The deposed Emperor of France, Napoléon Bonaparte, spent the final years of his life on the remote island of St. Helena. It is there, 1,162 miles from the west coast of Africa, that Napoléon died a lonely death on May 5, 1821. One and a half days later, a plaster cast was made from the face of the fallen ruler. Nearly two centuries later, mystery surrounds the haunting death mask of Napoléon Bonaparte.
Historically, it has been accepted that Dr. Francesco Antommarchi, Napoléon’s personal physician and companion, took the original “parent cast” from the somber face Napoléon Bonaparte. However, it is almost certain that the mold was created under far more mysterious circumstances. Today, there many who believe that the “parent cast” was not taken by Napoléon’s physician but by one of his captors, Dr. Francis Burton of Britain’s 66th Regiment. Most likely, Dr. Burton gathered materials to mix a simple plaster-of-Paris and took the mold on May 7, 1821. He then reluctantly entrusted the mold to Madame Bertrand, a member of Napoléon’s court who shared his exile on the island of St. Helena, for safekeeping.
According to legend, Madame Bertrand secretly removed the valuable majority of the mask and returned to France with her husband, keeping the precious treasure for herself. Dr. Burton later stated that Madame Bertrand stole the mask and attempted to sue her for its return, to no avail. Upon her return to France, Madame Bertrand passed the plaster mold to Dr. Antommarchi, who then commissioned the firm Richard et Quesnel to produce several bronze and plaster casts of it.
Over the years, most of these bronze and plaster casts have found their way into the permanent collections of museums around the globe. Perhaps the most famous, however, is housed at the Cabildo of the Louisiana State Museum right here in New Orleans. The Cabildo’s death mask of Napoléon was personally brought to New Orleans by Dr. Antommarchi in 1834. During the chaos and confusion of the Civil War, the mask was removed from the museum and disappeared altogether, only to reappear–in a garbage bin–in 1866! The death mask was finally returned, safe and sound, to the Louisiana State Museum in 1909.
Are you intrigued by Napoléon Bonaparte? We invite you to join us for “Napoléon: General. Emperor. Legend” November 5th – January 7th. This comprehensive exhibition will be held at M.S. Rau Antiques, 630 Royal Street, New Orleans; it is free and open to the public.