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Mexico to Miramar or, Across the Lake of Oblivion"
by C.M. Mayo
A nonfiction novela about a fairytale.
By the author of
the novel, The Last Prince
of the Mexican Empire, named one of the best books of 2009
by Library Journal
2006. All rights reserved. Link to your heart's content, but
for permission to reprint, click here.
"From Mexico to Miramar or, Across the Lake of Oblivion,"
December 2006. Finalist, Texas Institute of Letters O. Henry
Award for Best Magazine Journalism; Winner, Washington Prize
for Best Personal Essay.
"Cazador de nubes" by Edgar Soberón
This audio CD is now available at CD
a larger version of this cover featuring Edgar Soberon's painting
"Cazador de Nubes."
To read the text, scroll on down
From Mexico to Miramar or,
Across the Lake of Oblivion
by C.M. Mayo
Copyright © 2006. All rights reserved. Link to your heart's content,
but for permission to reprint, click here.
In Trieste anything might be true.
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
OR, THE HILL OF THE BELLS
On June 19, 1867,
on the slope of Querétaro's Cerro de las Campanas (Hill
of the Bells), the Emperor of Mexico, Maximilian von Habsburg,
stood before an adobe wall and faced a firing squad. Yet to me,
an American born nearly a century after that grisly day, Maximilian
seems a living presence. I can see his brass-buttoned chest rise
and fall with breath; his beard the color of a copper penny in
candlelight; and the way, every morning, his barber would comb
it and part it, and apply special lotions as if it were a woman's
tresses. He had a narrow soldier's waist, bad teeth and receding
hair. His pale slender fingers pluck a baba au rhum from the
Totonac bowl he keeps on his desk.
I should like one too.
"¿Y usted?" I can hear him say it. For
Maximilian was most remarkably polite.
How peculiar that this long-dead Austrian aristocrat should be
so vivid to me, but not surprising. I have spent the last three
years imagining Maximilian daily as I wrestle with
and fiddle with (and sometimes just go outside into the garden
and try to stifle the urge to bang my head against the side of
the toolshed, such are the joys) my novel.
I mean, my
which is not about Maximilian, but as it is largely set in Mexico
City during his brief reign, he appears no, Maximilian
looms over every moment of it, huge and colorful and crazily
bobbing as a Macy's Thanksgiving Parade balloon. I can look down
for a while, worrying out the pebbles and raisins of my story
about a little boy, but there Maximilian always is: my mesmerizing
Born at Vienna's Schönbrunn palace in 1832, Ferdinand Maximilian
"Max," to his family came of age a lordly, if
sometimes pedantic and pretentious aesthete-adventurer. From
the three volumes of his memoirs:
On the palm tree: "a plant of the fancy; an enchanted child,
snatched from the dream of a god."
On Portuguese: "the harshest, the most discordant, the most
deficient in distinctive character, of any that I have ever heard:
it is related to Spanish as a pug is to a greyhound."
On Palermo's cathedral's wide interior in the new Roman style:
"really horrible, like a paper lining to a case of jewels.
One stands speechless and discouraged."
What of Mexico? Alas, the third and last volume of Maximilian's
Recollections of My Life breaks off in January 1860, more
than four years before he set foot in Mexico, with, oddly, his
visit to a German colony in Brazil and consternation at the escape
of two tapirs.
Nonetheless, Maximilian left a substantial archive of correspondence.
Twice he was appointed to govern: first, as viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia,
a post he was dismissed from by his brother, the Emperor Franz
Joseph; second, as Emperor of Mexico, where he fell from power
as swiftly, it seemed, as Icarus hurtled to earth.
He had been invited to that throne by "the will of the Mexican
people," according to the self-selected delegation of arch-conservative
Catholics who came to him at Trieste, and his government would
be supported, he was assured by the Emperor Louis Napoléon,
"with the generous protection of France," whose army
occupied Mexico City at the end of May 1863. That support came
at the jaw-dropping cost, however, of Maximilian's assuming the
previous governments' debts owed to France the grounds
for France's invasion of Mexico. The scheme was an absurd contradiction.
Why did Maximilian agree to it? Queen Victoria confided in her
diary, "I cannot understand."
Maximilian and his consort arrived in Mexico in the spring of
1864. One year later, the U.S. Civil War ended but the
American Minister in Paris, John Bigelow, kept up his diplomatic
barrage against French intervention in our hemisphere, and soon
enough, the wily Louis Napoléon of a sudden had more convenient
ambitions elsewhere. Benito Juárez's army of the Mexican
Republic, generously armed with U.S. weaponry, surged south,
and insurgents took control of the countryside, and Maximilian's
government, not three years old, collapsed.
June 19, 1867,
less than a month shy of his 35th birthday: Querétaro's
Cerro de las Campanas, a muddy cactus-tangled mess, sliced through
with that adobe wall. After days of rain, the morning's sky had
bloomed clear and jewel-blue. Some 3,000 republican soldiers
stood watching as Maximilian passed out gold coins to the members
of the firing squad. He then took off his sombrero, wiped his
face with his handkerchief, and gave them to his Hungarian servant,
Tüdos, to take to his mother in Vienna. To his right, his
generals, Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía,
also stood in the mud ready to die. Maximilian's voice rang out,
"I forgive all of you, and may all of you forgive me. May
my blood that is about to flow be shed for the good of the country.
Long live Mexico! Long live Independence!"
Another voice answered, "¡Fuego!"
Maximilian fell on his side onto the mud. He was heard to gasp,
"Hombre" (Man). He lay writhing. An officer
turned him over, pointed with his sword to the heart, and ordered
a coup de grace. The shot was at such close range that Maximilian's
clothes caught fire. As for what was done with his body
I'll get to that in a moment.
But while he was most alive on this earth, Maximilian von Habsburg
loved purple silk and parrots, hummingbirds and nightingales,
nature in all its wildest exuberance, the raw, boar-infested
coasts of Albania, sunny Spain and the Mato Virgem of Brazil,
above all. No above all, he loved the sea, that "endless
plain" with its magical sunrises and nights clotted with
stars. "Miramar," view of the sea, he named the dream
castle he built on a rocky promontory on the Gulf of Trieste.
Trieste: as travel writer Jan Morris calls it, "the capital
"Nobody goes there," said Samuel Maldonado. In my fifteen
years of living in Mexico City, Samuel, a self-described liberal
and Juarista, was the only Mexican whom I knew to have actually
MEXICO CITY, CHAPULTEPEC, CUERNAVACA OR, THE DEEP PIT
It was after
hearing about it from Samuel that my husband, A., got the idea
that we too should visit Miramar. Samuel had made Maximilian's
castle sound as fabulous as something out of a story by Dumas.
Besides, my husband said, wouldn't it be necessary for the research
for the novel?
I was not convinced. Already I had trudged several times up the
long ramp to Mexico City's Chapultepec Castle. From its terraces,
even on a day blanketed with smog, the view is majestic; wind
billows and flicks the giant Mexican flag. In Maximilian's time
the sky, on most days, would have been blazingly blue, and the
snow-capped volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl,
shining with sun. I had taken careful notes on the castle's grand
marble staircase, flanked by two marble lions; inside, the enormous
malachite urns; the apple-green tapestry chairs, gifts from Louis
Napoléon; and arranged around the interior gardens, the
still vivid murals of the muses Maximilian had commissioned.
