The many faces of Napoleon
He was history's most famous Frenchman. Yet his admirers can't even agree on what he looked like. John Lichfield unmasks an unseemly squabble that threatens to take some of the gloire off the late emperor's memory
The Emperor Napoleon is still stirring up trouble. He refuses to lie quietly in his grave. Small wonder. Where is his grave? And which of the many "death masks" which purport to show the features of Napoleon Bonaparte are authentic?
For more than half a century, visitors to the French army museum at Les Invalides in Paris have gazed at the face of a noble, imperious, youthful man with an aquiline nose and a faint, knowing smile on his lips. This "official", imperial death mask is claimed to have impeccable historic provenance.
Does it? A French historian and Napoleonic enthusiast says he has new evidence that it is a fake. The real mask, he says, was once displayed in a small military museum in London. Its present whereabouts are unknown.
The French army museum at the Invalides dismisses Bruno Roy-Henry's claim as "mere guesswork" and a "silly season story". They fear - perhaps rightly - that the discrediting of their mask would also reopen a quarrel about the true identity of the body that has lain for nearly 150 years in the elaborate, imperial sarcophagus under the golden dome of the Invalides.
The facts are these. A mould of the emperor's features was made by a British army doctor, Francis Burton, the day after Napoleon died on Saint Helena on 5 May 1821, after five and a half years' exile in the South Atlantic. The mask then vanished.
Ten years later - after Burton's death - a mask turned up in Paris. It was authenticated by François Antommarchi, the doctor who performed the autopsy on the Emperor. It was positively identified by Napoleon's ageing mother.
Some Napoleonic scholars have long insisted that the Invalides mask is a fake. They say that it probably shows the features of the emperor's valet, childhood friend and (alleged) illegitimate half-brother, Jean-Baptiste Cipriani, who died on Saint Helena three years before Napoleon.
There is even a permanent dispute between two French government ministries, defence and culture, about the true whereabouts of the "official" mask. The Culture Ministry maintains that the object displayed in the Invalides is a copy. It insists the original mask, authenticated by Dr Antommarchi, is held, but not displayed, at the museum at Montesson in the Paris suburbs.
Napoleonic experts point out that both of these so-called "Antommarchi" masks are much too youthful to be that of a 51-year-old man. The heavy cheeks and powerful jaw shown in all portraits of the Emperor Napoleon are missing. The shape of the head is wrong. The nose is too thin.
No matter. Officials at the military museum insisttheir mask is genuine. Into this academic and historical battleM. Roy-Henry has fired what he believes to be a decisive cannonade. Three years ago the lawyer turned historian published an investigative book on the fate of Napoleon's corpse. He now says he has found overwhelming evidence that the Emperor's authentic death mask was displayed at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) museum in London from 1947 to 1973.After the museum was closed, it was sold in the mid-1980s to an American doctor.
This mask was last seen in public in 2004 when the doctor sold it to an unnamed buyer at a Christie's auction in New York for $50,000. The "London" death mask (there are also other claimants) makes the emperor's face look fat, old and bloated. It has long been detested and rejected by the French authorities.
Minute examination by M. Roy-Henry of pictures of the "London" mask have revealed a small scar on the Emperor's left cheek. No such scar is to be found on the Invalides mask or any of the flattering, official portraits of Napoleon painted in France.
Just after his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, and before his exile in Saint Helena, Napoleon was painted by an English artist, Charles Locke Eastlake, standing moodily on the deck of the British ship-of-the-line, HMS Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound.
Napoleon would appear on the deck of the ship at 6pm every day for the benefit of scores of sightseers in small boats. Eastlake joined the sightseers and sketched him from the life. Examination of his painting, now in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, also reveals a scar on the emperor's left cheek.
"To me this is conclusive proof, or at least very persuasive evidence, that the London mask, or the ex-London mask, is the authentic one," M. Roy-Henry said yesterday. "At the very least, it casts grave new doubts on the mask in the Invalides. I believe that the official mask should be withdrawn from public view immediately and subjected to tests by the police and gendarmerie.
"By comparing it to portraits of Napoleon, they would be able to say definitely with modern computer technology whether the mask could possibly be the emperor or not."
