Death Mask of Napoleon
THE EMPEROR IN CHAPEL HILL:
The Death Mask of Napoleon
North Carolina Collection Gallery
plaster, it is the face of Napoleon Bonaparte-French emperor and conqueror
of most of early nineteenth-century Europe. His eyes are closed, lips
slightly parted, and his shaven head is tilted backward, resting on
a pillow garnished with a tassel at each corner. It is a hollow-cast
plaster copy of Napoleon's death mask, one of the copies made by Francesco
Antommarchi, who served as the deposed emperor's personal physician
and constant companion during the last two years of Napoleon's life.
For over a century this particular copy of the mask has been owned the
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at Chapel Hill. How did
this death mask, this final expression of an emperor, find its way to
The history of the original death mask began on May 5,
1821, on St. Helena, a small island located in the Atlantic 1,400 miles
off the coast of west Africa. On that day, on that dreary "barren rock,"
Napoleon died at the age of 52. He had been exiled there for life and
confined on the island by Britain and its allies after his shattering
defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in June, 1815. At Napoleon's death, French
and English doctors surrounded his bedside. Among them was Dr. Antommarchi.
As was customary upon the passing of a great leader, a death mask or mold
of Napoleon's face was made. A day and a half after his death, a mixture
of wax or plaster was carefully placed over the emperor's face and removed
after the form hardened. From this impression, subsequent copies would
be cast. Contrary to some accounts of Napoleon's death, it was not Dr.
Antommarchi who made the original mask or so-called "parent mold"; it
was the surgeon Francis Burton of Britain's Sixty-Sixth Regiment at St.
Helena. It was Dr. Burton, too, who presided at the emperor's autopsy.
Antommarchi obtained from his English colleagues a secondary plaster mold
from Burton's original cast. With his own mold, Antommarchi later made
in France copies of the death mask in both bronze and plaster, one of
the latter destined for Chapel Hill.
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 of "the grandiose image" to a colleague
in New Orleans, Dr. Edwin Smith. Following the death of Dr. Smith, the
plaster mask was given to the family of Captain Francis Bryan, a resident
of St. Louis, Missouri, and graduate of the University of North Carolina
(Class of 1842). In 1894, Bryan donated this mask to his alma mater,
expressing his hope that it would be "an object of much interest to
the many visitors to the University."
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
In his own
description of the death mask, Dr. Antommarchi remarked that Napoleon's
face appears "relaxed" (recalling that the original cast of the mask
was made forty hours after the emperor's death), but he added that "the
mask was correct so far as the shape of the forehead and nose was concerned."
Ah, that nose, that humped, bountiful nose-that is the feature that
most impresses this writer when viewing Napoleon's countenance. Given
the size of the proboscis preserved on his death mask, the French emperor
certainly should have smelled trouble at Waterloo long before that fateful