Napoleon’s Penis

If you saw our appearance on The Colbert Report this week, you know that one of the quirkier objects associated with the Rosenbach is Napoleon’s penis. Dr. Rosenbach bought the body part in 1924 as part of the larger Vignali collection of Napoleonic “relics,” which included silverware, clothing, vestments, and other objects. Here is the description from a 1924 Rosenbach Company catalog–it is described as “a mummified tendon taken from Napoleon’s body during the postmortem.”

Rosenbach Company. A Description of the Vignali Collection of Relics of Napoleon. 1924. Ro2 924a copy 1

Abbé Ange Paul Vignali was a Corsican priest who had served as Napoleon’s chaplain on St. Helena. After  Napoleon’s death, his companions divided up some of the possessions not included in his will and a share went to Vignali. Supposedly, Vignali also took some souvenirs from the autopsy, a story which is supported (as the Rosenbach catalog indicates) by the memoir of Napoleon’s valet, Louis Etienne St. Denis.

After Vignali’s death, his Napoleonic relics went to his sister and then ultimately her son, Charles-Marie Gianettini. He sold them to the dealer Maggs Brothers, who in turn sold them to Dr. Rosenbach.

According to his biographers, Dr. Rosenbach took a “Rabelaisian delight…in talking about the notorious Vignali relics of Napoleon.” In 1927 the pieces were exhibited at the Museum of French Art in New York, prompting a famous description from a journalist: “Maudlin sentimentalisers sniffled; shallow women giggled, pointed. In a glass case they saw something looking like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or shrivelled eel.”

But however much Doctor R. enjoyed the collection, the Rosenbachs were businessmen and in 1947 they sold the Vignali items to their good customer Donald Hyde. So the famous penis never made it into the collection of the Rosenbach Museum & Library as an institution. More’s the pity.

After several more transactions (which included Dr. Rosenbach’s successor John Fleming and which you can read about on the History of Information and Media website) the penis eventually ended up in the hands of the urologist Dr. John Lattimer and it is now owned by his daughter. Tony Perrottet, the author of Napoleon’s Privates, has apparently been to her house in New Jersey and seen the famous item. He documents the visit in a short video, which is a hilarious tease–we get to see the box and all the trappings, but in keeping with her father’s wishes not to display the relic, the current owner won’t allow the organ itself to be shown on camera. But it is still fun to watch.

So that’s the story of the famous “mummified tendon.”

Kathy Haas is the Assistant Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

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