chapultepec castle – a house museum in mexico


Last week I took you on a tour of Miramare, the Italian house museum built by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria. Today we continue with Maximilian and Charlotte (or Carlota in Spanish), and travel over 6,000 miles to Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. It was here that the couple established their residence during their brief and tragic sojourn as the last Emperor and Empress of Mexico.



Before we discuss Chapultepec Castle itself, it is worth taking a look at how this European prince found himself Emperor on the other side of the globe. In 1860, Mexico had been a republic for less than 40 of its 335+ year history, having been ruled from Spain as the Viceroyalty of New Spain until 1821 (and ruled by Maximilian’s own Hapsburg relations for almost 200 years). The early years of the Republic were filled with civil unrest and wars including that with the United States, which left the country’s economy in rags, its treasury empty and its European creditors increasingly frustrated. In an effort to secure payments on debts owed to them, France invaded Mexico.  Backed by Napoleon III and a conservative group of Mexican aristos, Archduke Maximilian was offered the Crown of Mexico.



Chapultepec Castle itself had a troubled past – begun in 1775 for the Viceroy of New Spain as a neoclassical summer retreat, the residence was perched on the highest point overlooking the city. When the Viceroy died a decade later, the house was still unfinished and the Spanish Crown refused to continue funding its construction. The site was abandoned until 1833 when it became home of the Military Academy. When Maximilian and Carlota arrived in Mexico City in 1864, they decided to make it the seat of their Imperial Court.



Having just recently finished Miramare Castle in Trieste, Italy, Maximilian chose a different look for the interiors of Chapultepec Castle. Whereas a neo Gothic, Germanic sensibility reigned in his previous residence, the interiors of Chapultepec appear much more grand and better suited to a palace built for a ruling Emperor. Maybe it’s a nod to the country that made his “Emperorship” viable, as the overall theme for the interiors at Chapultepec were to be French Empire style – popular in the last half of the 19th century. The Drawing room walls are hung in rich crimson and navy damask while the furnishings drip in gilding. It’s interesting to note that there is almost no concession made to this being a residence in Mexico, but then it could also be a longing for stability and the comfort of an interior décor that reminded the couple of family and friends in Europe.



One of my favorite aspects of Chapultepec Castle are its marvelous gardens. The rooftops of the palace were created as vast formal gardens that allowed the family and guests to take the breezes on warm Mexican summer nights. I wouldn’t quite call it indoor/outdoor living like we know it today, but it’s a start in the right direction!



Mexico did not remain an Empire for long. The Republican forces of President Benito Juarez were never actually defeated by Napoleon III’s invading French army, which meant that his government was still viable and wildly popular amongst the people. Therefore in reality Maximilian and Carlota’s court was a sham orchestrated by a small group of powerful Mexican monarchists.



In 1866 France withdrew its forces from Mexico after giving up on its adventure. While Carlota went back to try to bolster support for their cause, Maximilian vowed to continue fighting the Republicans. His reign ended in the city of Queretaro where he was captured and executed by firing squad on June 19, 1867 at age 35, just merely 3 years after arriving in Mexico. The French painter Edouard Manet immortalized this event in 5 versions of the same painting one of which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


chapultepec castle death of maximilian manet

Richard Rabel is a New York Interior Designer and Principal at Richard Rabel: Interiors+ Art, a studio offering residential design, decorating and art advising.

image credits top to bottom: chapultepec castle: “aerial view of Chapultepec Castle” by; “Stained Glass windows” and “Maximilian’s Bedroom” by Tristan Higbee; “Drawing and Dining Rooms” by Jorge Calderon; “Gardens” by henrivzq; Edouard Manet, “Execution of Maximilian 1868-69” Kunsthalle Mannheim / Magita Wickenhauser