Isabella of Parma was born on 31 December 1741 as the daughter of Philip, Duke of Parma, the second son of King Philip V of Spain, and Louise Élisabeth of France. At the time of her birth, her father was not yet Duke of Parma, and she was born in the Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid. The delivery had been difficult for her 14-year-old mother, and it had lasted over 24 hours. Isabella was baptized immediately after birth, following the Spanish tradition.
Her father was involved in the War of the Austrian Succession at the time of her birth, and her mother was hopelessly lonely at the Spanish court with her domineering mother-in-law Elisabeth Farnese. Louise Élisabeth wrote to Philip, “As for me, I die of boredom and sadness, but the little one is fine.”1 When little Isabella was four years old, the Duke of Noailles described her as follows “One has never seen such a pretty child, she is very tall for her age, and her features are extremely pleasant. But above all, sire, it is her demeanour and dignity with which she receives her visitors. She already knows who she is, to whom she belongs and what she has to portray.”2 Quite impressive for a four-year-old girl!
In 1748, the War of the Austrian succession finally came to an end, and in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the duchy was awarded to Isabella’s father, and he became the founder of the House of Bourbon-Parma. Louise Élisabeth did not hurry to be by her husband’s side in Parma, but she did leave Spain at the end of November – the destination was Versailles, and the 7-year-old Isabella was going with her. Although her new position as Duchess of Parma was pleasing, she needed to secure an income from her father. She was touchingly reunited with her father, her mother, her brother the Dauphin and her twin sister Henriette. While in France, she worked diligently to establish an income to provide for them in wartorn Parma, and she was already on the lookout for a suitable match for her daughter. Her stay at Versailles was extended week after week.
Little Isabella is not spoken of much during this time. She later described herself as a tomboy who enjoyed jumping and climbing. She often broke stuff and chatted away as soon as she learned to speak. She was undoubtedly a spirited young girl, and she was much beloved by her French family. After nearly a year at Versailles, their departure for Parma could not be postponed any longer. On 6 October 1749, the Duchess of Parma and her daughter Isabella departed from Fontainebleau. On 1 November, they finally sailed from Antibes, but a storm forced them to take shelter in Monaco. When Genoa finally came into view, another storm proved so strong that they could not land, and they were forced to endure another rocky day at sea. When they finally arrived on land, they received a splendid reception. The in-land journey also proved difficult due to flooding, but they finally reached Broni on 17 November, where a surprise waited for them – Philip had come to fetch them.
Unfortunately, there is no record of this meeting. Philip had last seen his young daughter as a toddler, and she was now almost eight years old. Louise Élisabeth had little interest in Parma and mockingly called it “ce trou” (this hole). They moved into the Ducal Palace of Colorno, and Louise Élisabeth immediately hired craftsmen to make it more French. Louise Élisabeth reportedly wrote so often to her father to ask for more money that he had wondered out loud if it would not be cheaper to recall her to France.3
The Marquesa de Gonzales was appointed as Isabella’s governess, but her mother was not pleased with this appointment as she believed that the Marquesa was an informant for the Spanish court, which turned out to be true. There was soon another addition to the family – Louise Élisabeth gave birth to a son named Ferdinand on 20 January 1751, followed by a second daughter by the name of Maria Luisa on 9 December 1751. The following year, Louise Élisabeth left her children behind as she went back to Versailles to mourn the death of her twin sister Henriette. She would stay there for almost an entire year. Isabella’s father had accompanied his wife part of the way there, and from this time, there are some surviving letters from Isabella to her father. One of the letters reads, “Papa, I am delighted with Maman’s happy arrival, I wish she had already arrived in Versailles and even more back in Parma. Papa, I’m telling you my brother is fine, including his teeth, but he has a bit of a foot ache. My dear papa, your very obedient daughter.”4
Isabella continued in her education – she learned history, geography and several languages. She loved to play and perform music, and she also learned to use a bow and arrow. She even knew the basics of cooking. Isabella also raised silkworms in a hidden garden bed and learned to draw and paint with pastels.