There, in the Chapultepec Castle of my novel, Maximilian goes
strolling, his hands clasped behind his back, along the east
terrace. An autumn sun is just coming up from behind the mountains,
and it bathes the flagstones in lemony brilliance. His secretary,
a thin and bespectacled Mexican hugging himself against the chill,
"Don't you think," Maximilian says, turning suddenly,
"that this castle should be called Miravalle, as my castle
in Trieste is called Miramar?"
He actually said that, according to his secretary, whose name
was José Luis Blasio. I lifted it straight from his dishy
memoir, Maximiliano Íntimo.
Beautiful as Mexico City was, however, Maximilian disliked the
cold of its high altitude, and so, even as the French Imperial
Army was retreating, the treasury nearly emptied, and he was
being jeered at in the streets, he retired to the village of
Cuernavaca. The journey from Mexico City over and down the mountains
took two days and, as Blasio recalled, caused a sensation.
The train was made up of a dozen snow-white mules, all of
them perfectly identical in stature and dressed with blue decorations.
The coachman, footmen and lackeys were all outfitted as charros
in suits of suede with silver buttons, and wearing very wide
gray sombreros. This train pleased Maximilian very much and whenever
we went to Cuernavaca or returned, it was something to see the
way the Indians would stop and admire that train of white mules
that passed by like an exhalation.
Reported the Empress Charlotte in a letter to the French Empress
Eugénie, "The emperor, who has joined me here, enjoys
Cuernavaca very much because here he can work in peace. For him
it is Plombières or Biarritz." The servants would
set up a folding table on a shaded loggia, and there, early in
the mornings, with young Blasio, Maximilian would despatch his
For me, from Mexico City, Cuernavaca is only an hour's drive
on the toll-way. Maximilian's residence, the Casa Borda, is a
museum now, with a postcard shop and a restaurant that serves
passable coffee and coconut flan. It is pleasant there, in the
cool shade of palms and bougainvilleas and giant ferns. Birds
are always singing. I could imagine Maximilian dipping a hand
into one of the fountains, or, avid naturalist that he was, bending
down to examine a beetle, there, under that rotting papaya. Hot
afternoons, one should sip mango ice with a straw, there, on
the equipal chair, or take a book, something, say, on a journey
by burro to the pyramids of Uxmal, to that hammock. Doze until
the sky begins to pale and the servants light the torches.
Yes, I could see the still dozing Max, his lips slightly parted,
a strand of his red hair pasted by sweat to his bronzed forehead.
His straw sun hat resting on his chest, gently rising, falling.
He is exhausted, always. As if he has stones in his pockets.
In his dreams, and he dreams very deeply now, he is riding on
the sea. There is no coast line there is never any coast
line. The sea chops. He has misplaced his spyglass, or, has it
been stolen? When he picks it up, it is a kaleidoscope. Crazy
colors: they remind him of the windows of Stephanskirche...
And so on. Books and photographs should be enough grist for the
imagination, it seemed to me. Already when I was at my desk writing,
but also at odd moments (walking the dog, rinsing dishes), I
was getting flashes of images, feelings, and sometimes even moving
pictures in my mind. Maximilian raising a spoonful of soup; dabbing
at his mustache with a linen napkin. Maximilian smoking, and
watching the smoke curl, how that looks against the pattern in
the wallpaper. A bee brambling against a window pane. From somewhere
nearby (upstairs?) a piano tinkling. The dulcet humming of women
talking. An opal necklace dropped onto a blue glass dish.
Sometimes I wondered, were these only imaginings? They were brief,
vague in a floaty kind of way, yet they felt intensely real,
the way a memory lodges, sure of itself, in one's mind. It was,
I confess, a little bit creepy.
While I was in
the midst of writing my first draft, A., then a Treasury official,
was assigned a corner office on the fourth floor of the National
Palace. Thus it happened that I came to know some of the most
private rooms of the Palace in Maximilian's time, the Imperial
Palace, which the emperor, who preferred the quiet of suburban
Chapultepec Castle for his residence, had used largely for offices,
receiving ambassadors, ceremonies and balls.
Stretching along the east side of Mexico City's grand plaza known
as the Zócalo, the red volcanic-rock Palace, as Blasio
described it, "has more the appearance of an immense prison."
The building dates from 1628, a reconstruction of a palace built
by Hernán Cortés, which in turn had been built
on an Aztec ruin. It was used as the residence of the Spanish
viceroy, and, after Independence, of various presidents of the
Republic. Inside, the stone corridors are dark and very cold.
The lion faces carved into the stone door frames seem to be laughing
monkeys. Every footstep clips and echos. There are sweeping staircases;
glimpses of monstrous chandeliers. The whole of it tilts, as
it has been sinking into the soft subsoil.
In June of 1864, when Maximilian and Charlotte first arrived
at the Palace, they stationed themselves on a balcony, where
they waved at their new subjects, the thousands filling the vast
Zócalo. "They seemed so tall and fair," as Sara
Yorke Stevenson, an American resident in the capital recalled.
"Involuntarily one thought of visiting angels, or, better
still, of the fair god Quetzalcohuatl [sic], whom the Mexican
legend of olden times brought from the East to rule over and
to civilize the natives of this land by bringing them plenty."
The balcony they stood on was decorated with a swag of red for
the memory of Spain, white for the purity of the True Faith,
and green for independence the same colors Benito Juárez's
Liberals carried, furled for retreat. As night fell, from that
balcony, Maximilian and Charlotte watched the fireworks, whistling
rockets of colors and rains of sparkles. The booms of the mortars
ripped open the night. Wrote the delighted Charlotte, "there
is one that goes back and forth like a wil-o'-the-wisp that is
called the Correo." And then another rocket went up, that,
to the silent awe and then lusty cheers of the crowd, traced
the outlines of Maximilian's castle, Miramar.
"Let's go there after Christmas," my husband kept insisting.
Europe in early January? Too expensive, too cold. I still had
in mind some place with palm trees and water warm enough to swim
stone staircase up to A.'s office is known as La Escalera de
la Emperatriz, after the Empress Charlotte. I take the elevator
instead. On the fourth floor, I walk down a long hallway (slightly
sloped to the right) past a gamut of sculptures: a ladder-like
arrangement of polished metal spheres; a door-sized electric-blue
key-hole; and, on a waist-high pedestal, a blobby mass of fiberglass
I have dubbed El Dog Doo. If the cathedral of Palermo's wide
interior in the new Roman style made Maximilian stand "speechless
and discouraged," surely these specimens of contemporary
sculpture under a long-standing program, delivered by the
artists in lieu of tax payments would have made him fall
down in a dead faint.
Another gamut: A.'s secretaries, six busily efficient ladies,
every one of whom wants to greet me personally, ask how I've
been, bring me coffee and cookies, how about a Wall Street Journal?
As usual, "El doctor," as they reverently refer
to him, is talking into one of his several red hot-line telephones
and so, ushered into the cavernous office, I wait.
I have a choice of sitting at the conference table, a leather
armchair, or the plush forest-green sofa with a coffee table.
There, on the wall next to the window that looks out on the Cathedral,
an official portrait of the stern-jawed greatest President of
the Mexican Republic, Benito Juarez.
As I make my way over to the other window, the parquet floor
creaks. Spread before me is the Zócalo, its crowds streaming
up from the metro, and straight into the path of vendors, their
blue plastic tarps and blankets spread with cassettes, dolls,
old books, earrings, socks in rainbow colors. A woman in an apron
heats huaraches, sandal sole-shaped tortillas heaped with meat
and chiles, on a charcoal brazier. She fans the smoke with a
folded newspaper. And the Aztec dancers and their drums have
started up as well p-pum, p-pum, p-pum and they're
going to go on, as they do every single day, for hours. Some
of the dancers wear sweat suits or work clothes, others, feathered
headgear and rattles from their ankles to their knees. The double-windows
don't really help. Neither do the L.L. Bean shotgun earmuffs
A. gave them back to me. "See if you can get a refund,"
was all he said.
