Who Has Goya's Missing Head: Phrenologists Under Suspicion

Who has Goya’s missing head: phrenologists under suspicion

The painter’s skull could end up in the hands of phrenologists to study its “exceptionality” and would have been the victim of a catastrophic experiment.

Vanitas, by Dionisio Fierro.

The November 18, 1888 the tomb was opened Francisco de Goya y Lucientes in the cemetery of The Charterhouse from Bordeaux. The Spanish consul in the city, Joaquin Pereyra, he had discovered it years ago and after tireless efforts he was about to get the mortal remains of the brilliant painter, who died 70 years earlier, back to his homeland. But nevertheless, the surprise was that they were not complete: the skull was missing. There begins a mystery that has never been solved, with some clues that suggest a bizarre story between the 19th and 20th centuries and that is back in the news.

From your hotel room, overlooking the cemetery of The Charterhouse, Samuel Alarcon answers EL ESPAÑOL by phone. He is the director of the documentary dark and bright, which tries to reconstruct these facts. Together with his Tourmalet Films team, he will shoot in Bordeaux until the end of July with the purpose of narrating a story that has obsessed him since he was a child. “One day my father took me to the San Isidro cemetery and told me that Goya was buried there, but his head was missing“, comments the filmmaker from Madrid.

In reality, the corpse of the painter -and that of his in-law Martin Miguel Goicoechea, with whom he shared the French tomb – passed through there but was transferred in 1919 to the hermitage of Saint Anthony of Florida. Along with the boxes of Goya and his friend, a parchment with the following text was buried: “The skull is missing from the skeleton, because when the great painter died, his head, according to fame, was entrusted to a doctor for scientific study, without later being returned to the grave, nor, therefore, was it found when the exhumation took place in that French city” .

In the 19th century it was in vogue phrenology, a pseudoscience based on the theories of the Austrian Franz Joseph Gall, which stated that the characteristics of the skull allowed to determine the character of the people, their abilities, their predisposition to crime and even their artistic talents. In fact, there are cases of illustrious characters whose heads were removed to be studied, such as that of the musician Haydn, died in Austria in 1809.

Although Goya’s skull may have been stolen from his tomb, it may never have been buried with the rest of his body. “In France, phrenology was very popular and it is well known that the doctors who treated him in his last years were related to it,” says Samuel Alarcón. It’s not even disposable that the painter himself donated his head to science. But nevertheless, after the exhumation, an elderly woman in her 90s from Bordeaux who claimed to have witnessed the burial stated that the body was completely buried.

Skull measurements for racial studies.

Skull measurements for racial studies.

The skull painting

The director has delved into the newspaper archives to recompose the rest of the story. The most shocking event took place on April 17, 1928. On the occasion of the centenary of the artist’s death, a hitherto unknown painting representing Goya’s skull was presented in his homeland. This work continues today in the basements of the Saragossa Museum and it was painted by the Asturian Dionisio Fierros, dated 1849. Either the painter had imagined what the skull was like or it was a real portrait.

Probably the document that most fully describes what might have happened is a small book of Juan Antonio Gaya Nuno, The spooky story of Goya’s skull, first published by an Italian publisher, but with a Spanish edition of 1966 of few copies, according to the writer Eugene Gallego.

‘The Spanish’… from 1943

The author refers to an article that appeared in 1943 in a homonymous publication of this newspaper, The Spanish, which was signed by Dionisio Gamallo Fierros, grandson of the Asturian painter. The title is more than eloquent: Did my grandfather steal Goya’s skull? Probable intervention of a political-medical-aristocratic triumvirate. The right parietal and a mandible, only remains of the great head.

Gaya Nuño gives full credibility to the article and adds speculation of her own. For example, that the triunvirato of thieves would have been formed, in addition to Dionisio Fierros, by the Marquis of San Adrian, who was the first owner of the skull painting, and Mariano Cubí Soler, a physician in favor of phrenology.

Filming of the documentary at La Chartreuse.

Filming of the documentary at La Chartreuse.
Samuel Alarcon

The fatal experiment of Salamanca

When Fierros died in 1894, his family moved to Ribadeo (Lugo) Y Goya’s head also traveled there. In 1911, his son Nicolás went to study medicine in Salamanca and took the skull he had at home to practice. According to the article by Gamallo Fierros, Nicolás’s nephew, the students’ desire to experiment had fatal consequences.

To check the expansive force of the germination –Or the “expansive force of gases“, say other sources- they put soaked chickpeas and they did not find a better container than the illustrious skull, which ended up exploding and it was shattered. Other versions say that the skull was simply fragmented and distributed in pieces among the medical students. The fact is that the author of the article said to keep a right parietal and a fragment of the lower jaw and maybe someone still keeps them somewhere, as the only relic of a great head.

“The most valuable testimony we have is that of the Fierros family,” says Samuel Alarcón, who does not want to reveal all the conclusions he has reached before the documentary is released, probably at the end of 2018. In reality, this cinematographic work will use as a common thread John Lawrence, prominent French photographer who worked in Spain in the 19th century and captured images of Goya’s paintings. “It is a reflection on the transition from painting to photography as a way of representing the world, the history of the skull is nothing more than a McGuffin”, Explain.

Two old men eating soup, photographed by Jean Laurent in 1874.

Two old men eating soup, photographed by Jean Laurent in 1874.

Dusk falls over the Bordeaux cemetery while director of dark and bright keep looking out the window happy that it is THE SPANISH who is interviewing him. “I don’t believe in coincidences,” he says. In the absence of other more scientific inquiries, the documentary could be revealing or simply add one more page to the seventh art, which knows well what it means to deliver Goya’s head.