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The Trevi Fountain

June 5, 2008

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I have told my kids the tragic tale of Carlotta, Coburg princess of Belgium and, for a few years, Empress of Mexico. She fell for Maximilian Hapsburg, younger brother of the august Franz Josef, who in a poorly judged attempt to escape his brother's shadow, accepted Napoleon III's offer to become Emperor of a sort-of recolonized Mexico -- possible only while the U.S. was preoccupied in its own death struggle of the Civil War. After Appomatox, however, the U.S. turned up the pressure, as well as its aid to the rebels who wanted Max, Carlotta and their French soldiers to sail away. While Max and the troops executed a long series of tactical retreats, Carlotta sailed to Europe to beg for troops from France, from Austria, from the Vatican -- but none were available for a rescue. As she awaited the Pope's answer, her desperation turned to panic and then paranoia. She began to suspect that someone was trying to poison her. In those dark days, the only drinking water she trusted was from the fountains of Rome, and every morning she would have herself driven down to the Trevi fountain to drink its cool clean water.

For us, it was the endpoint of our first-evening walk in Rome -- from our apartment near Campo dei Fiori, across the Piazza Novano, past the Pantheon and finally -- following the sound of hundreds of tourists in awe -- to the Trevi fountain lit at night. A beautiful and amazing sight.

And Carlotta? She escaped poisoning and went on to live a long life of mild madness -- though without Max, who fell before a Mexican firing squad. Carlotta returned to Belgium an imperial widow and was still living there a half century later when it was invaded by German troops. They were under orders not to touch her house: she was still, after all, the sister-in-law of the Kaiser's Austrian ally. One night during that war, another house in her neighborhood was engulfed in flames. Carlotta joined the crowd that gathered to watch it burn. "It's very terrible, isn't it?" a neighbor said.

"Yes," Carlotta answered. "But very beautiful."