Maria Pia of Savoy was born on 16 October 1847 at the Royal Palace in Turin as the second daughter of the future King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy and his wife Adelaide of Austria. She was given the name Pia in honour of her godfather Pope Pius IX, and it was also he who presided over her christening. She was also given a golden rose, which was only given to Catholic queens, princesses and eminent noblemen as a token of special reverence.
Maria Pia joined four older siblings in the nursery: Maria Clotilde (born 1843), the future King Umberto I of Italy (born 1844), the future King Amadeo I of Spain (born 1845) and Oddone (born 1846). Three more brothers would follow, but none of them would survive infancy. Little Oddone suffered from a curvature of the spine, and he was sickly; he lived to be 19 years old. The frequent pregnancies also affected the health of Maria Pia’s mother with her grandfather writing to her father that the pregnancies were, “spoiling too early the health of our Adele, so dear.”1
Adelaide supervised the upbringing of her daughters herself until they were five years old. They were then appointed to a governess, the Marchesa Pes di Villamarina – nicknamed Nonna Pes by the girls. Their lessons focussed on religion, languages, history, geography and traditional feminine pastimes such as sewing, painting and dancing. Maria Pia was not an outstanding pupil as she was too restless to apply herself. Their brothers received their lessons from military tutors at Castle Moncalieri, and the sisters were allowed to visit them once a week.
Tragically, Adelaide’s father proved to be right in his warning to his son-in-law. Following his letter, there had been a four-year break in pregnancies but then three more followed in quick succession. Her mental wellbeing was also affected by her husband’s very public affairs and him showing off his illegitimate children. Slowly, Adelaide lost her hair and her teeth. She became emaciated and sank into a depression. In early 1855, Adelaide gave birth to another son but shortly after she became ill with typhoid fever. She would not be the only one in the family to become ill. On 12 January 1855, her mother-in-law Maria Theresa of Austria was the first to die from the disease. Maria Pia and Clotilde were taken from the Royal Palace to stay with their brothers as a precaution. On 20 January, Adelaide too died from typhoid fever. Shortly after, their uncle Ferdinand died, followed in May by their newborn baby brother.
Clotilde and Maria Pia were left at Moncalieri while their brothers were sent to live with their father at the Royal Palace. While Clotilde had managed to find a special place in their father’s heart, Maria Pia suffered from a lack of parental affection. Luckily, the bond with her siblings was quite good, and she began to idolize her brothers. During her childhood, Maria Pia suffered from headaches, and she was eventually fitted a brace to correct her posture – which was thought to be the cause of the headaches. Nevertheless, she grew up to be the beauty of the family with red hair and blue eyes – her father’s colouring and her mother’s smile. Her father bluntly wrote, “Maria has become beautiful or if possible at least less ugly.”2
In 1859, Maria Pia’s father agreed on a match for her elder sister Clotilde. The 15-year-old Clotilde was to marry the 37-year-old womaniser Prince Jérôme Bonaparte – a cousin of Emperor Napoleon III. The Prince was so distracted throughout the wedding ceremony that their father wondered if they were really married at all. Maria Pia would not have to wait long before a proposal of marriage came for her as well. She was still only 14 years old when the 23-year-old King Luís I of Portugal asked for her hand. He had recently succeeded his brother Peter as King of Portugal, and several other deaths in the family left just one surviving brother and two sisters (who had married foreign royals).
Maria Pia had not been his first choice – he had first written to Queen Victoria asking for the hand of her daughter Princess Alice, but there were religious differences. Queen Victoria recommended Princess Marie of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen – who was the sister of the late Stephanie, Queen of his brother Peter who had died in 1859 – but her parents did not want to lose another daughter to Portugal. Eventually, the choice came down to Maria Pia and Maria Teresa of Austria – a daughter of Archduke Albert, Duke of Teschen and Princess Hildegard of Bavaria. As Queen Victoria disapproved of Maria Pia (or rather her father!), Luis was leaning towards Maria Teresa. However, Maria Teresa’s father vetoed the idea on account of his daughter’s age and incomplete education.
This left only Maria Pia, who was three years younger than Maria Teresa. Upon receiving Luis’s letter asking for Maria Pia’s hand, her father had shown her Luis’s photograph, and he gave her eight days to think about it. She eventually answered, “I will marry him if it is the will of my father.”3