Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Troubled Life of an Unlikely Emperor

Trieste, Italy (August 3, 2014)

There was a time in history when a selected group of individuals, because of their birth, marriage or money, were more equal in society than everybody else. A few families controlled the governments of Europe, and the flow of capitals across the world. Their offsprings were groomed since a tender age to be the future enlightened leaders of their nations. Borders were drawn to accommodate their rightful necessities, and preserve the balance of power among these powerful families and their entourage. To us, living in the modern world of full equality, where everybody has the same political influence, economic possibilities and education opportunities, regardless of gender, race or inclinations, this may seem a quaint world out of touch with reality. But this was the world at the beginning of the XIX Century, after the Congress of Vienna in 1814 repaired the upheaval caused by the Napoleonic wars and set a new order by restoring the old powers to their rightful place.

Votivkirche, Vienna
This was the world in which Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine was born, in the imperial palace of Shönbrunn in Vienna. The second surviving child of a cadet branch in the Austrian imperial family, he devoted himself to a life of study and military action when his brother Franz Joseph become the new Holy Roman Emperor (that is, the ruler of Austria and half of Europe). Franz Joseph (Ceco-Beppe as he was nicknamed by his faithful italian subjects) had been elevated to the crown to bring some new, militaristic blood to a throne tainted by the European revolutions of 1848, and roll back some of the democratic concessions forced upon his feeble-minded uncle. After suppressing a revolt of the Hungarians, that somehow resented the Habsburg centralized rule, the emperor suffered an assassination attempt by the hands of the Hungarian nationalist János Libényi. He barely survived, and to celebrate this event (the survival, that is) the emperor's brother Maximilian called upon the reigning families of Europe to donate for the construction of a church on the site of the attack. Thus the Votivkirche in Vienna was constructed, located, as it happens, just facing my hotel room when I was in town two weeks ago for a meeting. The little photo on the left was my view from the window. Thanks Maximilian for your efforts.

Miramare marine reserve 
Maximilian efforts, however, didn't stop with the beautification of my hotel room view. At just 22 years of age he became commander in chief of the Austrian Navy, and was instrumental in the creation of the naval ports of Trieste and Pula. He was then named Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia (at the time part of the Austrian Empire), but he didn't last very much in that role. The emperor became enraged by the liberal policies attempted by Maximilian, and he was removed from the post. He then retired in Trieste with his wife Carlota. In Trieste he built their love-nest, the Miramare castle. The villa (built with the characteristically eclectic architecture of the time) is shown in the large picture above. It happens to be just a few step down from SISSA, the school where I did my graduate studies, and ICTP, which is where Mayli took a year of courses after her university degree.  You can say that Mayli and me met on the grounds of Maximilian and Carlota love-nest. The residence is surrounded by a beautiful park facing the gulf of Trieste, now a protected marine reserve. Next to the reserve and directly at the end of the road to the SISSA/ICTP buildings, there is a stone and concrete pier projecting into the gulf. The only public access to the sea, between the protected waters and private marina, this pier is where SISSA students spend the late afternoons waiting for the traffic to abate along the coastal road, before heading back to the city for dinner. You can see the pier in the small photo below (you may notice, keen-eyed reader, as women of any age sunbathe topless in Trieste, and nobody makes any fuss about it).

Miramare, Trieste
Maximilian however was restless. When a delegation of Mexican conservatives approached him in Miramare offering the crown of the newly created Empire of Mexico, with some little hesitation he accepted. He embarked on the imperial yacht Phantasie with his wife towards this new american adventure, ready to bring to his new subjects the wisdom and the enlightenment of his european education. He received the blessing of his peers: the benediction of Pope Pius IX and a ceremonial firing salute ordered by Queen Victoria as his boat crossed the Gibraltar strait.  He was not told, however, that the plebiscite supporting the creation of the new empire succeeded only with considerable help from the french bayonets of the occupying Napoleon III armies, nor that the liberal forces of Benito Juárez were less than ready to recognize his rule. He landed in Veracruz on 21 May 1864 welcomed by the wild enthusiasm of the crowds, and an ongoing revolution of the republican forces led by Porfirio Díaz. He didn't last long: his liberal policies once again enraged his conservative supporters, while the republican revolutionaries made huge gains as the french troops were retired, and with indirect help from the post-civil-war, Monroe-doctrine-directed United States. While Carlota was in Europe trying to rally support for her husband, Maximilian was taken prisoner by the forces of Juárez, court-martialed and sentenced to death. Despite the pleas of many liberals of the time (including Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi) to spare his life, he was executed on June 18, 1867. His wife had a nervous breakdown following the news: she never acknowledged his death and spent the rest of her life, insane and recluse, on the grounds of the Miramare castle.

From the terrace of the Miramare castle, Trieste, Italy (Aug 3, 2014)

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