Bronze Death Mask of Napoleon I, 1833
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Length: 33cm (13in)
Bronze. Set with bronze authenticity medalet bearing the legend ‘*NAPOLEON EMP ET ROI * SOUSCRIPTION / DR Antommarchi 1833’ Produced Under the Direction of The Emperor’s Physician on St Helena Dr Francois Carlo Antommarchi (1780-1838)
The present bronze was cast produced in 1833 under the direction of Dr Francois Carlo Antommarchi who was one the doctors present at Napoleon’s deathbed on 5 May 1821 on the South Atlantic Island of St. Helena. Two days later in accordance with the long-standing practice of creating post-mortem casts of great leaders, Dr Francis Burton of the British 66th Regiment created the original parent mould using a mixture of wax and plaster. In the days following Dr Antommarchi obtained a mould from Burton's original by means unknown from which he was later to make, in France, copies of the death mask in both bronze, cast by E. Quesnel, and plaster.
It is held that skullduggery was employed by Antommarchi and others to obtain the late Emperor’s likeness. There is a claim that Countess Fanny Bertrand, the wife of the Marshal who dutifully followed Napoleon into exile, managed to steal part of Burton’s cast, leaving him with just the ears and back of the head. The British doctor took legal steps to get the cast back, but failed. A year later Countess Bertrand is said to have given Antommarchi a copy of the mask, from which he had several early copies made. One of these he sent to Lord Burghersh, the British envoy in Florence, asking him to pass it to the late Emperor’s favourite sculptor Antonio Canova. Unfortunately Canova died before he had time to use the mask and the piece remained with Burghersh.
Versions of the Antommarchi 1833 subscription edition mask are known in The National Museums Liverpool, the British Museum, the Musee de l’Armee, Paris and the Wehrgeshichtliches Museum, Rastatt.
Antommarchi was a Corsican by birth and gained his surgeon’s diploma at the University of Florence in 1812. Following Napoleon’s refusal to be attended by British doctors put forward by St Helena’s Governor Sir Hudson Lowe, Antommarchi was appointed in 1818. Famously Antommarchi kept a medical diary of the Emperor’s final years and between 1823 and 1826 he published several accounts of the care he administered on St Helena. In 1831 he became inspector-general of Polish hospitals and supported the Cadet Revolution which under the leadership of Lieutenant Piotr Wysocki was brutally crushed by Imperial Russian forces. Antommarchi fled to Paris where he presumably found subscribers for the Napoleon death mask. In 1834 he emigrated to Louisiana where he worked as an itinerant surgeon and donated a bronze version of the death mask to the people of New Orleans. However he soon moved to Mexico and then to Cuba where he died of yellow fever in 1838.