This fourth story was added on in the 1920s; in Maximilian's
time this space would have been the roof. Near the end, when
Charlotte had sailed to Europe to plead with Louis Napoléon
to keep his army in Mexico, Maximilian became so weak with fever
and dysentery that his doctor ordered him to quit Chapultepec
and move into the Palace. Here, alone now, most of his court
and advisors having fled, the emperor would take his evening
strolls on the roof. He might have come close to the edge right
here, through his ghosts of the future A.'s shoulder, to
where the credenza pushes up against the window, piled with papers
and binders, a laser printer, and that bank of red telephones,
along with the silver-framed photo of my smiling self. Yes, Maximilian
might have paused exactly here one chilly evening, as he rubbed
his hands together. Swallows fill the raspberry sky, and swirl,
and alight there, on a ledge of the Cathedral's bell-tower. Below,
the band of red-coated Austrian hussars strikes up the last tune
of its clattering oompahs, and the pigeons, unsettled, fly and
fly like some vast, unraveling scarf.
There is no more money, Maximilian is thinking, and the burr
of sick worry sticks in his stomach. Matamoros has fallen; both
the South and the North are in rebellion, squeezing his capital
like a chestnut in a nutcracker.
"It is no longer possible," was Louis Napoléon's
answer to all of his entreaties, "to give Mexico one more
cent nor one more man."
According to A., Maximilian's undoing was a fiscal catastrophe.
And it was absurd: how could Maximilian have agreed to let the
French collect the customs duties the principal source
of the Mexican Treasury's income at the time and meanwhile,
fuss over costly new decorations and gardens in Chapultepec Castle
and the Casa Borda? And Maximilian also gave the Palace his toque
de europeo moderno: its Venetian mirrors and chandeliers, Japanese
bronze and porcelain lanterns, gilt-framed oil portraits of Mexican
heroes, so dashing with their epauletted shoulders and swords.
Not to mention those scandalous personal salaries: 150 million
pesos for Maximilian and 200,000 for Charlotte, amounts commensurate
with those received by Queen Victoria of England and her consort,
Prince Albert, sovereigns of an empire upon which the sun never
set, but in Mexico, these represented a flabbergasting ten percent
of the Treasury's annual income. In France the cynics said that
Maximilian, poor fool, had imagined Mexico "a bed of roses
in a gold mine."
It was, he soon found out, a deep pit of bankruptcy. He spent
too much, as his parade of various finance ministers counseled
him, but who can win a war without soldiers and ammunition? Or
maintain imperial prestige without the trappings, the state dinners
and balls? But his problem was not only his extravagant expenditures,
it was his government's inability to finance them.
As A. has always been quick to point out to peso-happy Congressmen,
spending must be financed, and that means taxes. You can also
sell government assets or borrow but once you've sold an
asset, it's gone, and if you borrow, sooner or later, you've
got to pay it back plus interest, and guess what? That means
taxes. Everybody likes to spend, but not even the monkey's uncle
likes taxes. And if you can't impose them, and if you can't collect
them, well, then... you're cooked. Part of A.'s talent is that
he can quickly comprehend huge, complex tangles of abstractions;
but another, perhaps more essential part, is that he has the
laser-like mind to render them simple. Nothing ideological, just,
in his words, "refined commonsense." He has a PhD in
economics, but A. likes to call himself "a sophisticated
bean-counter." Then he chuckles.
Finally, he hangs up the phone.
as we usually do when his schedule permits, we stop by the Librería
Madero, an antiquarian bookstore. A most unusual new book has
come in, a handsome thing to hold: bound in blood-orange Morocco
leather, its exquisitely tooled spine is embossed with gold stars
and the title De Miramar a México (From Miramar
A privately printed facsimile of an 1864 manuscript by an anonymous
Mexican, much of it is poetry and songs praising the imperial
couple. Mexico gives its august sovereign an enthusiastic
welcome, begins one ode, His loving people, the Mexican
people / Because he brings us salvation, our life. Inscribed
in a flower-bedecked triumphal arch: Maximilian is our father
/ Charlotte our dear-heart and guardian angel it goes
on, syrup on top of sugar, for pages. It is almost dizzying to
read something so outré, like coming across paeans to
Mussolini, or, say, essays about the virtues of racial segregation.
Maximilian may have been well-intentioned but he was a wishy-washy,
nose-in-the-air puppet imposed by invaders, is what Mexican schoolchildren
are taught. A., who has scant sympathy for Maximilian, once put
it this way: "He brought a medicine the patient didn't want
or need." But was it that simple? Benito Juarez is glorified
by the modern Mexican state, his portrait in government offices,
on peso bills, on pedestals, and his name on so many avenues,
schools, museums, hospitals, airports even a city is named
after him, Ciudad Juarez that it is easy to forget that
once there were many thousands of Mexicans who detested him,
his cronies, and everything he stood for: in their minds, chaos
and Freemasonry. For them, Maximilian, the Catholic Habsburg
and lineal descendent of Charles V (King of Spain in the days
of the conquistadors), represented the True Faith, civilization
and its graceful arts, prosperity, and a bulwark against the
encroaching United States whose invasion of 1846-1848 was
a fresh and galling memory. Simpler folk perhaps believed this
European emperor, the younger brother of Franz Joseph, and his
empress, a Belgian Princess, had magic; they gaped at their golden
carriage the way groupies crowd around a film-premier's red carpet.
De Miramar a México tells the story of how, as
Maximilian and Charlotte make their way inland from Veracruz,
there are wild jubilation, arches of triumph, poems, odes, songs,
speeches, dances, cannons, fireworks. Orizaba, Puebla, Cholula,
Huejotzingo, Acatzingo, Amozoc, Xonaca, Guadalupe, and at last,
most spectacularly of all, Mexico City. Beneath rains of roses
and bouquets, their carriage rolled down, in fact, the avenue
that runs parallel to the one this little bookstore sits on.
Outside, the green taxi cabs hurtle past.
Not until I take the book home do I find its engraving of Maximilian's
Miramar Castle: gloomy-looking and gothic, its crenellated tower
perched at the edge of the sea. But alas, despite its title,
this curious tome says almost nothing about it.
my writer's mind, Maximilian kept showing up I could see
him, from his straw sombrero to his dust-creased riding boots.
Once he wore turquoise silk pajamas. I felt confident I'd captured
his voice, the idiosyncratic combinations in his personality
his cutting snobbery and generosity, good cheer and Teutonic
melancholy, a plodding sense of duty and a delight in spur-of-the-moment
child-like adventure, most especially to anyplace that appeared
"enchanted" or "fairy-like." But what in
blazes was Maximilian up to with my characters? (What was he
doing lurking there, behind that potted zalate?)
It had been a month since A. suggested the visit to Trieste,
two weeks since I'd bought that book, and, my novel, my novel,
I felt like a hamster on a wheelie. I was writing a chapter about
Maximilian, but the wastepaper-basket was filling up fast. There
was something about him that had not yet jelled in my mind. I
was watering the garden when, hose in hand, it occurred to me
that it was his sense of himself. And that the way into that
answer might be as easy as something out of "Psychology
101": If you could build your dream house, any house, where
would it be? What would it look like? What would you put in it?
