María Isabel de Braganza, what could have been | Timeless Women 5

The day María Isabel de Braganza died, at the age of 21, there were still eleven months left for the project to which she dedicated her last months of her wretched life to become a reality. She died surrounded by strangers who, beyond her womb, never had a truth interest in her. This extraordinary woman died not knowing that three centuries later thousands of people would wish to visit what she fought for.

The day María Isabel de Braganza died, she took with her the possibility of having a woman who promoted culture at the top. Skillful, interested, understanding and sympathetic to artists. It was one of the few scenarios in which she felt comfortable, in which she found herself. She was exiled, condemned to a political marriage, ignored and, in the end, abandoned; Maria Isabel de Braganza did not have a happy life. Her story, however, is linked to one of the greatest prides of this country.

The puppet queen who never mattered

María Isabel de Braganza did not have a happy life. Quite the contrary: she suffered an unhappy life. She was born on May 19, 1797, in Portugal. Only ten years later, as a result of the Napoleonic invasion, she had to go into exile in Brazil with her family, which was in fact a broken family. Despite having fathered almost a dozen children, the future King Juan VI de Portugal and Carlota Joaquina de Borbón did not form a well-married couple. They separated before going into exile. During her stay in the Americas, Maria Isabel lived with her mother.

It was her mother’s brother who encouraged Maria Isabel’s return to the peninsula. Her uncle was no other than King Fernando VII, who returned victorious to Spain in 1814. He restored the Borbón monarchy and claimed the hand of his niece, whom he would make the new queen of Spain. On February 22, 1816, the marriage contracts were signed between the uncle Fernando VII, 32 years old, and the niece María Isabel de Braganza, 19 years old. She was the second of the four wives that the monarch had.

María Isabel de Braganza

María Isabel de Braganza as founder of the Prado Museum, by Bernardo López Piquer

María Isabel traveled with her sister to Spain. By the end of 1816, after a cold reception and an equally uncordial wedding, she settled in Madrid. By the beginning of 1817 she was already pregnant with her first daughter, who would be born in August of the same year. She would not, however, live more than five months. María Isabel lost her daughter but had to keep with her duties. She had to give Fernando VII an heir. In mid-1818, she discovered that she was pregnant again.

It was a risky pregnancy with a bad forecast. According to the chronicles, on December 26, 1818, contractions began. Hours earlier, María Isabel de Braganza had suffered from severe headaches. The queen was going through a serious complication that the doctors of those times did not know how to identify, but they guessed her fate. When she lost consciousness, they thought she was dead.

Despite the pleas of her sister, who saw in María Isabel signs that she was still alive, the king ordered a fatal caesarean section to save his possible heir. When the doctor started to operate in María Isabel’s womb, she suddenly woke up and uttered a horrible scream. It didn’t matter. Nothing else mattered but that possible child inside her, so they continued with the operation.

That is how María Isabel de Braganza died. At the age of 21, bleeding to death and suffering. The child they extracted from her womb followed her mother a few minutes later.

The woman who raised a historical project

It is important to know the above to understand what goes next. María Isabel was not a happy woman. She was always considered herself a puppet who moved according to the wishes of whoever was in charge of her custody. María Isabel lived separated from her family, with the only company of her sister, with an absolute dictator who had no interest in her. She died young, having lost one daughter, surely aware that she was losing another. Despite everything, she was also the woman who promoted the creation of the Prado Museum.

She was educated in the arts from an early age. Apart from the great knowledge she had, as it is reported, she practiced painting. However, when we try to find out the specific artistic and intellectual interests she had, we find the usual problem: the details are hard to find. Only a couple of facts and statements are preserved but they only explain that final act: the creation of a historical museum of international fame.

Prado Museum

Prado Museum

It was during a stay in the monastery of El Escorial that Maria Isabel came across a large collection of art condemned to dust in the basement of the building. There were works by Spanish and Italian masters, and many others that the French had tried to expropriate. María Isabel, partly encouraged by Francisco de Goya, soon understood the injustice of it. Not being able to preserve these works as they deserved, not being able to exhibit them for the public to enjoy. So, she decided to take action herself.

Therefore, she promoted the creation of an exhibition hall that would be housed in a building intended, in principle, to house the Cabinet of Natural History. She convinced her husband, the king, of this initiative, because she was involved in its conception and development. Furthermore, she surrounded herself with experts and became one herself. We like to think that she found a certain rest, a certain peace, in those paintings she loved. It is lovely to think that, in a way, she did achieve what she wanted, even if she never saw the result.

The Museo Nacional del Prado, a first and primitive version of the Prado enjoyed by the public today, opened its doors on November 19, 1819. María Isabel de Braganza, its promoter, had died a year earlier. She did not get to enjoy her passion turned into history. A savage caesarean section took with it the possibility of Spain enjoying a queen completely devoted to the world of art. What could have been.

María Isabel de Braganza

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