyon on the way to Parma, she was effectively kidnapped and kept under close watch in Nice. An attempt to escape to England was detected (and executions followed): Maria Luisa herself was imprisoned in a Roman convent, with her daughter, while her son, now nine, was kept in the custody of his grandfather, though she was occasionally allowed to see him.

The convent of SS. Domenico e Sisto, where Maria Luisa was confined. (Credit: Mattes)

Eventually, the coat-turning of Murat led to her release, in January 1814, and she moved to the Barberini Palace with her children and parents. She hastily wrote her memoirs, in the hope of getting the Allies to support her son’s cause at the Congress of Vienna, but thought it best to leave Rome when Napoleon escaped from Elba, and the family travelled from city to city in Italy.

Maria Louisa of Austria, second wife of Napoleon and later duchess of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla, 1812,by Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guérin. (Credit: the Palace of Versailles)

After Waterloo, it was decided that she could not regain Parma for her son (it was given to Napoleon’s second wife, Maria Louisa (various spelled) of Austria, who became duchess Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla from 1814, marrying twice more after Napoleon’s death in 1821), though he could succeed to it after her death. However, Maria Luisa was given Lucca in compensation (while retaining the status of a queen), but for nearly two years she hesitated. It may have been her brother’s and father’s proposal that her daughter should marry her own youngest brother that made her decide to retrieve a small amount of autonomy. On 17 December 1817 she arrived in Lucca as the ruling duchess; her son would inherit on her death.

Maria Luisa as duchess of Lucca, by François-Xavier Fabre. (Credit: the Pitti Palace, Florence)

Various marriage projects were contemplated (including one to the future Charles X of France), but none was fulfilled. Instead she spent a lot of time and money on her new duchy, not least in attempting to remove all traces of Elisa from the city. The interior of the Palazzo Ducale was completely renovated, and the statue of Napoleon was removed from the Piazza (I imagine that she also tried to change its name, but it is Piazza Napoleone today). It was replaced by another statue, by the indefatigable Lorenzo Bartolini, of Maria Luisa herself, as benign mother of her city. She supported the arts and sciences, but her most important contribution was the building of an aqueduct to bring water to the city. This is commemorated in one of the four reliefs formerly round the side of the statue’s plinth, but now in Palazzo Mansi.

Maria Luisa replaces Napoleon in ‘his’ square in Lucca. Any resemblance to Bartolini’s earlier statue of Elisa is definitely not coincidental.
Maria Luisa’s arrival in Lucca with her children to accept the keys of the city: shades of a Roman triumph.
Maria Luisa shows Lucca her plans for improvement.
Aided by the goddess Minerva/Athene, Maria Luisa improves agriculture.
Maria Luisa prepares to lay the first brick of the aqueduct.

Maria Luisa died in Rome (where she spent her winters) on 13 March 1824, and was buried in the Escorial. Her son Carlo Ludovico succeeded, but took no interest in governing the city, leaving this to his ministers: in 1847 he abdicated in favour of the then grand duke of Tuscany, in exchange for money to support a comfortable lifestyle. However, in the same year he was obliged by the death of the other Maria Louisa to become duke of Parma, as had been agreed at the Congress of Vienna. He disliked the place and the work, and was much disliked by the natives in return, but his problem was in a way solved by the onset of the Risorgimento: it is far too complicated to go into here, but suffice it to say that when the Austrian army put a temporary stop to the process of Italian unification at the battle of Custoza, he arranged to abdicate in favour of his own son (whose absolutist policies probably led to his assassination in 1854, though the affair remains shrouded in mystery). His most famous comment on the mother who had tried so hard to defend his patrimony was that she had ‘ruined him physically, morally and financially’, which seems a little harsh, given her circumstances – privileged, of course, but yet another of the millions of people across Europe and beyond whose lives were upset or destroyed by Buonaparte.


Maria Luisa and her children in 1815, by José Aparicio e Inglada. (Credit: the Prado Museum, Madrid)

This entry was posted in Art, Biography, History, Italy, Museums and Galleries and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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