What would you do there? Because for Maximilian, on the eve of
sailing away to Mexico, a country he had never seen, the answers
were there in his castle near Trieste, which was, according to
its website, perfectly preserved for any visitor to see.
Where was Trieste, anyway? We had to look at a map: it surprised
us to find it where it was. If Italy is a boot, Trieste is tucked
just behind the knee-bend, on the northeastern cup of the Adriatic.
It was arranged: after Christmas, we would fly from Mexico City
to Amsterdam, hop to Venice, rent a car and drive the two hours
to Trieste. And so, we were off to Miramar Castle or, as
the Italians more melodically call it, Il Castello di Miramare.
A SIZABLE CHUNK OF ITALY
In Venice we spent three bone-chilling days. Rain dimpled the
canals, then drizzle, and then a teeth-chattering wind blew into
the narrow streets and fluttered the street vendors' displays
of woolen scarves. Even the dogs were wearing coats. The Japanese
tourists were bundled in ski parkas. In front of the Palazzo
Ducale, gondolas were tied up and covered with tarps; they rocked
in the glug and slap of the lagoon. But even under solemn skies,
the city had a cheery feeling with its wedding-cake churches,
the swish of its water taxis and vaporettos, its gliding seabirds.
There were still Christmas lights strung between the buildings
and blinking in windows of shops: shoes, marbled paper, hand-painted
silk lampshades, colored Murano glass, lace-trimmed lingerie.
From 1857 to 1859, Maximilian was the Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia,
then part of the Austrian Empire. Maximilian and his teenage
bride, Charlotte, had held court at the palace at Monza, outside
of Milan. Venice they would visit until the end, when even
Charlotte was hissed in the streets. But in my imagination they
were the rulers of 1857, eager and idealistic. Maximilian did
not yet have his full mustache; only the muttonchop sideburns.
Charlotte's cheeks still had baby fat. They followed us, in my
imagination, into the Doges Palace, its room after room after
room of Titians and Tintorettos and Veroneses, the eye-boggling
"Battle of Lepanto"s and crowds of putti and barefoot
saints tumbling skyward. And the Museo Correr with its antiquities,
and airy ballroom with the exquisitely lifelike marble of Daedelus
fastening on Icarus' wing.
How could one not hear the violins and flutes, the rustle of
crinolines? Charlotte wore snow-blue velvet, a diamond crown,
and her hair was dressed with roses. They were fond of pomp.
At Monza, their footmen were dressed in wigs and silk-stockings,
and silk-suited blackamoors served the caffè and gelato.
As we walked across the Piazza San Marco, the sea of pigeons
parting for us, I told A. that here, Maximilian had planned to
plant orange trees, and turn the campanile into a light-house.
"What a loco." A. rolled his eyes.
We were half-way across the piazza; the mist was beginning to
turn to rain. Ahead of us, the Basilica di San Marco and the
campanile faded into a swirl of fog. Like most Mexicans, my husband,
for his 44 years, had not known that Maximilian and Charlotte
had been Viceroy and Vicereine of what was now a sizable chunk
of Italy. He had to ask me, "What happened?"
"He got the boot," I said.
"What a bum." His vehemence surprised me.
I explained that here, in northern Italy, Maximilian's reputation
was different. The Italians had long resented Austrian rule,
but, according to Cavour, Maximilian was the nationalists' worst
enemy because "his perseverance, his fair and liberal spirit,
had won him many of our supporters. Lombardy had never been so
prosperous, so well administered. Then, thank God, the Viennese
government intervenes..." That is, Emperor Franz Joseph
and his hard-line military advisers tried to smash the nationalist
opposition with a ruinous currency reform, martial law, mass
conscriptions, and unleashing the Geheim Polizei, a forerunner
of the Gestapo. Maximilian was open and vicious in his criticism.
"Everyone around me seems to have lost their head and their
courage," he wrote to his mother. "I ask myself for
how long will my conscience allow me to follow blindly the orders
of Vienna." Some of his bad-mouthing even made its way into
the Prussian Allgemein Zeitung. He had held the office of Viceroy
for two years when his brother, incensed that Maximilian had
not unleashed troops against the students, dismissed him. As
a sop, he was sent to Venice to command the Austrian Navy. War
broke out over Lombardy-Venetia between Austria and the Kingdom
of Sardinia, which had allied with the ever-Machiavellian Louis
Napoléon, but there were no naval operations. After Austria's
defeat at Solferino, Maximilian went on vacation to Madeira,
and then, leaving Charlotte alone on the island for more than
three months, he sailed to Brazil on a collecting expedition.
Afterwards, there was nothing for him to do but return to Trieste
and supervise the construction of Miramar. It appeared that Maximilian
had torched his bridges. He was 27 years old. Charlotte was mortified.
We ended up in the Caffè Quadri. Its plastic chairs, in
summer-time spread deep into the Piazza San Marco, were tied
up and speckled with rain. Inside it was tight and too warm,
smelling of wet umbrellas. But I liked its gemütlichkeit,
the flowered wall-paper and old-fashioned mirrors. The waiter
brought us apple strüdels and espressos on a silver tray.
According to my guidebook, during the time of Maximilian, the
Caffè Quadri had been a favorite of the Austrian officers.
It was easy to imagine them in here: big, blond, unpopular, laughing
loudly among themselves as they played cards and smoked.
The last morning, the tide, smelling faintly of sewage, flooded
the Piazza San Marco. In our hotel, we could hear it trickling
into the elevator shafts. At mid-day, when we climbed into our
water taxi, the porters were still wearing their hip-high
green wading boots. We sped out across the steel-gray lagoon.
TRIESTE OR, CITY BY A COLD SEA
At the Venice airport we picked up our car and drove east on
the toll-way that hugged the Adriatic. It seemed an almost endless
stream of suburbs with their banks, gas stations, and brightly-colored
apartment buildings, huge like ships in the fog. I was enjoying
having my husband to myself for so many days. His cell phone
did not work in Europe it was a miracle of silence, or
rather, of the zizz of the tires on rain-slick asphalt. We talked
about this and that, and when we ran out of things to say, I
read to him from Jan Morris' Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.
Tergeste, the Romans called it. Under the Habsburgs it became,
in essence, the port of Vienna, honored as Urbs Fidelissima,
the emperor's most faithful city. It was I read Morris's
words "multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-faith, bound
together only, whether willingly or unwillingly, by the imperial
discipline. It was closer to the European Community of the twenty-first
century than to the British Empire of the nineteenth, and possesses
still at least for romantics like me, a fragrant sense of might-have-been."
Nearing Trieste, we drove through the Karst, miles of wild limestone
plateau. In the dark all we could see were the passing shadows
of pine-trees and scattered beads of light in the distance. The
road wound down to the sea and past a flood-lit Roman amphitheater,
into the center of Trieste.
It looked to me like Vienna: the narrow curving streets looming
with tall gray office buildings. Vespas sputtered by. Tiny box-like
cars were parked tight-in along the curbs. The street lamps made
everything twinkle. We parked in front of the ornate stone façade
of the Grand Hotel Duchi d'Aosta. The air smelled of cold sea.
A stiff wind whipped my hair; a paper cup tumbled away down the
Flag poles rattled as we walked across the puddled Piazza Unità,
the main square with its massive Lloyd Triestino building, a
palace for a shipping insurance company. Curiously, one side
of the square was bounded by the Adriatric the waves crashing
up sloppily over the stone steps that lead down to the water.