A spokesman for the French army museum in the Invalides said: "The museum has no trace of anxiety about the authenticity of the mementoes and exhibits in its displays or about the identity of the great person who reposes under the dome of the Invalides."
Certainly, M. Roy-Henry's claims are not conclusive. Could the "London" mask, and its scar, have been copied from the painting of Napoleon on the deck of HMS Bellerophon? M. Roy-Henry thinks that is "very unlikely" but admits it is possible.
Other Napoleonic death masks are in museums in Liverpool, Baden-Baden, Corsica and North Carolina. Dozens of them exist in private ownership. Some are admitted to be copies. Some claim to be originals.
The "official" Invalides mask first surfaced in the 1830s, 10 years after the emperor's death. Many people in the first half of the 19th century rejected it as a fake, including Napoleon's nephew, the Emperor Napoleon III.
M. Roy-Henry said that the mask was promoted as genuine, by Napoleon's own mother among others, precisely because it looked so noble and young. "It was an act of propaganda," he said. "They wanted to give Napoleon an imperial and energetic look in the eyes of history, not the look of an old man."
In the early 1950s the mask was bought by a foundation devoted to the emperor's memory and presented to the French state. It was accepted as authentic and displayed in the Invalides.
The origins of the "London" mask are rather clouded. It was given to the British authorities by a man called Charles Adler, who bought it from a man, known to be a fraud, claiming to be descended from French royalty. There is, however, evidence that the mask had existed from the early 19th century.
In an article defending the claims of the official Invalides mask a few years ago, the French army museum poured scorn on its London rival. "The mask from the Royal United Service Museum of London comes from an impostor who called himself 'Prince' Louis Charles of Bourbon," it said. "This mask has a completely unknown source, and introduces a chubby and toothless character, with no resemblance to Napoleon in 1821 whatsoever."
M. Roy-Henry says the provenance of the London mask, though incomplete, is at least as good as that of the Invalides mask. The resemblance to portraits of Napoleon and Napoleon's descendants is striking. He believes that the ex-Rusi mask is either the original, or an early copy, of the mould of Napoleon's features taken by Dr Burton.
M. Roy-Henry is not, as he admits, an academically trained historian. But he is "passionate about the history of the Empire". He runs a website delving into theories about Napoleon's death, and its aftermath, called www.empereurperdu.com.
The French army museum dismisses him as a conspiracy theorist. This does him an injustice but it is certainly true that Napoleonic theories abound.
Was Napoleon poisoned with arsenic, either by French royalty or by the British government? A scientific examination of a lock of his hair, three years ago, discovered that he was exposed to high doses of arsenic but probably not enough to kill him.
Was the body returned to France in 1840 (and placed in the Invalides in 1861) truly that of Napoleon? Strange anomalies exist. The corpses buried in the Valley of Geraniums in Saint Helena in 1821 were already decomposing. The body exhumed from the same tomb in 1840 was in excellent condition. Napoleon's teeth were rotting. The teeth of the exhumed corpse were bright white, like those of a younger man.
Eye-witnesses said the face resembled that of the death mask now in the Invalides. But were those truly the features of Napoleon? Or were they those of Jean-Baptiste Cipriani?
M. Roy-Henry and other historians believe the bodies may have been switched. The corpse now venerated in the Invalides is, they suspect, that of the emperor's valet, who died in his service in Saint Helena in 1818.
Why would anyone have switched the bodies? Theories, again, abound. The British wanted to hide the fact that the emperor was poisoned. The British switched the bodies as a joke. HRH George IV, a collector of curios, secretly added Napoleon to his collection. Napoleon faked his death, escaped from Saint Helena and spent the last years of his life in America with an Englishwoman called Betsy.
M. Roy-Henry and others want the body in the Invalides, or a fragment of imperial skin held separately, to be tested against the DNA of known Napoleonic descendants. The French government refuses.
Perhaps, it is right. Perhaps it is better not to know that generations of visitors to the Invalides have gazed upon the tomb of Napoleon's valet.
Nonetheless, the argument for a scientific examination of the Invalides mask now seems unanswerable. Perhaps, the new owner of the "London" mask will come forward. If it were proved, beyond reasonable doubt, to be the True Emperor, it would be worth rather more than $50,000.