Napoleon's Death Mask

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Plaster cast of death mask of Napoleon I made from François Carlo Antommarchi's mould.

Napoleon's Death Mask is a marble cast mold of the face of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French. Much mystery and controversy surrounds the origins and whereabouts of the most original cast moulds. There are only four genuine death masks known to exist.[1]

Origins and history[edit]

Napoleon's original death mask was created on May 7, 1821,[2] a day and a half after Napoleon Bonaparte died on the island of St. Helena at age 51.[2] Surrounding his deathbed were doctors from France and the UK.

During the time of Napoleon, it was customary to cast a death mask or mould of a great leader who had recently died.[2] A mixture of wax or plaster was carefully placed over Napoleon's face and removed after the form had hardened. From this impression, subsequent copies were cast.

Myths and legends[edit]


In 1834, Dr. Antommarchi traveled to the United States, visited New Orleans, and presented that city with a bronze copy of the mask. The French doctor also gave a painted plaster copy to a colleague in New Orleans, Dr. Edwin Smith.[2] Following the death of Dr. Smith, the plaster mask was given to the family of Captain Francis Bryan, a resident of St. Louis, Missouri. In 1894, Bryan donated this mask to his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.[2]

During its first years in Chapel Hill, Napoleon's plaster face was displayed as a curio on a table in the office of UNC President George T. Winston. The death mask was later transferred to the university library and ultimately found its way to the library's North Carolina Collection. Today, the mask remains in remarkably good condition. The only visible damage to it is a chip above the emperor's upper lip. This damage occurred in 1907, when a janitor at the university overturned the mask while dusting it. On the underside of the mask is the handwritten inscription: "Dr. Edwin B. Smith's head of Nap.n" and "Presented to Dr. Smith by N[ap's] Phys'n. Dr.Ant[tommarchi]." Also written on the bottom of the mask is "Tete d'Armee" (Head of the Army), reportedly the last words uttered by Napoleon.[2] Dr. Antommarchi moved to Cuba in 1838. While there, he lived on his cousin's coffee plantation and became close to General Juan de Moya. Before Dr. Antommarchi died, he made General Moya a death mask from his mould. It is believed that the mask still resides in the Museum in Santiago de Cuba, province of Oriente, where there were many French immigrants who established coffee plantations in the high mountains of the Sierra Maestra.[4]

The death masks location as of 1/04/2013 is the Auckland Art Gallery.[6]

Another death mask formerly owned by John Codman Ropes now resides in the lobby of Boston University's Mugar Library.[7]


External links[edit]