Shakespeare death mask 'genuine'





A 17TH-CENTURY death mask claimed to be that of British playwright William Shakespeare could be genuine, according to new research.

The mask, discovered in a ragpicker's shop in 1842 and now owned by the German city of Darmstadt, has long been a subject of controversy.

It bears the high forehead and prominent nose and beard associated with the Bard and bears the inscription "+ Ao Dm 1616", apparently meaning "Died Anno Domini 1616", the year Shakespeare passed away at the age of 52.

But leading scholars have questioned the provenance of the mask and also said it is not a close enough match to the tiny handful of portraits that can be attributed to Shakespeare.

The pendulum may now swing back in the mask's favour, lab detectives have reported in next Saturday's New Scientist magazine.

The force behind it is University of Mainz academic Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, who is a champion of the mask.

She asked a specialist at the German Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigation to compare two portraits widely believed to be of Shakespeare with that of a bust housed in London's Garrick Club.

Using a computer technique employed by the police to test whether separate facial images belong to the same person, scientist Reinhardt Altmann found close matches around the eyes, nose and lips of the paintings and bust, leading him to conclude the faces were all those of the same individual.

Ms Hammerschmidt-Hummel's next step was to compare the bust with the Darmstadt death mask.

Engineers from imaging company Konica Minolta Europe scanned the bust and death mask with lasers to build up 3D computer models.

"Superimposing the models revealed perfect matches between the forehead, eyes and nose," New Scientist said.

The difference is the lips on the death mask are thinner than those on the bust, but Ms Hammerschmidt-Himmel contends this is normal, for the lips would have shrunk with the loss of blood pressure after death.

British experts are yet to be convinced, said New Scientist.

Representations of Elizabethan men were typically enhanced by the artist to make the subject look intelligent and rich rather than be true likenesses, which is why busts and portraits from the same era often look similar, art scholars said.

Images of Shakespeare have always been bones of contention. Many so-called contemporary likenesses of Shakespeare have been dismissed as having been made after his death, some of them in the 18th century, when he became internationally renowned.

Doubts swirl around the authenticity of the Garrick Club bust itself. Art historians suspect it was made more than 140 years after the playwright died by the French sculptor Louis-Francois Roubiliac.


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