In the Caffè degli Specchi we ate poached white fish,
fettuccine with wild mushrooms, sorbet with champagne. Other
than two men at the table next to ours, the restaurant, on this
miserable weekday evening in January, was empty. Merchant marines,
I guessed. They looked tough and young, and one was wearing a
gold pendant in the shape of an anchor.
When we came out, patches of sky were pricked with stars. A lace
net of lights seemed to have fallen all along the coast
the suburbs that stretched back up into the Karst. The Adriatic
looked black as oil. Out there, something odd-shaped was floating
on it. It was astonishingly bright; white as a shard of moon.
With a start I realized:
"That must be Miramar Castle."
"No," A. said, though I could tell what he meant was,
"It looks sort of like a kneeling camel," I said.
"Or a dog." His coat flapped and he stood there, his
hands shoved into his pockets, squinting at it.
JUST THE THING
The morning was gray
when we drove the few minutes up the coast to Miramar. From the
parking lot, we caught a peek of the castle: sober-looking in
this diffused light, but nonetheless fantastic, as if it had
risen straight out of the sea: A rectangular tower with porthole-like
windows and topped with a square crown of crenels. It was medieval-looking,
but too new, too white, too sharp-cornered perfect. The evil
thought occurred to me that it might have made a neat-o attraction
at Disneyland. "Ivanhoe," or something like that.
A. had become very quiet. Our shoes crunched on gravel. Rising
up on our right was a hill thick with pines. Overhead, seagulls
whirled and honked. There were a few other tourists: in Michelin-man
down jackets and jeans, cameras slung around their necks. I didn't
recognize their language; was it Croatian? Czech? A tiny girl
in a pink coat and tennis shoes skipped ahead.
On the other side of the gate a long path took us between the
forested hill and the water, and then, all of a sudden, we found
ourselves drawn inland into the circular drive of the castle's
entrance. Neither of us wanted to go into the castle yet, for
this was in itself a strange-feeling space. There was the castle,
a massive white block; behind us, stairs leading up into the
gardens, so dense with pines they looked almost black; and then,
in the open sweep below, the small harbor enclosed by the jetty
that ended with a sphinx that was, perhaps, the size of a Great
The little sphinx was one of Maximilian's souvenirs from a cruise
to Egypt, and it did indeed appear, as his secretary Blasio fancifully
put it, to be "interrogating the Adriatic." Blasio
had come here with the Empress Charlotte in 1866. Maximilian's
empire was nearing its end, but Charlotte would not accept it.
She was strangely agitated when she met with Louis Napoléon
in Paris, and in the Vatican she raved before the Pope and refused
to leave. By the time the empress arrived here at Miramar, she
was in the full throes of a ferocious psychotic breakdown.
The faithful secretary Blasio, Maximilian himself... I could
not but think of all the many people who had climbed up from
their rocking rowboats onto those stairs and rested their hand
on that cold stone head of the sphinx: Charlotte, despairing
at the riddle of her broken life; but only a few years earlier,
Don José María Gutierrez d'Estrada, the exiled
diplomat with his tender hopes that this Austrian Archduke might
accept his proposal of the Mexican throne. General Juan Nepomuceno
Almonte, another exiled diplomat, with his letter from Louis
Napoleón promising money and an army. One Mr. Boudillon,
special correspondent for The Times, who assured Maximilian that,
though full of thieves, Mexico was, by Jove, one of the richest
countries on earth! And it was from this jetty, on April 14,
1864 the very same unlucky day President Lincoln would
be shot one year later that Maximilian and Charlotte left
for Mexico. A great crowd of Triestini watched their launch move
out to the waiting Novara. A band played the Mexican anthem,
and Maximilian, who had once written that the Atlantic Ocean
is so wide "it is like a lake of oblivion," began to
Now only a seagull bobbed on the water. With our digital camera,
A. snapped photos of me in front of the sphinx.
Inside the castle the first thing we came to was the gift shop,
and it was exactly as awful as our friend Samuel had said: there
were the Maximilian ball-point pens, Maximilian bookmarks, Charlotte
ball-point pens, Charlotte pencils, Maximilian and Charlotte
notebooks, key chains, mouse pads, pendants, even a glass case
with tote bags and silk scarves and demi-tasse cups with Maximilian's
monogram, the overlapping "MIM," for the Latin Maximiliano
Imperator de Mexico.
A. said, picking up a baseball cap with the "MIM,"
"What would I do with it?"
"You could wear it when you ride your bike."
"Just the thing," I said. He chuckled as he tossed
it back on the pile.
At the ticket counter, we rented the audiocassette tour, but
before the clerk would hand over the apparatus, one of us had
to leave a driver's license.
"Leave yours," A. said.
I didn't want to have to dig mine out of the bottom of my pack.
"You leave yours," I said.
A. whispered into my ear: "I don't want them to see that
I'm Mexican." I laughed, but he said, "Just do it."
I recognized at that moment what I should have long before, that
Maximilian, for my husband, represented something that I, for
all my careful research, as an American, had never before encountered.
There is no parallel to Maximilian in the United States. If some
German prince had been put into our White House, and we had shot
him on, say, field outside of Philadelphia, what would I be feeling
to have come here, into the foyer of his castle? It was a Gordian
knot of a question to contemplate, but already we had our earphones
on and were being instructed to follow the signs around a corner.
I trailed A. into the foyer of a second entrance, this one directly
from the sea. Outside the windows the sea stretched, pewter-gray
and agitated, like a kind of anxious infinity. Here was the grand
staircase, its walls displaying antlers and clusters of halberds
and pikes, but instead of leading us up, the plummy voice on
the audiocassette sent us to the left into a cramped, low-ceilinged
closet of a room with a curtained single bed. Strange for a married
man, but Maximilian had reproduced his bachelor's bedroom on
board the Novara. The adjoining private study, a reproduction
of the Novara's officer's mess hall, had the same low-ceiling
but elaborate woodwork and exotic furniture. Again, out the window,
the sea; and nothing but low-lying, ragged clouds. The voice
on the audiocassette described the Mazzarino bureau, a cabinet
from India, a bronze of Marcus Aurelius, and the way pineapples,
a symbol of hospitality, and the anchor-and-crown of the Austrian
Navy had been worked into the wood paneling. On the walls were
engravings of Charlotte's parents, Louise of Orleans (daughter
of King Louis Philippe) and King Leopold I of Belgium, and an
oil portrait of Maximilian and Charlotte's mutual cousin (her
first cousin), Queen Victoria. Near the door hung Charlotte's
own painting of their yacht. I peered closely: it was very neatly
"Demasiado rollo," too much blather, A. said
sourly, stalking into the next room. It was an enormous library;
high above, a chandelier of brass curlicues. The door was flanked
with cream-white marble busts of Dante and Goethe; the opposite
door with Shakespeare and Homer. In the middle, by the window
on the sea, stood Maximilian's ebony desk with ormolu on its
slender curving legs. The light from the sea would have fallen
on his back as he worked. He would have looked up on his 7,000
impeccably shelved books, the chandelier, and crowning the door,
the oval Winterhalter portrait of Charlotte as a rosy-faced little
girl. Here I could glimpse, and with a certain writerly fondness,
Maximilian the memoirist.
He had written his memoirs at this desk in German, of course.
