The Story of Napoleon’s Death Mask (1915)

Who cast Napoleon Bonaparte’s death mask? Was it Francis Burton — Surgeon of the 66th Regiment of Foot and uncle to Sir Richard Francis — who searched for “gypsum by torchlight” to mix the plaster of Paris mold? Or François Carlo Antommarchi, the fallen emperor’s personal physician on the South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, whose boorish personality led his patient to figure him “an ignorant and unreliable bungler”? And might it be true that Madame Bertrand (attendant to the dying, dethroned king) annexed the matrix, barely dry, mashing its ears by crushing their helices into the conchae?

In the 1820s, Parisian elites loyal to Napoleon took quasi-religious pilgrimages to see this imperial relic’s many copies: the face of a man variously remembered as Commander of La Grande Armée, The Emperor of Elba, The Corsican Fiend, The Modern Hannibal, or simply as Boney. Bearing Napoleon’s likeness, the death mask inherited its subject’s complexities.

George Leo de St. M. Watson’s The Story of Napoleon’s Death Mask (1915) examines the scholarship surrounding the cast’s creator and finds an atmosphere “so charged with invention, calumny, innuendo, scandal, bad blood, espionage, and so forth, that even the robust inquirer is gradually and unconsciously demoralized”. Engorged with bons mots and brimming with pith, the investigation, in its author’s own words, moves between “the hot sword-play of polemic” and “the chill spade-work of research”.

But both sword and spade are closer to cudgel. Regarding Antommarchi’s suspicious, delayed assertion (seemingly timed with Burton’s death) that he himself was sole creator, Watson compares the admission to how one might “in middle age bethink himself of some smart waistcoat sported in adolescence and fetch it from a cobwebbed trunk to see if it still fitted!” Regarding a dubious wax version of the cast, Watson thinks that nothing “more grotesque and more preposterous” exists in Napoleonic iconography, a phiz he quips to be about as human as Melpomene, the mask of tragedy. The only solution can be inebriation on the part of its possessor: Capt. Winneberger of the Bavarian army. “No doubt the monstrosity was moulded in wax one night by a slashed and salted young Fuchs”. This would explain why it conjures “the prosopomorphic quart-pot of a Munich beer-cellar, minus the handle, snapped off in student’s row!” Watson’s fondness of exclamation is rivaled only, perhaps, by Napoleon’s penchant for conquest.

Why the controversy? Aside from the ambiguity of origin story, the death mask shows little sign of disease for a man who (supposedly) died of stomach cancer at the age of fifty-one. And it lacked the “Attic features”, “morose Roman gravitas”, and “stony, Sphingian stare” that steadily crystallized in Napoleon’s portraiture as he ascended the alpine heights of fame. Complicated by the statesman’s belief that it is not “the exactness of the features, a wart on the nose which gives resemblance. . . [but] the character [of great men] that dictates what must be painted”, the death mask’s incongruencies disturbed nineteenth-century phrenologists. An ancient practice, funerary casting’s apex “correlates with the rise of a modern culture of celebrity across the watershed of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries”, writes D. Graham Burnett, as well as public interest in physiognomy (the attempt to discern moral character in facial characteristics) and phrenology (the attempt to map the correlation between psychological qualities and the shape of a cranial surface). According to Watson, Napoleon’s death mask led experts in the latter field to declare that the skull “had not the bumps or the bony development requisite for a hero”. Little Boney indeed.

Funerary casting faced its own Waterloo not long after Napoleon’s death. With the popularization of photography and cinema, celluloid film became the new index of reality. And it’s easier to take a snapshot than to rub a corpse with inspissated oil and other unguents. But the lore around Napoleon’s reliquary lives on: what Watson calls the mysteries of “those more recondite organs”, lopped during the autopsy and smuggled to Corsica. For better or worse, Watson himself left behind neither a mask nor much of a biography to go on.