The mystery of missing body parts drew me to the beautiful Florentine mansion that houses the Napoleonic Museum in Havana. The Financial Times’ Latin American correspondent, John Paul Rathbone, had, in a recent book, raised the possibility that parts of the emperor’s body were scattered across the island. Imagining preserved organs entombed in dusty drawers in building basements, I made my way to the recently restored grand villa that was officially reopened by city historian Eusebio Leal earlier this year.
It’s a curious anomaly in a Latin American nation. The mansion, close to Havana University, was built in 1928 by Orestes Ferrara, a Neapolitan who fought for the Cubans in the 1898 Spanish American War. He later became a lawyer and then a politician. The Napoleon memorabilia housed in the mansion was acquired by rich Habanero Julio Lobo, aka the sugar king of Havana.
This Napoleonic collection is the largest outside of Europe and includes 200,000 documents. The museum features Napoleon’s bed, the hat he wore during his exile on St Helena, and a pair of pistols he carried at Borodino. The rooms have been sumptuously restored and embellished with statues, vases, paintings, pots and objets d’art. The library is on the top floor; on the ground floor is a vast hall illuminated by enormous decorated windows.
Bonaparte’s last doctor was a Corsican called Francesco Antommarchi who retired to Cuba and died in Santiago de Cuba. He created three death masks of Napoleon, one of which, in bronze, sits on a bedside table next to Napoleon’s bed in the museum. It’s not fenced off to prevent human interaction and the visitor can lean in, for a spine-tingling close look. According to Rathbone’s enlightening and impeccably sourced book on the rise and fall of Julio Lobo (The Sugar King of Havana; The Penguin Press), Antommarchi brought body parts belonging to Napoleon into Cuba on his arrival in 1837.
Rathbone wrote: “Of the other imperial souvenirs that Antommarchi brought to Cuba, such as the silver dinner service, the locks of hair he shaved from the emperor’s head, and other body parts he kept, nothing is known. They may still be in Cuba today.”
Perhaps Cuba’s well-known novelist Leonardo Padura could set his famously fictional detective Lt Mario Conde on the case…
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