He had not intended them for general publication, only a print
run of 50 copies for family and close friends. The English translation,
published in London the year after his death, had taken me years
to find. Not even the Library of Congress had a copy. I ended
up having to pay over three hundred dollars for cheaply bound
Xerox copies. But it was worth it for the first time I
felt I could hear his voice. And too, at once, I recognized the
three volumes as a valuable portrait of places as far afield
as Rio de Janeiro, Seville, and Syracuse. I was particularly
charmed by his accounts of Pompeii and climbing Mount Vesuvius
and how, on his way down from the sulphurous crater,
With mad delight I threw myself forward, and jumped into the
ashes, the whole company after me... half dead with laughing,
we vied nevertheless with each other in jumping, with a feeling
of mad rapture. I often jumped yards-wide into the sloping ashes.
Sometimes I stopped for a moment, to prolong the pleasure and
to recover breath for fresh laughing, and to observe my companions
in the different phases of jumping. One was so glad to be once
again allowed to be a child with all one's heart...
Here I would
have liked to linger, go over his library, book by book
but the books were locked in, and the audio tour herded us on
into the dining room, and then Charlotte's sitting room with
its gleaming hippopotamus of a fortepiano. In her boudoir, beneath
a crystal chandelier, hung a portrait of her when she was Vicereine
of Lombardy-Venetia, dressed in a Brianza peasant costume with
a black lace shawl and a halo of silver hairpins. Her face was
grave and remote. The other walls were covered with scenes of
Their bedroom had a heavy-looking bed that appeared to be twin
beds pushed together, and without a canopy. A wedding gift from
the City of Milan, its footboards were carved with four pouting
putti. After several years of marriage, they'd had no children
a very unfortunate, indeed dangerous circumstance for hereditary
rulers. Juarista propagandists claimed that Maximilian had syphilis.
Charlotte's brother, however, stated that Maximilian was impotent,
and much later, her sister-in-law, after interviewing both Charlotte
and her long-time maid of honor, reported that "The relations
she had with the emperor were not the normal ones between a wife
and her husband... In private, he was thoroughly indifferent
to her, and often offended her with his lack of regard."
Whatever the problem was, both considered it unsolvable. After
eight years of marriage without having produced any children,
Maximilian offered to make a son of his younger brother Archduke
Karl Ludwig his Heir Presumptive. Charlotte herself, of course,
would travel from Mexico City to Vienna to retrieve the child.
The answer to that was a definitive no. And then Maximilian
or perhaps it was his advisor, Father Fischer came up
with a most original idea. Why not adopt the two-and-a-half year
old grandson of Mexico's Emperor Agustín de Iturbide?
Iturbide had ended up before a firing squad in 1824, but his
memory as Mexico's Liberator and protector of the True Faith
was still venerated by many Mexicans, above all, the conservatives,
many of whom were beginning to lose patience with Maximilian,
his reliance on a foreign army, and what they perceived as his
distastefully liberal leanings. Charlotte herself lobbied the
little boy's parents, Angel, the second son of the Liberator,
and his American wife, Alice, with visits and flowers. In one
message to Maximilian, the empress reported, "I always press
them to understand that if they do not accept all our terms,
nothing will come of it for any of them". In September of
1865, in exchange for the highest honors and a hefty financial
settlement, the child was delivered to Chapultepec Castle. Nine
days later, however, his mother, nearly out of her mind with
grief, insisted that her child be returned to her care
at least in his infancy. Maximilian not only refused to receive
her; he had her and her husband forcibly deported, leaving them
free to raise a scandal in Washington and Paris, where they lobbied
the American Minister in Paris, John Bigelow, who went, in his
words, "to the very verge of official propriety" to
help his countrywoman. To no avail however, a year later,
when Maximilian recognized he could no longer protect the child,
he ordered him returned to his parents. As Maximilian's biographer
Jasper Ridley sums up the "Iturbide Affair," "Only
a ruler as inept and unlucky as Maximilian could have handed
such a propaganda gift to Juarez."
In the billiards room, Venice reappeared in a large sooty-looking
painting of what looked like a bonfire in front of the column
of the winged lion of San Marco. The tape informed us that it
was of the nocturnal feast in honor of Maximilian and Charlotte's
state visit in 1857.
This was strange, I thought why, when he was playing billiards,
would Maximilian want to be reminded of Venice? A painful loss?
I was even more surprised when at last, we mounted the grand
staircase to find on the topmost floor the public rooms of an
emperor, the ceilings and walls elaborate with panels and gold
leaf, columns and caryatids, and sumptuous scarlet damask draperies
decorated with Maximilian's crest, the imperial Mexican crown
over an Aztec eagle on a cactus eating a snake. I had understood
that when Maximilian left for Mexico, this top floor was not
"Huh," A. said, when he saw the Mexican eagle, and
he crossed his arms over his chest.
We were in a room with every wall covered with portraits of kings
and emperors: Wilhelm I of Prussia, Ludwig of Bavaria, Louis
Napoléon, Victor Emmanuel, Christian X of Denmark, Alexander
II of Russia, Dom Pedro II of Brazil. The point clearly was that
Maximilian, no mere younger brother, was their equal.
I had not realized I had not even imagined that in
1866, from his palace in Mexico City and his villa in Cuernavaca,
as his Mexican empire was crumbling, his troops deserting for
lack of pay, and the French army leaving, Maximilian had sent
detailed instructions to his decorators here and gone yet
deeper into debt to pay for it.
There by the window was the famous table on which he had signed
his acceptance of the Mexican crown. A wedding gift from the
Pope, its pedestal was gilded, and its round top covered with
mosaics of Roman buildings: St. Peter's square, the Pantheon,
the Coliseum, the ruins of the Forum. I was astonished at how
tiny and cheap it looked, as if I might have tipped it over with
a slight push.
A. went ahead of me into the next room more gilding, more
portraits, chandeliers, preposterously elaborate fittings. Above
the door was a painting of Chapultepec Castle, its tower flying
the Mexican tricolor.
A. looked as if he'd bitten into a rotten lime. He lifted off
an earphone and said to me, "How can he say that!"
"Equidad en la Justicia." Justice with Equity.
He jabbed a finger at the imperial motto woven into the damask.
"Equality!" he nearly spit out the word. "What
And then, unbelievably, we saw pushed into a corner a marble
sculpture of Daedelus fastening a wing onto Icarus' raised arm.
Maximilian himself had purchased it and had it placed precisely
here. It must have been by the same sculptor who made the one
we had seen in the ball-room in Venice.
A. said, "La ambición mató al ratón."
Ambition killed the mouse.
This before he had seen the cathedral-ceilinged throne room.
Here A.'s expression turned fierce. Arms akimbo, he beetled his
brows at the allegory of the glory of Charles V, a mural-map
of the world with the Hapsburg-ruled territories in brick-redincluding,
of course, Mexico. Long before Queen Victoria's British Empire,
it was the Spanish Empire cuyo sol nunca se ponía,
on which the sun never set.
"So," I said as we clumped back down the grand staircase,
"what did you think?"
He put up his fist. "Viva México!"
"What do you mean, exactly?"
At the bottom of the stairs, he said, "Just."
We were funneled back down to the gift shop. I selected a handful
of postcards, and a notebook with the picture of Maximilian and
Charlotte departing for Mexico. A. was back at the glass case,
where he had spotted an engraving of Miramar the very same
one that was in our book, De Miramar a México.
It cost 23 Euros.
"Want to buy it?" A. said. I knew he had in mind adding
it to the wall in our house we had covered with engravings, all
souvenirs. It would look nice; but at the thought of having it
framed in Mexico City of handing the thing to the Mexican
framer, who would know what it was, or would ask me what it was
and then I would have to tell him I did not want it.
I said, "Bad feng shui."
He looked at it sadly. And then, without comment, he put it back.
