23 October 2016

Princess Spotlight: Infanta Barbara of Portugal

By Luis-Michel van Loo via Wikimedia Commons
Royal names are often carried from generation to generation, with little princesses being named in honor of mothers and grandmothers and aunts. It is odd indeed to find a first-born princess with a non-royal name and even odder that this name, once introduced, did not spread through the family tree. The name Victoria is perhaps the greatest example--once born by a little girl who happened to become Queen and the mother of nine, it has passed through nearly every royal house in the last 200 years and is even born by Sweden's future Queen, a great-great-great granddaughter of the original Queen Victoria.

Such is not the case of today's princess, who left neither a child nor her name to posterity.

However, Infanta Barbara of Portugal was a much longed-for and prayed for child. In the first three years of marriage, her teenaged parents, King John V of Portugal and Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria had no children. This is always a crisis for a monarchy. King John vowed to build a convent if his heir arrived by the end of 1711, and when the child finally arrived in early December on the Feast of Saint Barbara, she was no less celebrated for being a girl. Instead, in addition to naming her for the saint of her birthday, her father also gave her the title of Portuguese heirs: she was The Princess of Brazil. Of course, when a little brother was born 10 months later, she lost her title and her position; a common fate for first-born girls.

Nevertheless the little Infanta Barbara, who gained a four more little brothers, was a treasured and well-educated child in the court of her highly cultured parents. Their household celebrated both the arts and science and all of their children received excellent tutelage across a wide range of topics. Barbara's greatest area was music, and she was paired with the great composer Domenico Scarlatti as her teacher. She excelled at singing, keyboard and harpsichord. She even learned to compose music herself. Her enthusiasm ensured that she got to take Scarlatti with her when she was married off in an exchange of princesses whereby she married the future Spanish king and his sister married her brother.

The one thing Barbara lacked was good health. Not only was she prone to asthmatic attacks, that likely lessened her interest and ability in athletic pursuits, but she also suffered from that great and dangerous plague of the day, small pox. She survived the disease, unlike her youngest brother, but it left an unattractive infanta more hideous. It is said that her husband even had a visible response to her ugliness when they first met. Beyond that, the couple struggled with fertility, the great disaster of any royal marriage. Barbara produced only one child, and he was tragically stillborn.

Nevertheless, Ferdinand was happy with his bride. He had grown up in an unstable environment as the one thing that stood between the throne and his half-brother. His powerful stepmother, Elizabeth Farnese, controlled his father King Philip V, who was weak and suffered from mental illness. At one point, Ferdinand and Barbara were even kept under virtual house arrest because Elizabeth feared the growing shadow court around them. As Philip grew more ill and eventually died, Elizabeth did not step willingly aside. Ferdinand, who relied entirely on Barbara and key advisers, had to finally have her removed. Although everyone knew that Barbara the real power of the monarchy, she was much more subtle than her predecessor about her control.

During more than 12 years on the throne together, the couple supported the arts, especially music and theater. In fact, when part of Barbara's favorite palace, Aranjuez, was destroyed by fire, they rebuilt part of it as a theater so that they could enjoy opera at home. They were also generous to their subjects, declining to collect taxes whenever natural disasters struck a region of their territory. They also stabilized the economy, modernized the navy and improved Spain's commerce in the America's.

Unfortunately, Barbara's health continued to plague her and her weight blossomed. Like her father, husband and father-in-law, she also struggled with mental health problems though to a lesser degree than any of them. She suffered from depression at times and had a paranoid fear of sudden death. When death did take her at age 46, it triggered the complete collapse of her husband. Ferdinand, like his father before him, refused to dress or to sleep. Over the course of the several months he became increasingly frail and unstable. He followed Barbara to the grave about 10 months later.

The Spanish throne went to Elizabeth Farnese's son King Charles III and no Spanish or Portuguese infanta ever again bore the name Barbara.

For more about Barbara of Portugal:
Biography of Ferdinand VI on Mad Monarchs

For portraits of Barbara of Portugal:
Infanta Barbara of Portugal Queen of Spain on Maria's Royal Collection

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