Grey Room

Roman Death Masks and the Metaphorics of the Negative

Patrick R. Crowley

Man Ray. Death Mask of Amedeo Modigliani, 1929.


The broad media-archaeological landscape of death masks and photography provides the context for two puzzling dirt-archaeological discoveries in 1870s France. First in Lyon in 1874 and then in Paris in 1878, construction workers came across an ancient Roman tomb. In each, they found a piece of plaster preserving the impression of a long-dead face, its eyes closed. But because these plaster relics were concave hollows (and not the then-familiar convex forms of commemorative death masks), they were initially difficult to understand. Excavators and scholars were at first unwilling to accept that these hollow forms were intentionally made by human hands, reasoning instead that they were “natural” accidents of the burial process. This question was debated in illustrated publications in the 1870s and 1880s, leading to a second curious response to the artifacts: none of the early representations of these objects presented the hollow object itself. Instead, plaster casts were taken from each mold, and these modern casts—not the original ancient artifacts—were used as the basis for illustrations. Two refusals, then, accompanied the nearly simultaneous discovery of these ancient, deathly faces: the refusal to accept these artifacts as human-made and the refusal to reproduce their images directly.

The archaeological understanding and historical reception of these masks—from the 1870s up to the present—might have been very different had they been discovered thirty years earlier. Although largely superseded by the 1850s, daguerreotypes provided a distinct model of photographic imaging. Rather than creating directly from the subject a negative image that then becomes an easily forgotten foundation for producing a positive print, the daguerreotype captured its subjects directly on the surface of a silvered sheet of copper. No positive printing of a negative image was needed: instead, the daguerreotype could appear either positive or negative depending on how it was held by the viewer. This overlapping of absence and presence, a simultaneous yet always shifting effect of positivity and negativity, offers an alternative model for understanding the relations of absence and presence in another media technology, one that came to light two decades after daguerreotypes had fallen from favor.