Behind the castle,
the parterre, dotted here and there with iron-gray statues and
urns on plinths, and bounded with dark stands of pinetrees, would
have made the perfect setting for a vampire flick. It overlooked
the metal-gray sea, but it was so high above it that the only
sound was the trickle of a fountain. The flower beds were bedraggled.
A marmalade cat chased a black cat off a bench. At the end of
the garden we came to a pavilion, the Caffè Massimiliano.
Its counters needed wiping; the teenager at the register wore
a goatee and an earring. Here we passed on another chance to
buy postcards and those "MIM" demi-tasse cups. Outside,
bundled in our coats, we sat on white metal chairs and drank
A. looked off at the water, which was shining dully. The sun
hid behind so many clouds that it looked like a silver moon.
He said, "Did you know that Chapultepec Castle is the most
visited museum in Latin America?"
No, I hadn't known that.
"People come in and they say ooh' and ah,' and
at the end when they hear Maximilian was killed they say, Oh
my God.' But you know, they think he was just a bum."
"So," I said, "you don't think he was such a bum
"He was a bump."
"A speed bump. But Mexico plowed right over it! He was just
another one of the aberrations in the history of Mexico. That
century was lost, and Maximilian was the worst part of it. But
Santa Anna was bad, too. He was really a..." A. stared off
into the pinetrees.
"A total nut! Su Alteza Serenísima, he called
himself. He was deranged. He died of syphilis, probably. And
the Church was sucking Mexico like a leech. The U.S. invades,
Santa Anna sells them half the country, and Santa Anna embezzles
the money, then France invades. And then this guy, Gutierrez
d'Estrada, comes up with his wacko idea."
The marmalade cat was still chasing the black cat; they raced
around the flower beds, and then the black cat leapt up the trellis
and onto the roof.
"It wasn't wacko at the time," I said. I was thinking
of the German prince sent to be King of Greece, and Charlotte's
father, Leopold I, another German prince who had been invited
to rule the Belgians. In Lombardy-Venetia, Maximilian had already
ruled over an alien people, and afterwards, his name was bandied
about as a candidate for King of Poland and King of Greece.
A. slouched in his chair. This litany of Mexico's history, it
was enough to put any Mexican in a foul mood.
And it was cold. I held my coffee in both hands, for the warmth.
I was thinking again about how, for Americans, there is no one
like Maximilian, nothing like Miramar. There are, of course,
houses that might be painful for some to see. We talked about
Robert E. Lee's plantation house, now surrounded by Arlington
National Cemetery, which we had visited together a couple of
years before. I said, if I were black, I would probably feel
angry to see, say, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, so spacious
and elegant, with its slave cabins.
"But Monticello, that's not really it," he said.
"I know," I said.
One thing was bothering me. "Why do you think Maximilian
decorated the upstairs like that?"
"He was a very confused person. He was going to abdicate.
He tried going to Veracruz to flee, didn't he?"
"Yes," I said. "But he turned around and went
back to Mexico City."
"Well," A. said, "if he hadn't, he would have
been the Emperor of Mexico in exile. There are all these guys
who are the king of whatever and they're living in Paris. I think
that was the thing."
Here, I supposed now, Maximilian must have imagined that he would
return to his glittering dinner parties, and simpler, bachelors'
evenings of billiards, smoking, cards. He would write his memoirs
of Mexico. Travel: why not an expedition to the Congo? Or Rajasthan?
And I had read somewhere that Maximilian had told someone (was
it Blasio?) that one day he should like to fly balloons. This
parterre would be the perfect place for a launch:
Late August 1867. A summer's day, sparkling, sun-kissed sea.
He is well again, he has put on weight. His entourage in tow,
he strides across the gravel and steps into the basket of a billowing,
parrot-green montgolfier emblazoned, of course, with "MIM."
And it lifts, up and yonder over the shining white tower of Miramar.
From the basket sandbags splash to the sea and it rises
ever higher, ropes trailing. A picnic in the clouds: chilled
champagne, tiny toasts spread with foie gras.
"What's so funny?" A. said.
I sighed, and put down my coffee cup. "It ended a little
A. didn't say anything.
We began walking up the hill toward the Parco Tropicale, where
Maximilian had built his specially heated aviary. "Well,"
I said, taking his arm. "I'm glad you had the idea for this
"It was for your novel."
"But it was your idea."
"I wouldn't have come here if it weren't for your novel."
I looked at him. "Really?"
"It's not like I want to go around saying, oh, wow, I went
"Well, like, the Congressmen I work with, what would they
think? What, is this guy interested in foreign intervention?
In dictatorship?" He hissed through his teeth.
I hissed back at him.
We saw the hummingbirds and the parrots, and then, in the far
north of the park, Il Castelletto, the mini-Miramar where Maximilian
and Charlotte had lived while their castle was being constructed.
On her return from Mexico and the fiascos in Paris and Rome,
after the alienist had declared her insane, Il Castelletto had
also served as Charlotte's prison. Inside, according to my books,
were rooms designed by Maximilian when he was still a bachelor:
a Flemish, a Nordic room, and a Moorish room. Blasio's description
of the latter is enticingly lush:
[It] was upholstered in dark damask and its walls almost literally
with exotic weapons that the emperor had collected and catalogued
with his exquisite taste. The walls also had verses of the Koran
handwritten in gold. In the center of the room a beautiful fountain
played almost to the ceiling, a thin crystalline thread of water
that refreshed that residence worthy of an oriental magnate.
From the ceiling hung a canopy made of ostrich eggs enclosed
within nets of green silk; the seats were plump pillows of red
velvet, and the floor was covered with Turkish carpets of many
colors. Everywhere magnificent censers let out plumes of perfumed
smoke, and there within the visitor's easy reach, were to be
seen long Arab pipes, the kind used by those refined smokers
of the Orient.
But these marvels were upstairs, and the upstairs, the man
at the ticket counter informed us in just enough broken English
for us to understand, was off-limits. Now "Il Castelleto"
was a children's aquarium, and to go in, we had to put on shoe
covers. These looked like bright blue shower caps. But we were
The floor we shuffled along, stepping wide was a
squishy chocolate-brown plastic, meant to imitate a muddy sea
bottom. We peered into a few unremarkable tanks of unremarkable
fish. The signs, meant for schoolchildren, were all in Italian.
Outside, a slash of sun had appeared on the water. A squirrel
scampered across the path. Doves cooed and flitted in the pines.
As we walked back through the park, we could see the water sparkling
through the trees. Here, then there, as the path curved around
the promontory, we caught glimpses of Miramar, so far out in
the sea, so fantastically sugar-white in the sunshine, it might
have been a vision in a dream.
I half-expected Tinkerbell to appear hovering over one of the
turrets, with her wand showering pixie dust.
Sound track: pìccolos in a minor key, and kettle drums.
After nearly a year of imprisonment here in Il Castelletto, Charlotte's
sister-in-law, Queen Marie-Henriette, came to take her home to
Belgium. Some biographers claim that Charlotte was never told
of Maximilian's death. But in 1868 she sent a card to certain
members of the Mexican imperial court, a drawing of Maximilian
as a sailor, his arms wrapped around the flag, on the prow of
a ship going down in a storm. To one Mexican lady she wrote,
on the black-bordered stationary used for mourning, "My
very dear friend: I am sending you this souvenir of our beloved
Emperor, because I know that you are worthy of it."
