Maria was born on the 24th of November 1731 at the home of her family; the Ducal Palace of Modena in modern day Italy. She was the eighth child born to her parents and was later joined by two more siblings.
Maria’s mother was Charlotte Aglaé d’Orléans who was the granddaughter of both King Louis XIV of France and his brother Philippe I, Duke of Orléans and so was of high rank at the French court. Charlotte Aglaé was married to Francesco III d’Este against her will, she had wished to marry somebody else but her father was Regent of France at the time, and she had to do as he wished to create alliances for the family. The couple did not get on well with each other, despite having ten children together, and they both had extra-marital relationships. Even when Francesco became the ruling Duke, his wife Charlotte moved around between France and Modena. She was often involved in some scandal or other and fled back to Versailles where she was not often welcomed by her family. She found life in Modena very rigid and dull and spent her time there introducing new entertainments and patronising the arts. Due to her parent’s tumultuous relationship, Maria Fortunata saw little of them when she was growing up.
In the 1740s, Maria’s mother split from her father and was exiled to France. Despite her disgrace, she was able to arrange a very advantageous marriage for her eldest daughter Maria Teresa Felicitas to the Duc d’Penthièvre who was the wealthiest man in France. This meant that when it came time to arrange a marriage for Maria Fortunata, a good match could also be found.
It was arranged for Maria to marry her cousin Louis François Joseph de Bourbon. Maria and Louis’ mothers were sisters. Louis was part of the Conti cadet branch of the House of Bourbon; he was known as the Comte de La Marche from birth and was due to inherit the title of Prince of Conti upon his father’s death. While the title was honorary, it meant that Maria and her husband would rank amongst the Prince and Princesses of the blood, this ranking was the highest outside of the immediate royal family.
The wedding took place at first by proxy in Turin and then was celebrated in person on the 27th of February 1759 in Nangis-en-Brie in France. Maria’s father, by this point the Duke of Modena and Reggio, provided a dowry of a million livres for his daughter. Despite being set up for success, the couple did not get along and scarcely lived together. Louis preferred the company of his mistress, an Italian dancer known as Mademoiselle Coraline with whom he had two children. Maria and Louis, on the other hand, had no children together.
Despite the poor relationship between her and her husband, Maria was a key member of the French court during this period and was always present at important events, for example, she was a member of the tiny party gathered for a meal to celebrate the marriage of the future King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1770.
In 1776, Louis and Maria became the Prince and Princess of Conti after the death of Louis’ father. By this stage, the quiet, pious Maria began to keep herself busy with her own small circle of friends which included her nieces the future Duchess of Orléans and the Princess of Lamballe rather than keeping the company of the queen and her inner circle.
In 1777, Maria and Louis separated, they had lived apart for a while, but this is when things ended officially. Following this Maria lived a quiet life in her own properties until the Estates General met in 1789 and France was plunged into Revolution, throwing the lives of swathes of people including Maria into turmoil.
Whereas some members of her family had turned to support the revolutionaries, Maria Fortunata pledged her support to the royal family and even joined in with marches to show her support. It soon became clear that supporting the royal family had led to Maria’s life to being in danger, even at nearly sixty years old, she would not be safe from the ensuing reign of Terror. Maria decided to flee France into a life of exile under the name Comtesse de Triel to hide her identity. She fled first to Brussels and then to Sardinia in 1791 before going on to Switzerland where other émigrés had already fled.
In 1794, an ageing Maria allowed her great-niece Adélaïde d’Orléans to move in with her. The Princesses father had sympathised with the revolutionary effort and even changed his name from Duke of Orléans to Philippe Égalité but was still guillotined in the Terror. Adélaïde’s mother Louise was also in prison at this time, and so she relied on her great-aunt to keep her safe. The pair moved around to avoid Napoleon’s forces, spending time in Bavaria, Hungary and Barcelona. In 1801, Adélaïde was reunited with her mother, who was finally released from prison.
After over a decade of life on the run from place to place under exile, Maria Fortunata began to feel herself ageing and unable to continue living the same lifestyle. She made the decision to retire to a convent and chose the Convent of the Visitation in Venice where she lived from 1801 until 1803 when she died. The 71-year-old Princess died from pleurisy and was buried in the chapel of the convent.
In 1830, Maria’s great-nephew Louis, the son of her niece Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon became King of the French and would reign as the last French King before the proclamation of the Second Republic in 1848.