During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the making of a death mask was fairly customary when a great leader died. A plaster cast of the face of the recently deceased would be taken and from that parent mold, plaster and bronze copies could be created. They were mementos of loved ones lost and could be used by artists to paint portraits or create sculptures of the dead.
When Napoleon Bonaparte died on May 7, 1821, a death mask was created by his attending physicians. It is undecided which of them took it or if both took separate ones and indeed, mystery has surrounded the original mask and its copies ever since. There are supposedly few copies of the death mask in existence today and here at FSU, we hold one in the French Revolution and Napoleon Collection.
The death mask made its first appearance at FSU in 1966 when the owner, Dr. David F. Sellers, allowed it to be put on display for a colloquium on Napoleonic history held at FSU. Sellers’ mask was made from the mold taken by Dr. Francis Burton the day after Napoleon died.
It was not until 1984 that a death mask found a permanent home in FSU’s collections, donated to Strozier Library by Edward Scott of New Hampshire. It has remained one of the focal points of our Napoleonic collections ever since.
In celebration of Napoleon’s death anniversary this year, we took our mask into the Digital Library Center for a photo shoot. It is one of the most interesting pieces (in my opinion) to share with people, not only for the historic figure the mask is of, but as an example of the lost tradition of mourning it represents.