Museum visit: Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City

Sammy Dalati Art, Exhibitions

Main entrance to the castle. The neoclassical portico with reliefs of Julius Caesar, Athena, and Napoleon Bonaparte was added under Emperor Maximilian I (Maximiliano; 1832–1867), who reigned from 1864 to 1867. Redesigned at the same time, the architectural clock setting is similar to one on the East Wing of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, where Maximilian spent his boyhood. Dumaine photograph.

It is a curious—and perhaps heartening—quirk of history that revolutionary regimes have tended to preserve the palaces and castles of deposed monarchs as museums. Such has been the saving grace of princely residences in Cairo and of Beijing’s Forbidden City, as well as of countless European chalets, country estates, and royal hunting lodges that today furnish the raison d’être for so much tourism to that continent. The same pattern isn’t as obvious in the Americas, because on this side of the Atlantic there has only ever been one castle occupied by royalty: Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. Our sister republic’s National Museum of History since being consigned to that purpose in 1939 by its last presidential resident, the rambling pile in Chapultepec Park today houses relics from Aztec sculptures and casta paintings to President Santa Anna’s fake leg, alongside a suite of period rooms decorated in the French taste of former president Porfirio Díaz and appointed with furniture and objets d’art that belonged to the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian I and the Empress Charlotte.

The elevated garden at Chapultepec Castle with its “Tall Knight” tower, built around 1840. Except as noted, photographs are courtesy of the National Museum of History, Mexico City, INAH – Secretaría de Cultura. Photograph by Omar Dumaine.

Chapultepec Hill’s panoramic view of the Valley of Mexico with its “boundless, infinite, overarching sky” that was enjoyed by nineteenth-century visitors from the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt to a teenaged Ima Hogg is today blocked by tall buildings and smudged by the pollution that refuses to dissipate here as it does at sea level. This is unfortunate, as it renders illegible one of the main attractions that the hill held from the time of the Mexicas (as the people who created Aztec culture called themselves), who studied the course of the celestial bodies from the top of the hill, until the reign of Maximilian. But what has always been as important, if not more so, is what is beneath the hill. A motif in the Aztec codices of a smiling grasshopper (the Náhuatl word Chapultepec means “grasshopper hill”) balancing on a green mound dripping with water alludes to the springs that bubble at the base of the hill, and which watered first the Toltec and Aztec, and then Spanish and Mexican outposts in the valley.

It was near these springs that the Spanish built a country retreat in the sixteenth century for the pleasure of the viceroys. Even boasting a bull-fighting ring, added by Viceroy Francisco Fernández de la Cueva, Tenth Duke of Albuquerque, by 1739 it had become the site of such unrestrained and expensive merrymaking that the Bourbon king Philip V ordered it shuttered. Later sovereigns softened their tone, and when in 1783 the viceroyalty of New Spain passed to Matías de Gálvez, former governor-captain general of the Kingdom of Guatemala, approval was granted to build a new palace at the top of the hill, on the site of an ancient Franciscan hermitage dedicated to San Miguel, with the understanding that it would be used only for the ceremonies that transferred power from one viceroy to the next. The castle that we know today was built in fits and starts from this time, incorporating Spanish Renaissance, neoclassical, and art deco influences—not to mention American cannonballs—added by the long list of stewards who called it home over the following two centuries.

Chapultepec Castle perched atop the two-hundred-foot hill from which it gets its name, in a view from the northeast. Despite already being over one hundred years old, the castle became one of the most modern buildings in Mexico when President Porfirio Díaz (1830–1915) added an elevator in 1900, housed in the narrow tower at right. Dumaine photograph.

Matías de Gálvez died in 1785, and the work at Chapultepec was subsequently carried out by his son Bernardo, First Count of Gálvez and former governor of Spanish Louisiana, who had been raised to the peerage for his exploits against the British during the American Revolution. An elevation drawn up by the military engi-neers Francisco Vanviteli and Manuel Agustín Mascaró provides for a building “of three bodies: the left, of one level, for the services; the central, with two levels, for residence of the viceroy, of neoclassical style with portico of three half-point arcades that frame the main access; and the right one, on a mound, for the raised garden, with iron railing topped with flowers.” Pilasters and arches without classical orders are indicated, an omission typical of the style of Juan de Herrera (1530–1597), architect to Philip II and an important reference for New Spanish builders.

