The unresolved mystery of Mozart's skull

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Posted on Sun, Nov 23 2014 14:59:13

mozart's skullThe International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg, Austria, is said to hold Mozart's skull. Mozart died aged 35 and was buried in 1791, in Vienna.  Although it is widely believed that Mozart was buried in a mass grave, he was actually buried in a grave with only four or five bodies in it. Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who was taking care of the funeral, ordered a “burial of the third category” for Mozart, which was 8 guldens 56 kreutzers and 3 guldens for the hearse. At that time it was the most common funeral befitting a man worthy in every respect. All funeral regulations adopted by the Austrian Empire back in the day were strictly followed – in the graves of the deceased, buried in coffins, it was prescribed to bury four adults and two children, and if there were no children to bury, 5 adult corpses would suffice.

On the evening of  December 6, 1791, the hearse with Mozart's coffin left its final resting place and moved toward the cemetery of St. Mark, 4km away from the city. The gravediggers left the coffin in the mortuary until the morning, and then, after lowering it into the grave, sprinkled it with calcium oxide cap. Usually, 7-8 years later, the graves would be reused and filled up with new dead bodies. Supposedly, one of the gravediggers who buried the composer, attached a wire to Mozart's head to retrieve the skull from the grave 10 years later.

50 years after Mozart's death, an engraver from Vienna, Jacob Hyrtl, received a skull from a gravedigger, who claimed it to be Mozart's. Back in the day, the relic hunters would scavenge the cemeteries for the remains of the famous people for trading. After the death of Jacob, his brother, a famous anatomy professor in Europe, Joseph Hyrtl, found the skull in his brother's house, wrapped into soiled paper. He showed the relic to a colleague, Ludwig August Frankl, who examined it and described what he saw – the skull was resting on a polished wooden oval mat, under a glass cover, the lower jaw was secured by a wire, the upper jaw had five molars on the right side and two molars on the left, the lower jaw had two molars on the right and three on the left.

24 years later, on January 8, 1892, Frankl's description was published in the Neue Freie Presse newspaper with a headline “Mozart's skull found”. Naturally, this caused a lot of controversy among the believers and non-believers. Various newspapers claimed that the skull had more teeth than described, and some claimed that the entire lower jaw was missing. From 1902 to 1940 the skull was exhibited in the house where Mozart was born, and later, the controversial relic was transferred to the library of Mozarteum foundation. The real story behind the skull remained unclear.

In 1986, the International Mozarteum Foundation had an exhibition called “Mozart in the 19th century”. Among the exhibits there was the alleged skull of Amadeus. Gottfried Tichy, a paleontologist at Salzburg University, offered to examine the skull. After examining it and projecting the x-ray of the skull onto a magnified portrait of Mozart from 1789, Tichy declared that the skull is genuine. He described the skull being small and having feminine features, with a high forehead, thin cheekbones – a typical appearance of a south German. According to Tichy's description, the features coincided with Mozart's features - the skull belonged to a man of small stature, a little more than 1.50m, of 30 to 40 years old, had traces of rickets and one of the molars were heavily impacted by carries – it was a known fact that Mozart had severe toothaches. A surprising finiding was a healed  temporal skull fracture, which seemed to have been overlooked by Mozart's biographers. According to Tichy, the composer must have had a serious hematoma, which must have caused him strong headaches.

Mozart's biographers and professors of forensics doubted Tichy's conclusion on the genuinity of the skull, and further investigations were conducted, which included the face reconstruction used in forensics to identify victims. The reconstruction was compared to the same portrait from 1789 by Dorothea Stok, and once again, the skull was concluded to belong to Mozart. This was, in turn, questioned, based on the fact that the skull was not perfectly preserved to be able to draw any conclusions as to who it might have belonged to.

The controversy carried on for years, until the search for Mozart's skull came to a crescendo in 2006, when the Mozarteum was planning to test the skull's DNA against the DNA of Mozart's relatives, and prove once and for all whose skull it was. The DNA of the relatives was that of Wolfgang's maternal grandmother and his niece. Using mitochondrial DNA, the results suggested that not only was the skull unrelated to his relatives, but that the remains of the grandma and the niece were unrelated to each other as well. The Foundation's press statement said, “...it has been impossible to completely prove the authenticity of the alleged Mozart cranium; thus, the origin question of the skull remains unsettled”.

To this day, the skull is kept at the Mozarteum, however it is no longer on display, as it causes too much scientific ruckus. You can still see the skull, provided that you request the seeing in advance.

Gallery: The unresolved mystery of Mozart's skull

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1 Comment

Eve Robert-Puech said on Jun 12, 2015
Puech drew attention to a fracture in the skull, claiming that it had been sustained from one of Mozart's many falls in 1791, and that it had caused a chronic bruising that had eventually put Mozart in a coma and killed him. https://www.academia.edu/215794/Mozarts_skull_identification