Isabella (or Isabel) Farnesio (or Elizabeth Farnese) was born in 1692 in Parma, Italy, the niece and stepdaughter of the duke of Parma. In 1714 she married Philip V of Spain after the death of his first wife, the popular Maria Louisa Gabriela of Savoy. After the marriage, Isabella, a handsome, ambitious woman took complete control of King Philip. Her husband was so besotted by her that he sometimes struck her in a fit of jealous rage. However, Isabella was willing to overlook his capricious behavior in order to maintain her control over him. Her chief ambitions were to break France’s influence over the Spanish crown and to recover Italian possessions by exiling Austrians from Italy. Isabella and Philip had seven children. Since Philip had two sons by his first wife, Isabella had not much hope that her children would reign on the Spanish throne, so she spent much of her reign attempting to supplant Austrian power in Italy, securing Italian principalities for her children to govern. She was shrewd in her choice of ministers, selecting those who would carry out her foreign policy to the ends that Spain’s imperialistic gains in Italy were significant. Isabella made improvements in the country’s economy and enacted reforms in the military and administrative branches of the government. Her husband abdicated briefly in 1724 in favor of his oldest son, Luis, but returned when Luis died of small-pox that same year. Philip died in 1746 and was succeeded by Ferdinand VI, his son by his first wife. Isabella then retired from court. She died in 1766.
Elizabeth was an avid lover of music and during her lifetime a steady stream of Italian musicians settled in Spain, notably composer and teacher Domenico Scarlatti and
the famous opera singer Farinelli. In 1737 Isabel Farnese had asked him to come to distract Philip V from his melancholy. Farinelli’s magnificent voice had been heard at the Imperial, French and British courts and at nearly all those of Italy, and at the age of thirty-two he had reached the peak if his fame. Farinelli quickly gained the sovereign’s complete confidence, so much so that he was exempt from submitting to the authority of any other person on institution in the country but the king and the queen. It is curious that, according to the famous singer’s own confession, the man who had given him the most practical advice on his art was the Emperor Charles VI, Philip V’s rival, who would never have suspected that his words would go to help the singer to perfect himself and to sweeten the last days of his old enemy.
The eighteenth century is remarkable for the number of its interesting or influential queens. If Queen Anne be taken as closing rather the previous generation, the age of the Stuarts and of Louis XIV, yet the importance of Caroline of Anspach upon English history must not be underrated. But upon the continent this peculiar feature of the century is more striking. The names of the Empress Maria Theresa, of Catherine of Russia, of Louisa of Prussia, and of Marie Antoinette, have all been deeply carved in history. Elisabeth Farnese is unquestionably less well known than the other queenly celebrities, and yet she hardly yields to them in importance. “The History so-called of Europe,” wrote Carlyle, “ went canting from side to side; heeling at a huge rate according to the passes and lunges these two giant figures, Imperial Majesty and the Termagant of Spain, made at one another for a twenty years or more.”
Elisabeth’s career is indeed inferior in personal interest to that of the other four continental queens. This is due perhaps less to character than to the unsociable seclusion which her husband’s eccentricity forced upon her. Her reign, moreover, falls mainly within the period which lies between the death of Anne and of Louis XIV, and the accession of Frederick the Great and of Maria Theresa, which is possibly the
flattest level in the history of Europe. Such levels are
conducive to material progress, but tiresome to the
historical tourist, and good guide-books are consequently scarce. In Elisabeth the epic grandeur of
Maria Theresa and Catherine of Russia, and the tragic
pathos of Louisa of Prussia and Marie Antoinette, are
alike wanting. The history of her married life sinks
at times to monotonous Terentian comedy; it was,
upon the surface, prosaically prosperous and un dramatically dull. Yet her influence upon the fortunes
of Europe for more than thirty years was undeniable.
Within the limits assigned, she may be regarded as
the leading personage; she caused at least the death
of more soldiers and the drafting of more treaties than
any one other potentate.