Bernardo also died suddenly, in 1786, at the age of thirty-eight—rumor has it that he was poisoned—and the Spanish Crown, perhaps leery of the imposing vice- regal outpost rising over Mexico City’s critical aqueducts (the perfect headquarters for a coup d’etat), ordered the half-completed building auctioned off. The rock-bottom price of 60,000 pesos found no takers, and the royal treasury began to dismantle the palace piecemeal, selling glasswork and door and window carpentry to recoup some of the substantial treasure that had been spent on its construction. Alexander von Humboldt, who’d been authorized by the Spanish king to sojourn in the colony between 1799 and 1804, decried this “vandalism in the name of economics,” which he observed during his visit to the capital in 1803. His description of the “already considerably destroyed” palace lends credence to the Crown’s suspicions: “It is fortified by the side of Mexico City on whose part you can see protruding walls and parapets to place cannons, although all this has been given the appearance of simple architectural ornaments. . . . In Mexico it is common opinion to look at this house of the viceroys in Chapultepec as a fortress in disguise.”

Despite such obvious military advantages, during the Mexican War of Independence between 1810 and 1821 the castle sat vacant. In 1833 it was requisitioned by President Antonio López de Santa Anna for use by the country’s Military College, although exigencies in the civic and political life of the newly independent nation meant that the castle wouldn’t serve that purpose until 1843. In anticipation of the arrival of its first class of cadets, changes were made to the building’s circulation and program, and its martial aspect was intensified by the addition of a two-story guard tower—in military parlance a “Tall Knight”—in the middle of the elevated garden.

The Lions Staircase, so-called for the pair of marble lions flanking it, miniature copies of Antonio Canova’s 1792 sculptures for the tomb of Pope Clement XIII in St. Peter’s Basilica. Photograph by Leonardo Hernandez.
The Ambassadors Room on the upper floor of the castle’s Alcázar wing. The furniture is Louis XVI style, and the decoration, including pilasters made of plaster painted to imitate marble and stained mahogany window moldings, is by Epitacio Calvo (1832–1895). Photograph by Viv Lynch on Flickr.

Until then an intriguing, but by no means central, part of Mexican history, the castle would achieve legendary status in 1847 as the site of the bloody Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War. Memorialized by combat illustrators like John Phillips and James Walker, and later in a famous lithography series by German artist Carl Nebel—as well as in the opening line of the United States Marines’ Hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma . . .”—the assault up the hill’s slopes by the forces of Major General Winfield Scott has become one of the most enduring images from the war. In Mexican tradition, the battle culminated with the patriotic actions of one Juan Escutia, a twenty-year-old cadet who hurled himself from the Tall Knight wrapped in the flag to prevent it from falling into enemy hands, perishing along with five of his classmates. If the veracity of such an event is dubious, the story of the “Niños Héroes” served an important political purpose in the aftermath of a war that resulted in the loss of more than half of Mexico’s territory, and it is commemorated by monuments at the castle and in the park. The former is composed of six bronze statues of cadets that stand astride the balustrade of the south-facing terrace in an attitude of defense. The latter is the Altar a la Patria—also in Chapultepec Park, and visible from the castle’s eastern terrace—the most prominent monument to the niños, constructed from brilliant Carrara marble by the architect Enrique Aragón Echegaray, with sculptures by Ernesto Tamariz.

The appearance of Chapultepec Castle today is in large part thanks to the interventions of its two most famous nineteenth-century occupants: Maximilian von Habsburg, emperor of Mexico for three years in the mid-1860s, and the de-facto dictator Porfirio Díaz, who would succeed him ten years later and rule for thirty more.

Storming of Chapultepec-Pillow’s Attack, a lithograph by Carl Nebel (c. 1800–1855), 1851. National Museum of History.
Monument to the “Niños Héroes,” a group of cadets from Chapultepec’s Military College who died defending the castle during the Mexican-American War, by Armando Quezada Medrano, 1942. Dumaine photograph.
Detail of the stained mahogany decorations in the dining room at the castle.
The spiral staircase built next to the 1900 elevator is the work of architect Antonio Rivas Mercado (1857–1923), who as director of the Academy of San Carlos from 1903 to 1912 would secure the scholarship that allowed Diego Rivera to study painting in Europe.

How Maximilian, an Austrian noble, came to rule over Mexico is one of the most convoluted episodes in the intrigue-filled history of geopolitics in the later nineteenth century. Suffice it to say that the ever-scheming emperor Napoleon III of France, seeking a client state in the New World, colluded with members of the conservative political faction that arose in the chaotic aftermath of Mexican independence to offer a crown to Maximilian. He was the second son of the ruler of the Austro-Hungarian empire; a member of a dynasty that once ruled Spain. Maximilian had overseen the Habsburg dominions in northern Italy capably for a time, and knew he was unlikely to gain the Austrian throne. In April 1864 he accepted the Mexican offer and with his wife, Charlotte of Belgium, set sail for the Americas.

