Once upon a time, Napoleon III, who to my mind is just as much a sketchy dude as his uncle Napoleon I, sent an Austrian Archduke, Maximilian, and his wife Charlotte to Mexico to create himself an empire. But this story is neither about Napoleon III nor Maximilian: it’s about Charlotte.
I’ve been fascinated by Charlotte since the sixth grade. That’s when my family decided to move from Bologna, the gastronomical capital of Italy, to Trieste. I didn’t think there was much to love about Trieste; I probably made some stupid joke about how if you remove the “e” from the middle of the name you get the Italian word “triste,” which is sad, and that’s how I felt about moving. I pouted, as only an 11-year-old can.
And then we visited Miramare. Miramare, a castle that sits on an outcropping at the edge of Trieste and juts out onto the Adriatic Sea, was for a brief chunk of history the home of Maximilian and Charlotte (Carlota).
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sheer awe I felt while walking the museum halls of Miramare that first time. The castle is a shrine to its creators and initial inhabitants, with bedrooms adorned with all the furnishings of their day. There are gorgeous art pieces adorning the walls, lavish decor, and a jaw-dropping garden outside. It is, frankly, something that dreams are made of. I was in love with all of it, but the part that stood out to me the most was Charlotte’s chamber. A massive bed sat in between two shoulder-height-ish doors, openings to secret passageways that led, respectively, to the chapel and a bathroom.
I was in love with all of it, but the part that stood out to me the most was Charlotte’s chamber.
The castle was my everything. It populated my dreams, my hopes, even my prayers as I started to literally ask God to let my family move in (I’ve always been ambitious). Slowly I learned more of Maximilian and Charlotte’s stories. How they married when she was but a teenager, how they moved to Trieste and built the castle but shortly after they moved in, they were appointed Emperor and Empress of Mexico. As a kid, I didn’t question that last part — imperialism and colonialism weren’t just facts of life, they were lauded as the acts of great nations. As an adult, I know the truth is thornier and darker and that both those things are abhorrent historical atrocities.
Another thing I learned after growing up was that Charlotte was depressed. At the time, they called it “a state of madness.” I’m extrapolating a bit here, but her depression…makes sense? From a purely circumstantial point of view, her husband had essentially been tricked into taking a throne that shouldn’t have been his, and when Charlotte went to Napoleon (you’ll remember him as the guy who orchestrated the whole emperor thing, to begin with), he refused to assist his failing puppet in conquest. So did the pope. Maximilian was executed by President Benito Juarez’s forces in 1867, leaving Charlotte a widow at 27.
Another thing I learned after growing up was that Charlotte was depressed.
For the next 50 years, Charlotte lived in Belgium, where she ultimately died and was buried in the town of her birth. Her story is tragic for all involved: for Charlotte, who thought she was chosen to sit on the Mexican throne but was instead a mere accessory to an empire’s accessory. It’s also tragic for the Mexican people who were never actually asked to be ruled by a foreign emperor and fought a bloody war to be free of him.
And it’s tragic for Miramare, which despite its beauty is reportedly cursed: “whoever spends the night there is destined to die prematurely in a foreign land.”
Maybe it’s a good thing my family never got our windfall and bought the castle.
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