Archive | November, 2018

The sorry saga of Maximiliano de Mexico

9 Nov

 

 

In all the expansive glory-seeking annals of European imperialism, no episode is as pathetic, as grasping at straws, as the attempt in the 1860s to extend European reach in the New World by installing an Emperor in Mexico.  Maximilian, younger brother of the Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph–or more correctly, His Imperial and Royal Highness Archduke and Prince Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria, Prince of Hungary, Bohemia and Croatia–was the sacrificial lamb, “reigning” as Emperor from 1864 until his inevitable execution in Santiago de Querétaro in 1867, the ostensible subject of Manet’s famous painting of 1868.

As a somewhat lazy student of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, I have always been a bit confused and perplexed by Maximilian’s story:  how and why was an Austrian prince chosen by the French to become the ruler of a land that they had no business invading, a country newly freed from the colonial rule of Bourbon Spain? In our recent travels, tidbits of Maximilian’s story kept popping up in unexpected places. When we arrived in Querétaro and learned (to our surprise, since my knowledge of the facts was still very vague) that it was in this very Mexican city that he was imprisoned and executed, I decided I needed to unravel this peculiar historical incident, if only for my own peace of mind.

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Miramare, Maximilian’s castle in Trieste. Described by Simon Winder as “a sort of Disneyish dream home”

Our first encounter with Maximilian–and his tragic bride Charlotte of Belgium, who became Carlota of Mexico–was in Trieste, site of Miramare, the villa he built when he was newly married and happy as a commander in the Austrian Navy.  Here is how Jan Morris, in her wonderful book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, describes it

In a way it was a little like a romantic idealization of the empire itself, a fairy-tale mock fortress on this southern shore, and when I see it out there I am reminded poignantly of the passing of all empires, those seductive illusions of permanence, those monuments of hubris which have sometimes been all evil, but have sometimes had much good to them.

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Maximilian and Charlotte on their wedding day, 1857. She was 17, he was 25.

Morris also gives a good description of Maximilian’s personality, one of the keys to his ill-fated decision to take up the mantel of Empire:  “He was a dreamy sort of man, somewhat liberal in his views and much influenced by his uncle the crazed romantic Ludwig I of Bavaria, so he was not at ease with the stiff autocracy of K u K” (Kaiserlich und Königlich, Imperial and Royal, a reference to the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Here’s as much of a back story as I can figure out to the chain of events leading up to Maximilian and Carlota’s departure for Mexico:  the old royal houses of Europe led by French monarchists, disgruntled by revolutionary forces in their countries and miffed at the growing power of the United States, felt they needed a stronger foothold in the Americas. In a last gasp of imperialist solidarity,  the French turned to the oldest House in Europe, the Habsburgs–whose Spanish branch had ruled New Spain for three hundred years–as the most viable option for imposing a regime on Mexico. While the United States was preoccupied with their Civil War, the thinking went, and believing that there was considerable support among conservatives within Mexico for a return to monarchical rule after the rise of the Mexican leader Benito Juárez, French troops invaded Mexico in 1861.  While reluctant at first, Maximilian was reassured by Mexican monarchists and France’s Napoleon III that these troops would support him in establishing rule in the country.  So in April 1864, he and Carlota arrived in Mexico, to be hailed as Emperor and Emperor’s Consort.  They were crowned Emperor and Empress at the Cathedral in Mexico City.

 

The new royal family set up house and government offices in the Castillo, the castle built in the late 18th century located in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. They brought full regalia and the accoutrements of royalty, and made up some fascinating new ones, such as an imperial banner incorporating the emblems of Mexico with Hapsburgian elements. We walked up the hill to the Castle, which is a well-visited tourist site in the park. The castle itself is, at least by European standards, somewhat modest, in a rather plain Neo-Classical style.  The rooms have been furnished with evidence of the imperial period, as well as subsequent occupancy by Juárez and Mexico’s near-dictator ruler Porfirio Diaz. Carlota’s rooms are particularly poignant, perhaps only because we now know of her fate.  It was, however, quite apparent here as it was in Querétaro, that the Mexicans are understandably reluctant to heroize this moment in their history, preferring instead to focus on their canon of revolutionaries, foremost among them Benito Juárez. The Castle has a full-wall mural honoring Juárez, and amusingly, displays as well a golden laurel wreath with which Juárez was crowned once the invaders were routed.  This is the only crown in the Castle’s interesting History Room displays.

 

 

The most fantastic aspect of the Chapultepec Castle is its elevation. The views from its balconies over Bosque de Chapultepec are as stunning today as they were in the 1860s. This park in the center of Mexico City, off of the Paseo de Reforma–a street that was implemented under Maximilian’s direction–is one of the most magnificent parks in the world.

 

As the story of the doomed Second Mexican Empire progressed, warning signs of failure started to appear almost immediately.  The royal couple took their duties seriously, and were appalled at the level of poverty and inequality seen across the country. Maximilian ended child labor and tried to establish schools for the poor, while Carlota toured as far as the Yucután and sponsored charities to improve conditions for children.  The Emperor turned out to be far too liberal for the Mexican conservatives that had brought him to the country; their idea of Empire was to maintain the status quo of rich landowners and their fiefdoms. When the American Civil War ended and Napoleon III withdrew his troops from Mexico, having apparently lost interest in the idea of conquest, Maximilian’s fate was sealed.

 

 

 

On a brilliant Sunday morning, we walked from our apartment on Calle Damian Carmona to Cerro de las Campanas, which is now on the campus of the University of Querétaro. The place is now a pleasant park, and families were enjoying the ice cream vendors, and finding out that the rocks really do ring when struck.