Writing to his brother Archduke Karl Ludwig a month after his arrival in Mexico City, Maximilian described his satisfaction with the capital’s imperial accommodations: “We live by turns in the vast palais nacional [sic] in the city, an old and venerable building with eleven hundred windows, and at Chapultepec, the Schönbrunn of Mexico, a fascinating country residence on a basalt crag.” The emperor’s enthusiasm belies the difficulties his party faced while settling in. The National Palace was tight, noisy, and unhygienic, and Chapultepec was little better. Landscape gardener Wilhelm Knechtel remembered his patron’s new home as abandoned and in very bad condition when the royal couple arrived—no windows, door locks torn off, and the brick floor had been dug up. However, the castle was made ready for habitation within two weeks, and the emperor, empress, and their retinue took up residence, although, in the words of one of the empress’s ladies-in-waiting, not without “renouncing all comfort.”

Díaz’s bedroom, appointed in French style with Louis XVI furniture that was returned to the castle by a niece of Díaz’s after his death in 1915.
Dining room from the Díaz period, with coffered ceilings, sideboards, and caryatids carved by Calvo and Pedro Téllez Toledo.
Maximilian of Habsburg by Albert Graefle (1807–1889), 1865. National Museum of History. Empress Charlotte (Carlota; 1840–1927) by Graefle, 1865. National Museum of History.
Empress Charlotte (Carlota; 1840–1927) by Graefle, 1865. National Museum of History.

It was under this romantically inclined sovereign (who in Mexico took to calling himself Maximiliano, as his wife called herself Carlota) that the neoclassical portico and arcade, which project from the stucco walls of the original viceregal building’s main facade, were built, as well as the northern portion of the loggia that surrounds the elevated garden, which wing of the castle was by then known as the Alcázar (meaning, redundantly, “castle” in Spanish). First-floor rooms surrounding the garden were renovated as grand reception spaces and bedrooms, and a narrow tower was built at the southeast corner to communicate with the service areas below.

Water and tea serving pieces from the five-thousand-piece Cristofle silver service given to Maximilian and Charlotte by Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie of France.

Today, a set of these lower rooms, as well as one on the northern elevation added in the 1880s, are installed to evoke the look and feel of the period. Maximiliano and Carlota received from their sponsors Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie many expensive gifts, including Louis XV furniture upholstered in Aubusson tapestries that reproduced scenes from La Fontaine’s fables, a bedroom suite of marquetry case pieces and tables, as well as a five-thousand-piece Cristofle silver service in the rococo revival style favored during the French Second Empire. While these items were dispersed after Maximilian’s death, some fifteen hundred have since made their way back to Chapultepec, and contribute to such curatorial interpretations as the Reading Room, which contains Maximilian’s private library, and the sumptuous Gobelins Room. There, full-length portraits of the emperor and empress by the German artist Albert Graefle hang in a setting that includes rococo revival bombé commodes, red velvet wall coverings with the imperial seal, and—most affectingly—the two grand pianos that the imperial couple used to play. One can almost hear the music and laughter of so many years ago.

Julius Hofmann, who would later devise the interiors for Ludwig II of Bavaria’s fairy-tale Schloss Neuschwanstein, oversaw interior decorations at the castle. The most significant of these were Pompeii-inspired murals on the walls surrounding the elevated garden, which were unfortunately covered in the 1930s. Six murals of dancing priestesses of Bacchus by court painter Santiago Rebull, later a teacher of Diego Rivera, survive, in a manner of speaking. For their protection the nineteenth-century originals were relocated, and reproductions are exposed to the open air. The garden itself was laid out by Knechtel with roses, jasmine, myrtle, fuchsia, and honeysuckle, and embellished with the statuary, fountains, and urns that remain to this day. The Alcázar’s garden was complemented by another on the esplanade in front of the viceregal building, and in an 1867 image by lithographer Casimiro Castro, the castle does a passing impression of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

One of the bacchante (priestess of Bacchus) frescoes painted by Santiago Rebull (1829–1902) for the walls bordering Chapultepec Castle’s elevated garden. Four were painted for Maximilian between 1865 and 1866, two more for Díaz in 1894. National Museum of History.

By 1865, with the end of the American Civil War— which had forestalled US intervention against foreign powers per the Monroe Doctrine—and conflict with Prussia looming, Napoleon III could no longer afford to provide military aid to Maximilian. His fledgling regime was harassed by the forces of ousted president Benito Juárez in the north, and by General Porfirio Díaz in the south, and had lost support among conservatives thanks to the emperor’s frustratingly liberal line on matters such as freedom of religion and economic policy. Maximilian was counseled against abdicating by his wife, who embarked in 1866 for Europe to beg for help, and, finding none, would lose her sanity in the arms of the Pope. After a last stand near the city of Querétaro, the emperor was captured by the forces of Juárez. On June 19, 1867, he was executed by firing squad.

