A new analysis of a skull believed to be Mozart's indicates the death of the famed composer may have stemmed from a head injury rather than rheumatic fever, a magazine reports.
French scientists recently conducted a thorough examination of what many think is Mozart's skull - a skull retrieved from a Viennese cemetery by a gravedigger about 10 years after Mozart died on Dec. 5, 1791.The study by Pierre-Francois Puech of the University of Provence and his colleagues found that the skull, which is missing its jaw, had features that correspond to what is known about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart from historical records, said an article in Archaeology magazine's March-April issue.
Furthermore, when the French team superimposed a photograph of the skull on portraits of Mozart "it fit perfectly in all proportions and in the details of the forehead, nose, eyes and cheeks," Archaeology said.
Puech contends his analysis represents a positive identification of the skull, which was recovered by one of the two gravediggers who buried Mozart in a communal grave.
Unlike the dramatic ending of the movie "Amadeus," Mozart's body was not simply tossed into a communal grave pit. Instead, in the tradition of the day, he was placed in a coffin and lowered into a grave dug to hold several coffins. There were no individual graves at the time.
But Friedrich Gehmacher, president of the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, the official Mozart archives, told Archaeology he does not think the French findings constitute conclusive proof of the skull's identity. An assessment of the skull by Austrian scientists will be published in the near future, he added.
Regarded as one of the great musical geniuses of all time, Mozart is noted for his accomplishments in composing operas, chamber music, symphonies and works for the piano.
Mozart's untimely death at the age of 35 commonly has been attributed to acute rheumatic fever, with his final coma thought to have been caused by excessive bloodletting, which was used to treat the disorder at that time.
However, the French team found a healed fracture - of the type that could have been caused by a fall - on the left temple of the purported skull of Mozart. There were also indications that the fracture may have triggered chronic bleeding between the brain and the skull, the Archaeology article said.
Historical records show that starting in the spring of 1790, severe headaches started plaguing Mozart. Later in 1790, the composer wrote to Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the words for his operas, "My head is lost, I am completely exhausted . . . I feel close to death."
Bleeding between the brain and the skull, called chronic hematoma, might well acount for Mozart's headaches, weakness and fainting that culminated in his coma and subsequent death, the French researchers told Archaeology.
"Puech believes Mozart may well have suffered from rheumatic fever, but that he died of chronic hematoma," the article said.
A cast of the skull studied by the French team and a plaster cast of a forensic reconstruction of the head will be exhibited in March at the University of Provence in Marseilles, France. The skull itself is now back in Austria undergoing further study by that country's scientists.
Joseph Rothmayer, one of the two gravediggers who buried Mozart's coffin in a communal grave in 1791, obtained the skull when St. Mark's cemetery was reorganized a decade after the composer's death, Puech said.
The skull was passed down among private owners until 1901, when it was obtained by the city of Salzburg. The skull was on public display at Salsburg's Mozarteum until the 1950s, when controversy over its authenticity prompted it to be placed in storage.