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  • Maximilian’s Shirt June 3, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    ‘Emperor’ Maximilian was a scion of the Hapsburg dynasty who was parachuted into Mexico (1864) as Imperial Ruler in the Old World’s last concerted attempt to meddle in the Americas. Maximilian was not quite the patsy though that many in Europe and  monarchists of Mexico had hoped. He was one of those men who had a little bit too much energy for his own good and had some alarmingly liberal instincts for one who had grown up in the shadow of Metternich. Certainly, He took to his new title with gusto and when the rise of a Republican faction within Mexico put his position and, indeed his life at risk, he refused to remove himself from his adopted country and danger. In 1867, with his darling wife, Carlotta, thankfully far away in Europe, he was captured by his enemies and sentenced after a brief trial to death.

    His crime? He was shot with two of his generals on the basis of the Law of Punishment for Crimes against the State. Most good men and women who have been shot in the last two hundred years have died for some version of the same.

    Bizarrists will find much to fascinate them in Maximilian’s life. There is the forgotten kingdom element, the peculiarity of a Hapsburg, born in Vienna, turning up to govern a chaotic Latin country of which he knew nothing and for which ultimately he would die.

    There is Maximilian’s wife, poor Carlotta, whose tragedy was a long drawn-out version of his own: she was driven mad by her husband’s fate and had several extraordinary meetings with Pope Piux IX where she convinced the Bishop of Rome, inter alia, to make hot chocolate for her with his own hands (another post, another day).

    But for Beachcombing the most memorable event was Maximilian’s death and above all how that death was communicated to the world.

    Maximilian himself died with the good manners that anyone who knows the Hapsburgs and their Peacock throne will have come to expect. He forgave his enemies, asked them to forgive him and said some kind things about the country that had murdered him: ‘Perdono a todos y pido a todos que me perdonen y que mi sangre, que esta apunto de ser vertida, se derrame para el bien de este país; voy a morir por una causa justa, la de la independencia y libertad de México. ¡Que mi sangre selle las desgracias de mi nueva patria! ¡Viva México!‘ A gentleman to the end, he even ceded his place in the middle of the shooting wall to his loyal general Miramón. He then lifted his hands and looked up to the heavens.  Beachcombing imagines that his last thoughts in the dusty compound at Querétaro was of imperial Vienna, shining like the ugly wedding cake that it then was.

    There were eight men in the firing squad. They stood at five paces from the condemned. They could hardly miss.

    There were – indeed, there still are today – Mexicans who see Maximilian as a martyr. There were large sections of Europe, particularly in Catholic and Latin countries who, if they were not prepared to go that far, certainly sensed an interesting tragedy in his life. And naturally images of the last Emperor’s death began to be made and disseminated.

    The first was the extraordinary photograph that heads this post. François Aubert had been court photographer for Maximilian and rather ghoulishly hung around at his master’s place of execution to finish the job. He was not given permission to take pictures of the executions itself: if he had these would have been perhaps the first images of death in the new medium. However, he sketched the event. Then he photographed the firing squad (below), the three graves and he also photographed Maximilian’s shirt with its three bullet holes.


    The shirt particularly made an impression on international opinion – it could have been a saint’s relic and certainly represented the Emperor’s suffering to a world that was fascinated by the fate of royals.

    Edouard Manet followed with a famous painting of the shooting (look out for the watchers) that, while not exactly Goya,  cememented the event in the European imagination.

    Then there is the extraordinary picture of Jean-Paul Laurens showing Maximilian bidding his priest farewell with a sang-froid that was entirely historical.

    There is a slight joke in that the three men who immortalized Maximilian’s death – Aubert, Manet and Laurens – were French, the nation that more than any other, had pushed for and then abandoned Europe’s Mexican venture.

    Beachcombing is always on the look out for remarkable historical images: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    Invisible sends this: ‘Here are a few more relics of Maximilian and Carlota. Also  search for ‘piano’ for the Empress’s piano at this site. The author also has a photo of Maximilian’s ‘temporary coffin’. There is also a large collection of Carlota’s jewellery at Chapultepec Palace. I found (but cannot verify) this quote from Pope Pius IX when he gave Carlota shelter in his library: ‘Nothing is spared me in this life. Now a woman has to go mad in the Vatican’. And for more deathless images: The Empress on her deathbed; the Emperor in his coffin‘. Then KMH has a useful qualification. ‘Emperor Maximilian entered Mexico at a time of America’s Civil  War. If he had survived, he would have faced an invasion from American military to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, a policy  elucidated by  past President James Monroe which made further colonization or interference in the New World cause for declaration of war.’ Thanks Invisible and KMH!!