The death masks were an ancient system to create an exact mould to recreate the face of an important person at the time of death. Before the invention of photography this was one of the most effective way to reproduce with precision, and not through the biased filter of the artist, the appearance of the deceased person.
During the kingdom of Napoleon Bonaparte, France had a fervid tradition of death masks. The emperor who conquered most of Europe was exiled to the Island of Saint Helena, after his defeat in the battle of Waterloo in 1815. Napoleon, surrounded by several French and British doctors, died 6 years afterwards, on the 5th of May 1821 at the age of 51. According to the custom, common back then in France, they proceeded with the creation of a death mask.
The mystery about the author
From here on a series of enigmas and peculiar mysteries start to show up. The author was, according to the tradition, his personal doctor, François Carlo Antommarchi, who had followed him all the way to his exile in the island. A second theory suggests that the author of the mask was instead Francis Burton, British surgeon present in the island and that Sir Antommarchi had dealt only with the very first of the many following copies. The historians are not even sure about who performed the autopsy, but it is assured that Bonaparte died out of stomach cancer.
A third theory on the mask of the emperor see Madame Bertrand, Napoleon’s assistant, stealing it to Francis Burton, leaving it only with the ears and the back side of the head. Madame Bertrand would have subsequently given the mask to doctor Antommarchi, who then made sure to provide the many copies.
Antommarchi sent a copy of the mask to Lord Burghersh, British ambassador based in Florence, with the intent of handing it to the sculptor Antonio Canova so that he might turn it into a piece of art. The talented sculptor died before completing the artwork though and the mask remained to Lord Burghersh. The copy is today known as “Antommarchi-Burghersh mask”, kept in the Musée de l’Armée of Paris. Another mask, considered as one of the first creation was named “Bertrand mask” and it is preserved in the Musée de Malmaison of Rueil-Malmaison.
Many are the reproductions of Napoleon’s face spread all over the world and the last one was discovered in Naples some years ago, plaster cast of the original bronze version. Perhaps the story of it will never be reconstructed with certainty.
There are so many copies of Napoleon’s face spread everywhere in the globe, but these two examples are, most likely, the closest ones to the original.
Below:death mask kept in the Accademia degli Euteleti in San Miniato, Pisa. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The uncertainty on the dating of the mask
The experts are not sure of the chronological authenticity of the mask. This was supposed to represent a man in his 52, worn out by a terrible disease such as stomach cancer. The masks does not translate any suffering whatsoever and the age appears rather way younger than that. Napoleon could have realised the copied of his face years before his death, maybe even before his exile in the island, in order to send all over Europe the copies made out of chalk to sculptors and others.
Above: picture shared via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY 2.0
Below: Napoleon’s tomb in the church of Saint-Louis des Invalides. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The great warrior lived in terrible conditions in the years preceding his death, so it seems very unlikely to look at that face so little deformed by age and disease. But for now, the mystery about the dating and the author of Napoleon’s death mask remains, sadly, unanswered.