The Most Famous Unknown Girl
La Belle Italienne is the name given to the plaster mask of a pretty young girl who became popular in Paris andelsewhere by the late 800’s until the early decades of the ‘900. Many artists, writers and photographers, from Man Ray to Albert Camus, who described the calm, slightly smiling woman as a “Drowned Mona Lisa“; they were inspired by itsgenuine beauty and purity, the sweetness of his expression and the ‘enigmatic smile’.
The chronicle says that this is the face of a young woman who drowned in the Seine and for its exceptional beauty, it was decided to immortalize with a death mask. In Paris she became famous as The Inconnue de la Seine or La Viergeinconnue du canal de l’Ourcq or La Belle Noyee. No sign of violence was found on her body, was thought to be suicide. Immediately after the finding was exposed at the Paris Morgue for the identification. At that time it was located behind Notre-Dame at the eastern tip of the Ile de la Cité, quai de l’Archevêché, where the unknown dead were displayed for the public to see and, it was hoped, identify. The Paris Morgue was a famous institution during its time, and attracted thousands of visitors every day until it closed in 1907. Its administrators regarded the morgue as a Paris attraction. Therefore the unknown young woman was publicly exhibited at the morgue however it was said that her smile was so compelling to a medical assistant at the morgue that he took a plaster mold of her face, and then the great numbers of plaster casts produced and sold came from this unknown young woman’s death mask.
In 1933 Louis-Ferdinand Céline was asked for a photograph of himself to accompany his text L’Église in a collection. Instead Céline gave a photograph of Le Masque de l’Inconnue de la Seine to his editor. Rainer Maria Rilke’s autobiographically inspired narrator in Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, 1910 (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) wrote: “The mouleur, whose shop I pass every day, has hung two masks beside his door. The face of the young drowned woman, a cast of which was taken in the Morgue because it was beautiful, because it smiled, smiled so deceptively, as though it knew.” Also Anais Nin was influenced and Maurice Blanchot that mentions Alberto Giacometti being enchanted by the mask and Man Ray too, he used his photo for the cover of the book Aurélien by Louis Aragon.
Several plaster casts manufacturer in the United States added a portrait of the girl in their catalog collection, but in all catalogs she is named as La Belle Italienne. Why Italian? This is a curious fact, it is a true information or an errorbecause the girl was unknown?
The mystery deepens because there are versions tothis dispute stating that the cast was taken of a maskmanufacturer‘s daughter, maybe just to more intriguethe story. Well actually studying the mask in relationto many other funerary masks, I see that the expression is highly unusual and unlikely. Generallythere is a big difference between life mask and deathmask cast. The expression changes and especiallythe muscles of the face, cheeks and corrugatormuscles are very different in the second case, people are very relaxed in a gesture of surrender when died. I still have some doubts. You can learn more reading the book La Belle Noyee, enquête sur le masque de l’Inconnue de la Seine by Bertrand Tillier.
The face of the unknown woman was used for thehead of the first aid mannequin Resusci Anne. It was created byPeter Safar and Asmund Laerdal in 1958 and was used starting in 1960 numerous CPR courses. Therefore, the face has-been calledby some “the most kissed face” of all time.
However, this is the interesting social phenomenon in which an unknown face became an icon that indeed was often likened to the Mona Lisa’s smile, the critic Al Alvarez in his book on suicide The Savage God reports, “the Inconnue Became theerotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s“.
Maybe, I think, in the collective thinking in French remained some seed of this rare smile, I‘ve found it in the delicious smile of the beautiful actress Audrey Tautou in one of my favorite films The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain, (2001).