Charlotte had moments of lucidity, when she could converse over
tea, or play the piano, but the rest of her life, she would have
episodes of hearing voices, and she suffered from delusions,
obsessions, and savage rages when she would kick and punch her
servants. According to her most recent biographer, Prince Michael
of Greece, she would scrawl literally thousands of pages of ink-spattered
nonsense, and once, "she took a watering can and carefully
began to water the flowers stitched into the carpet"
though this last may have been a symptom of senility. She died
in her castle just outside of Brussels at the age of 86 in 1927.
As for Maximilian's much earlier end on Querétaro's Cerro
de las Campanas, it came after a two day trial. There were 13
counts against him, ranging from his role as "an agent of
foreign intervention" to "usurping Mexico's sovereignty,"
but perhaps the most damning was that Maximilian had, in a moment
of desperation with the guerrillas, proclaimed the "Black
Decree" of October 3, 1865 which had caused untold numbers
of Mexican prisoners of war and civilians found with weapons
to be shot or hung without trial. He may have restored the palaces,
constructed a wide and elegant Champs Elysées-style avenue
into the heart of Mexico City, founded the Museum of Natural
History, helped the Indians as no other leader had before him
there was a long list of his many well-intentioned and often
successful efforts to bring "higher civilization" to
Mexico but none of these could tip the scales of justice.
President Juarez had no blood lust, no interest in revenge, but
he was a realist. To spare Maximilian's life would invite revolt
in the army, and to allow Maximilian to leave Mexico would open
the very dangerous possibility that he would establish a government
in exile at Miramar - in short, there was the risk that Maximilian,
as Iturbide had, would attempt to return. As Juarez told Maximilian's
lawyers, "The law and the sentence are inexorable now because
public safety requires it, and this will enable us later on to
be sparing of the blood of those who have been led astray, which
will be for me the greatest happiness of my life."
The news of Maximilian's execution raced across the Atlantic
When Maximilian's mother heard the news in Vienna she burst into
sobs. "Those brutes, those savages! They have murdered him,
my darling, my beautiful lighthearted Max!" Queen Victoria,
horrified, put on mourning dress. In the Tuileries, Louis Napoléon
broke down and cried. His empress Eugenie nearly fainted. But
that day, Louis Napoléon was scheduled to give a speech
for the awards at his International Exhibition. He pulled himself
together, soldier that he was, and before thousands of guests,
including the Sultan of Turkey, the Prince of Wales, the Tycoon
of Japan and Prince Umberto of Italy, Louis Napoléon,
smilingly splendid in his general's uniform, behaved as if nothing
had happened, at all.
What happened to Maximilian's body was that the Mexican embalmer
made a mess. First he soaked it in oil to retard decay; but he
used too much, and so he hung it from the vault of Mexico City's
chapel of San Andrés to drain. Apparently this hanging,
dripping Emperor Maximilian was quite the sight. From the street
people came jostling in, wanting to touch it and slap it. It
was said, as Queen Victoria confided in her journal, that the
Mexicans had "sold bits of his skull, skin & hair!!
Too disgusting & disgraceful!!" The eyes soon shriveled
to a putrid mush. Not until six weeks had passed, and the Emperor
Franz Joseph had recognized the Mexican Republic, did President
Juarez permit the Novara to sail back to Europe with the cadaver.
But what to do about its eyeless sockets? Someone got the idea
to pry out the glass eyes from a statue of the Virgin and use
After landing at Trieste (not the little jetty at Miramar, where
poor, raving Charlotte was still locked into Il Castelletto),
Maximilian's coffin was loaded onto a train to Vienna. In the
Kapuzinerkirche's Habsburg family crypt, it was placed with the
full restored honors of an Austrian Archduke.
ACROSS THE LAKE, AGAIN
We were on the plane flying back to Mexico City when A. told
me a story. While on a business trip in Austria, he had happened
to be scarfing down canapés with the owner of one of Mexico's
largest banks when the Prime Minister of Austria wandered up.
To make conversation, the banker said, smilingly, "Did you
know? There's a connection between your country and my country?"
The Prime Minister of Austria looked down his nose. "Yes.
But it was not a happy one." And he turned and walked away.
The banker took this coolly. "Huh," he said to A. "Siguen
encabronados." They're still pissed-off.
I was stunned. I said, "Why didn't you tell me this before?"
We were probably somewhere in the vicinity of southern Greenland.
Out the window, all I could see was a solid carpet of clouds.
We were almost across the Atlantic. I picked up Jan Morris's
Trieste again; I smoothed out the dog-ear and read this felicitously
In the deep
waters of Trieste bay, not far off Miramare, on the bottom of
the sea stands a life-sized figure of San GuistoSan Giusto
del Mare. He is standing, I am told, four-square on the sea floor,
bound, and holding not the melon of his tradition, but the original
lead weight of his martyrdom. All around him fishes swim, and
occasional pious skin-divers.
Gee, I thought:
I wish I'd known that before, too.
I watched the movie, and for a little while, I listened to Elvis
on the headphones yes, "The King," synchronistically
enough, singing "Return to Sender."
So, we had seen Miramar. But had I really seen Maximilian? I
was trying, but I was not at all sure I could convincingly render
this strange and contradictory personality. At once retiring
and anxious to blaze himself onto the world's stage, Maximilian
had, after all, constructed this "private vacation castle"
that gave him, like a little boy, the illusion of being on his
favorite ship, in full, exposed view of the main square of Trieste.
"Aren't I something?" Max, a sprite of a little prince,
seems to say. As a child he had ordered a chalet built in the
countryside outside Vienna, which he named after himself.
I think he knew joy much joy, for he had a lightness of
heart that let him escape, as one might ride a balloon a short
way into the nearby clouds, from all that it meant to be what
he was born to be: for so many people, from every walk in life,
a fixed point in the world, a tap-root into an ancient and abiding
past. You are much larger than yourself, everyone watches you,
depends on you, caring about even such minutiae as what sash
you wore, what wine you drank with dinner, whom you looked at,
and exactly how and for how long you looked at them, and whom
you did not see, or not condescend to see. Whether Archduke or
Emperor, one hundred years from now, someone will be writing
about your sex life, your digestion, every intricacy and permutation
of your hairstyle or beard-style, how your barber combed
it and applied special lotions to it, as if it were a woman's
tresses. The sense of duty would be staggering, a load strapped
onto one's back as early as childhood, and to always, always
maintain that mystical level of prestige, it must have felt as
essential, for Maximilian and for Charlotte, as each next breath
What would you do if, on the cusp of mid-life, your special status
were stripped from you? What boneless, shivering ego would remain?
Miramar Castle revealed one that would have hidden behind sumptuous
draperies and portraits and murals that would have shown it,
every day, not who it was but a fairytale of memory.
But what we had just seen in Miramar, I realized now, was not
so much Maximilian as what Maximilian had turned his back on.
He could have abdicated and sailed away on the Novara alive,
but he chose, just before he reached the coast at Veracruz, to
turn around: In his own mind and his own heart, Maximilian von
Habsburg, brave knight, was truly the Emperor of Mexico.
"Yo soy mexicano," I am Mexican I can
hear him say it in his sharp, clipped accent.
His face, gaunt with months of illness, receives the gentlest
of breezes. He clenches and unclenches his hands. His knees are
trembling and yet, somehow, at the same time firm. And then,
into that morning of so long ago, he shouts those last proud
words of love for the country that had, in the most profound
way possible, rejected him.
Wrote Sara Yorke Stevenson, "We forget that he was no leader
when we see how well he could die."
A swan-dive into the abyss of the future.
Hours slipped by. I had just woken up when our plane landed with
a jolt. Mexico City's Benito Juarez Airport.
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