The only memorial in the entire city to the Maximilian moment in the city’s history is a small chapel erected in the 1890s on the site where he and his generals faced the firing squad. A small museum above this site, which we assumed would focus on the story of the Empire, gave only passing mention to this era, emphasizing instead the story of Mexican Independence and Revolution(s). The pinnacle of the Hill, which provides a nice view over the city, is dominated by this enormous, and to my mind particularly unattractive, statue of the great hero, Benito Juárez. As it should be, I suppose, although I wish the public sculptures of Juárez were up to the aesthetic quality of the Mexican Muralists’ works all over the country.

Our entrepreneurial Yankee minds were thinking that the Queretarans had missed a selling point for tourists by not providing a “Maximilian Tour” to cash in on these historic monuments, but then we realized that the great virtue of Querétaro is that it is not at all geared for foreign tourists–no one in the tourist office spoke English or any other language other than Spanish, and there were no tourist maps published in English. This made the town blissfully free of tourist busses. This non-interest in becoming a tourist mecca was also what we liked about Trieste, that other town with traces of Maximiliana.

As we went up the long steep hill to the Castillo in Chapultepec Park, I saw one of the only cats we saw outside in all of Mexico.   Carlota apparently liked cats, too.

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Trotsky in Coyoacán

4 Nov

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In the last 30 years we are surely the only Americans  who have visited the charming “village” of Coyoacán, Mexico–now engulfed by Mexico City spread–without seeing a single Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera site!  This was not entirely by choice–we went on a Friday, which was our first mistake, and the line to get into Frida’s house was ridiculously long. Add to that my impatience with the obsessive marketing of all things Frida in the last few years, and there was not much persuasion needed to convince me to skip the whole journey to the shrines. This is not to say that I don’t admire her artwork, and her story is sensational–I just can’t bear the kitschifying of her and her art. But that’s a theme for another blog!

What we DID head to see, and first up, was the Museo de la Casa Leon Trotsky. This is the home where exiled Communist leader Leon Trotsky, after years of exile in various countries fleeing Stalin’s brutal hand, lived 1939-40 until he was assassinated by a Stalinist operative. (Stalin had already killed just about everybody else associated with Trotsky, including his son and his first wife.) His murder by ice axe took place in this very house, in the study that has been preserved exactly as it was at the time of his death.  During his time in Mexico, he was an active participant in the heady intellectual and cultural life surrounding the Mexican Muralists and others drawn to revolutionary thought and action so significant in the 1930s and 1940s throughout Latin America and the United States.

The house as a museum is run by a private board headed by Trotsky’s grandson Esteban Volkow. Constantly in need of funds, the displays are sometimes cheesy, with amateurish labels and less than consistent displays. The emphasis is always on Trotsky’s very fruitful time in Mexico (he wrote some of his best books there), so there are many photos of him with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (Trotsky lived in their Blue House for many months, and is said to have had an affair with Frida), as well as an intriguing timeline of “revolutionary” events throughout Trotsky’s life. This display even included a photograph of the painter David Siqueiros in jail for his part in an earlier unsuccessful attempt on Trotsky’s life. The bookstore contained all the books in Spanish one would find at a socialist bookshop, on the likes of Rosa Luxemburg and Gramsci.  I felt like I did back in my time running with the YSA crowd in Portland, Oregon, only as if our activities were taking place in Spanish.

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The famous muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros was directly involved in the earlier assassination attempt on Trotsky, and served some time in jail. The great art historian Meyer Schapiro wrote a scathing indictment of Siqueiros about his part in this action.

Despite some museological “failings”, the impact of being on the grounds and in Trotsky’s house, surrounded by the objects of his daily life while in Coyoacán, was immediate and intense.  If only to have such a vivid document of material culture in 1940s Mexico, a glimpse at the kitchen, dining room, and even the bathroom I found fascinating. All those simply decorated dishes, all those beautiful wooden doors!

And then there was the study, with the desk still holding Trotsky’s glasses and the papers he had been working on when the Spanish-born Soviet agent Ramón Mercader, posing as one of Trotsky’s followers, entered the room and struck him in the head with an ice axe. I found this a very moving experience, seeing all his books and his bed and cane.  And then on the grounds, near Trotsky’s chicken coops and flowering trees, is his grave. His long-suffering wife Natalia Sedova, who lived into the 1960s, is also buried there.

Once we left La Casa Trotsky, we headed down to the Plaza Hidalgo in the middle of town, through Coyoacán’s magnificently authentic mercado. Ironically, having just come from the home of a revolutionary leader, Coyoacán, once a sleepy little artists’ community, is now one of the priciest places to live in Mexico City. As the waiter told us at the lovely little restaurant Moheli where we had lunch, its street, Avenida Francisco Sosa, is “like the Beverly Hills of Mexico.”  That street is indeed lined with venerable, newly renovated, estates built around 18th-century houses.

We watched dancers practicing flamenco steps on the elegant plaza–with Coyote fountain (Coyoacán means “place of the coyotes”)–and stepped into the pleasing interior of the town’s central Franciscan church, San Juan Bautista. Finally, instead of making it to the Rivera/Kahlo studio, we walked to the Nacional de La Acuarela , a charming display of the history of Mexican watercolors collected and donated by the artist Alfredo Guati Rojo.  We then made a torturous Uber journey back to La Condesa through Mexico City’s Friday night traffic. I would definitely advise people to make the journey to this wonderful village on any day but Friday or Saturday!

While the town is now a far cry from its lazy days of the 1940s, one can still get a bit of a sense of how it must have been when Trotsky was there.  The old street peddlers are still there, and the market place is as it must have been then.  If we had been game to elbow our way through the Rivera/Kahlo sites, I’m sure that we would have an even better feeling for that revolutionarily buzzing moment when Mexico seemed set for a new intellectual and cultural life.

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A honey vendor on Plaza Hidalgo