It is no small irony that Díaz, who rose to national prominence thanks to his military prowess during the French intervention, should have left a material legacy so profoundly Francophilic. The dormers and balconies of Colonia Roma—a planned neighborhood that grew beside the Paseo de la Reforma boulevard during his regime—the magnificent Palacio de Bellas Artes downtown, and the interior design additions to Chapultepec Castle made during his regime all harken to France. Versailles-style ceiling moldings in the Alcázar wing were retained by curators

even in the rooms that are now meant to evoke the Maximilian era. Both Díaz’s bedroom and that of his wife, Carmen Romero Rubio y Castelló, are appointed in French style, and contain Louis XVI and Empire furniture respectively. The president’s Gallomania gave way only in the design for public spaces that he commissioned in the castle, such as the baroque dining room downstairs, in which a more “Mexican” style prevails. Details there include caryatids that balance native Mexican vegetables on their heads, monumental altar-like sideboards, and putti bearing Díaz’s seal “RM”—for Republica Mexicana.

A curatorial evocation of the empress’s bedroom, installed with tables and case pieces in the Boulle style, named for famed French ébéniste André-Charles Boulle, who gained renown for his tortoiseshell- tin- and bronze-encrusted marquetry during the reign of Louis XIV. The brass bed with “MIM” monogram on the footboard is actually Maximilian’s campaign bed. Hernandez photograph.
Upstairs hall in the Alcázar wing lined with stained-glass windows by the French firm Champigneulle, installed in 1901. The stencils on the walls and ceiling date from the same period, but were redone in 2000. Dumaine photograph.
Portrait of General Porfirio Díaz by José Cusachs (1851–1908), 1901. National Museum of History.

A regal split staircase near the dining room ascends to the single most superlative work of decorative art at the castle: a hallway adorned with five stained-glass windows by the French firm Champigneulle that run half the length and height of the Alcázar’s eastern elevation, comprising nearly eight hundred square feet. As proposed by Díaz, each window depicts a goddess related to nature—Pomona, Flora, Hebe, Diana, and Ceres.

Díaz left his mark on the Alcázar’s exterior as well, although through an intermediary: General Manuel González, who served as president of Mexico from 1880 to 1884, while Díaz was still formally respecting presidential term limits. He widened the basements (which once housed soldiers and now contain restoration facilities and museum storage) as well as the first and second level of the Alcázar on the north and south sides, and enlarged the black-and-white marble terraces from which visitors can enjoy views across the forest of Chapultepec and the city. The loggia on the north side of the upper level was extended to completely enclose the elevated garden.

Detail of Del Porfirismo a la Revolución by David Alfaro Siquieros (1896–1974), 1957–1964, depicting Francisco I. Madero, Emiliano and Eufemio Zapata, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, and other revolutionary figures leading a group of armed civilians.
Aztec pictograph symbolizing the hill of Chapultepec, on a stained-glass window installed by President Venustiano Carranza (1859–1920) in 1916. Photograph by Omar Bárcena on Flickr.
One of the museum’s history galleries. Dumaine photograph.

Two years after vowing he would step down, Díaz ran for an eighth term as president in 1910. His near-unanimous re-election—undoubtedly fraudulent—set off the long, bloody Mexican Revolution. Architectural additions to the castle that date from the revolutionary period are scarce, but not absent. Art deco stained-glass windows with Mexican fretwork and the Aztec pictograph for Chapultepec, installed by president Venustiano Carranza in 1916, demonstrate the esteem in which pre-Hispanic art and culture were held by the revolutionaries. Above the viceregal wing’s imperial staircase, a 1933 fresco by Eduardo Solares Gutíerrez commemorating the revolution confronts José Cusachs’s 1903 depiction of Díaz’s victory over Maximilian’s troops at Puebla in 1867.

The castle officially opened as a museum in 1944 and is administered by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, which also oversees the iconic National Museum of Anthropology, less than a mile away. Chapultepec Castle’s convulsions, occasioned by war and the vainglorious whims of successive rulers, have ceased, replaced by curatorial initiatives and the tides of museum accessions. The most significant of the former is a site-specific artwork by the great muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros: a 360-degree narrative of the Díaz era painted between 1957 and 1964 and filling two rooms of the viceregal wing. Of the latter is a cache of pre-Hispanic artifacts uncovered on the hill during excavations begun in 2010, which includes an earthen vessel with fangs and mustache believed to depict the Toltec rain god Tláloc, found right around the springs where it all began. No matter who is in charge, Chapultepec Castle continues to evolve.

This article would not have been possible without Spanish-language research, interpretation, and translation by Chandravali Martínez. I am also deeply grateful to Rodrigo Bollat Montenegro for helping me to understand the architectural context of Chapultepec Castle.