Friday, 27 February 2009

Ben Weider - "Death of a Giant"

My researches on Julio Lobo in my last blog, reminded me of another great Jewish admirer of Napoleon, the Canadian businessman, Napoleonic scholar, founder and President of the International Napoleonic Society, Ben Weider. Ben was one of the most indefatigable proponents of the theory that Napoleon was poisoned.

In my original planning of a trip to St Helena I came across some web pages describing his trip in 1975. I remember being slightly amused by the fact that, unable to get enough passages for all his family on the freighter "Good Hope Castle", he left his wife behind in Cape Town!

His account of his trip to St Helena, with a number of pictures and photos, including one of him and a youthful looking Gilbert Martineau is still well worth looking at.

Ben Weider's Journey to St Helena 1975

Anyway, my trawl of the net revealed that Ben died last October. I should have known, but didn't.

Aside from his Napoleonic scholarship he was a remarkable man. With his brother he founded a body building empire after the second world war. It was he who in 1969 encouraged the young Arnold Schwarzenegger to emigrate to the US. From what I read about the problems of the current Governor of California, some Californian Republicans probably think that that was a mixed blessing!

Anyway I attach a few web references for anyone interested.

Weider Obituary

Napoleonic Society

Just before he died he made a gift of a large collection of Napoleonic memorabilia to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Museo Napoleonico Havana - Closed For Renovation

We were disappointed on our recent trip to Cuba to find scaffolding outside the Napoleonic Museum; a curt notice on the door informed us it was closed; no further information was available.

Anyway we took a few photos.

Including one of a workman on the roof.

We were unable to find out when the museum is expected to re-open; such information is inaccessible in Cuba!

On our return I decided to do a little bit of research about what we had missed.

Francesco Antommarchi

The first, most surprising thing I found, which perhaps I should have known, was that Napoleon's doctor and fellow Corsican, Francesco Antommarchi, died in Cuba. (1) Apparently one of the death masks of Napoleon that Antommarchi claimed he had made on St Helena still resides there, and is one of the artifacts in the museum. (2)

I also found that like St. Helena, Cuba has issued stamps featuring its Napoleonic Museum Cuban Napoleonic Stamps

Museo Napoleonico

Although the death mask is part of its collection, the museum has no connection with Antommarchi. It houses the collection assembled by Julio Lobo, a sugar magnate and one of the richest men in pre-revolutionary Cuba, who left in 1959 for the United States. (3) It is an unusual example of the connection between sugar derived wealth and art and museums (e.g. The Tate Gallery, London) propounded by Sebald in The Rings of Saturn ! Lobo had been told by his father to learn all he could about Napoleon, whom he admired because of his enlightened attitudes to Jews.

The collection apparently consists of some 7000 items, including a number of books and works of art. As well as the death mask, it also holds the spy glass that Napoleon used on St. Helena.

The museum itself is housed in a fine renaissance style mansion built in 1928; it is the former home of Italian born lawyer, writer and politician Orestes Ferrara. (4)


1. Francesco Antommarchi, born at Morsiglia, Corsica, in 1789, studied medicine at Pisa and Florence, and was chosen by Cardinal Fesch (Napoleon's uncle) and Napoleon's mother to fill the vacant post at Longwood House following the departure of Dr O'Meara. He arrived on St. Helena on September 20th 1819, and remained there until Napoleon's death. He performed the post-mortem on Napoleon. On return to Europe he lived in Poland, Italy and France. In 1825 he publishedThe last days of the Emperor Napoleon. In 1834 he emigrated to New Orleans, and in 1837 he moved to Cuba - apparently in search of a distant relative. He ended up at Santiago de Cuba, where there were a number of French immigrants from Haiti, including some senior officers from the Grand Army. He soon became ill and died of yellow fever. He was buried with military honours in the Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba.

2. The following from the New York Times archives, reviews a book by G. L. de St M. Watson published in 1915 Napoleon's Death Mask It appears that the original cast was not taken by Antommarchi, but by an English doctor, Francis Burton.

3. Born in Venezuela, Lobo was Jewish. He was allegedly asked by Che Guevara to run the Cuban sugar industry after the Revolution, but moved to the United States, where he helped to finance the anti-Castro movement. He moved to Spain in 1968 where he died in 1983. His daughter, Maria Luisa Lobo Montalvo, made a number of visits to Cuba from 1975, and collaborated with local artists and historians in amassing a large photographic collection. Her book, Havana: History and Architecture of A Romantic City was published after her death in 1998. Her ashes were returned to Cuba and scattered on one of the family's former plantations.

4. Ferrara held a number of high offices in Cuba, including that of Secretary of State during the Machado regime in the 1930's. He escaped an assassination attempt in 1940. He was exiled to Italy in 1960, and died there in 1972 aged 96.