Recently a client was telling me about their coming trip to Venice and the Adriatic Coast and asked for my input about my favorite Italian museum. Everyone knows the important classic museums, but with my love of small house museums, I was able to suggest one or two that I thought they would like. Castello di Miramare in Trieste, Italy, is a castle perched on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. This is anything but your traditional Italian museum. It’s the type of place that you have to see to believe, but it has a fascinating history that explains everything about its quirky appearance: it’s a Victorian vision of a Gothic castle created by a German Hapsburg prince in northern Italy.
Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria (1832-1867) was the younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria. He was Commander-in-Chief of the Austrian Imperial Navy based at Trieste, then a part of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire. The house was intended as a private residence – grand enough to proclaim Maximilian’s status as a member of the Imperial family and a comfortable home for him and his wife, Princess Charlotte of Belgium. The house was constructed on a rocky promontory jutting into the sea between 1856 and finished in 1864. Maximilian took great interest in the construction and interior furnishing of the castle.
Miramare is a perfect example of a house that is designed with the vision of the owner in mind. Too often when I look through interior design magazines, I see incredibly beautiful spaces that could be anywhere and built for anyone. There is nothing personal in them and they lack all connection with their surroundings. The role of a top interior designer is to create a space that represents the client’s tastes not to impose their own style on the client. With his love of the sea, Maximilian’s bedroom and office are decorated as if they were the cabins of a warship. There are also Chinese and Japanese drawing rooms that harken back to a voyage he took to the Far East in 1850. I personally like when the final space tells more about the client than the decorator.
The heartrending twist in the story of Maximilian and Charlotte can also be viewed in different parts of the house. Aztec eagles grace the exterior of the castle, which would seem out of place in Italy except that Maximilian and Charlotte were the last Emperor and Empress of Mexico. The Imperial arms of the Second Mexican Empire decorate many rooms of Miramare. It was actually here at Miramare in 1863 that a Mexican delegation offered the crown to Maximilian, and it was from here that he and Charlotte set sail for their time in Mexico. Charlotte would return in 1866 after the tragedy of their adventure took the life of her husband. Poor Charlotte never recovered from the nervous breakdown she suffered and would live the rest of her life in Belgium dying only in 1927, sixty years after the death of her beloved husband.
Miramare continued to be used by the Hapsburgs as a private home until the end of the Empire in 1918. During the First World War the interior furnishings were sent to Vienna for safekeeping. At the end of the war the city of Trieste was given to Italy and it was only after talks between the two countries that in 1926 the furnishings were returned to Miramare so that the house could be opened as a museum, which it did in 1929.
This Italian museum serves as a great chance to experience upper class life in 19th century Europe. Gothic romanticism was all the rage in interior design among Europe’s intermarried Germanic aristocracy – from Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands, to Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps, to Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal. For today’s aesthetic, the interiors at Miramare are dated. But while this is definitely NOT my decorating vibe, I can still appreciate them as examples of a fully executed 19th century “contemporary look”.
Stay tuned, because soon we’ll be visiting Maximilian and Charlotte in their Imperial Palace in Mexico, now also a house museum.
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: italian museum: Miramare with Mountains – Flavio Ciarafoni; watercolor of Archduke Maximilian receiving Mexican Crown, 1863 by Cesare dell’Acqua – Castello di Miramare; Miramare aerial view – APT Trieste / Alessandro Savella. All others unknown and/or by the author.