Legend has it that Napoleon Bonaparte was to live in New Orleans after his exile.
France’s self-proclaimed emperor never made it to Louisiana, but his physician, Francesco Antommarchi, did and brought with him one of four bronze death masks he crafted from the face of the deceased Napoleon.
That mask left New Orleans for the first time since 1909, arriving Thursday in Baton Rouge to stand as a centerpiece in the Capitol Park Museum’s upcoming exhibit, “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn.”
The exhibit at the Capitol Park Museum, which is part of the Louisiana State Museum system, is a precursor to the State Museum’s “Dirty Shirts to Buccaneers: The Battle of New Orleans in American Culture” show on Jan. 11 at the Cabildo.
“And Napoleon’s death mask is the segue between the Baton Rouge exhibit and the New Orleans show,” said Mark Tullos, director of the Louisiana State Museum. “It’s so important in telling this story.”
The death mask’s home is the Cabildo, where it is one of the most popular pieces among visitors. It was donated to the State Museum in 1909, but came to New Orleans with Antommarchi in 1834.
“Dr. Antommarchi practiced medicine in New Orleans from 1834 to 1838, then went to Mexico,” Tullos said. “The mask disappeared but then resurfaced in New Orleans during the Civil War.”
It disappeared again, this time resurfacing in a junk wagon.
“The State Museum system was formed in 1906, but the mask wasn’t donated to the museum until 1909,” Tullos says. “The story of how it got here is just amazing. Can you imagine it ending up in a junk pile?” It never did.
The mask is such a prized piece that, for the trip to Baton Rouge, it was carefully packed in two crates and assigned its own police guards. Tullos decided to exhibit it at the Capitol Park Museum after curators told him the mask would have to be placed in storage during the run of the Battle of New Orleans exhibit.
“I said there’s no way we’re going to stow the mask away in a dark room,” Tullos said. “This is much too important a piece, and it was perfect for our Capitol Park show.”
Tullos’ reference to the mask as a segue is not far off the mark, as it mirrors some of the history of Louisiana.
Though Spain maintained the Louisiana Territory, France owned it. And to Great Britain’s surprise, Napoleon sold it to the United States in 1803 in the Louisiana Purchase that, ironically, was signed in what would become the death mask’s home, the Cabildo.
The purchase would lead to the final break from Great Britain with the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans on Jan. 8, 1815.
Napoleon was a British prisoner when he died on May 5, 1821, in exile on the remote island of St. Helena in the southern Atlantic Ocean.
This is where legend factors into the story. It’s said there was a local plot to bring Napoleon to New Orleans and that what’s now the Napoleon House Bar and Grill was built as his prospective residence. But those plans were foiled by the emperor’s death.
Antommarchi documented the death with the mask.
“In those days, it wasn’t unusual for death masks to be made of a famous person’s or leader’s face,” said Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who with Mayor-President Kip Holden and others attended the mask’s uncrating Thursday. “This is one of four, and we have it here. People can get an idea of what Napoleon looked like from the casting of this piece.”
Antommarchi made the mask’s mold from either wax or plaster and carefully applied it to Napoleon’s face 40 hours after he died. The mold was removed after hardening and was used to cast the four bronze masks.
A bronze cradle also was crafted as a foundation for the mask.
“The mask and the cradle are in two parts, and the cradle is beautiful,” Tullos said. “They were packed separately in the crate and will be put back together when the exhibition goes up.”
But first, curatorial staff put it together on a pedestal appropriately marked “N” for Napoleon for the morning ceremony. The mask will be given a prominent place in “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn,” which is organized by the New York Historical Society.
The show spans decades of enormous political and cultural changes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries while tracing radical calls for a recognition of universal human rights.
“The American Revolution was a war that inspired many of the world’s great revolutions, including the French Revolution,” said Dawn Hammett, the Louisiana State Museum’s director of curatorial services. “This exhibit tells that story. The New York Historical Society showed it first and thought it was so important that it should travel.”
The exhibit will include Jacques-Louis David’s 19th-century painting “Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps” and the 1803 authorization drawn up in St. Cloud, France, for the French negotiator to sell the Louisiana Territory.
“And we’ll be getting a first edition of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet ‘Common Sense,’ ” Hammett said. “I’m really excited about that.”
Still, Baton Rouge will have one thing the other museums on the exhibit’s traveling schedule didn’t.
“We have Napoleon’s death mask,” Hammett said. “It’s unique to our show, and it completes the story.”