Here are some notes from a TV documentary broadcast on 15th February on France 5 in which Philippe Charlier outline his latest researches into the "sick men of the Revolution", Robespierre and Marat.
Emmanuelle Herran thinks so. The mask of Marat has been subject to less scrutiny than that of Robespierre, but Marat's asymetrical features are distinctive. Indeed, the likeness is both striking and moving.
19:00 A Facial Reconstruction of Marat
Undeterred by the Robespierre debacle, Charlier embarks with Philippe Froesch on a facial reconstruction based on the death mask of Marat. At this point in the film, we see Froesch begin the painstaking work. He comments that the displacement of the features shown in the mask is probably due to the positioning of the head after death.
THE "FORENSIC" EVIDENCE
20:00 Marat's bath
Yes, it seems Philippe Charlier really is going to analyse the bathtub in the Musée Grévin! Is it authentic and, if so, what products did Marat use in his bath?
The curator at the Musée Grévin recounts how the bath was re-discovered by a Breton priest, having been originally purchased by a member of the Saint-Hilaire family in 1805. It was sold to the waxworks in 1885 for 5,000 francs. This is enough to satisfy Charlier that the provenance is excellent and that this is indeed the bathtub of Marat. He is encouraged by detecting some two-hundred-year-old tide marks. He takes a swab from the surface residue and also some scrappings from the copper bath itself. The samples are taken to laboratory of toxicology at the Hôpital Lariboisière to be analysed. We await the results....
25: 50: Robespierre's table
I suppose it had a certain inevitability. Philippe's attention now turns to the desk/table in the Archives nationales, which once stood in the anteroom of the Committee of Public Safety and on which Robespierre lay wounded in the early hours of 10 Thermidor. The leather top has many intriguing stains, but are any of them the blood of Robespierre? Again Charlier takes samples, though even he admits that the possibility of isolating Robespierre's DNA is remote. A human genetics expert, Catherine Bourgain, confirms that historical DNA is easily contaminated. Once again, we are left waiting to find out more.....
31:00. Marat's newspaper
The documentary now moves on to the most successful part of Philippe Charlier's investigations, his analysis of the bloodstained copy of L'Ami du peuple in the Bibliothèque Nationale. [See my previous post, The blood of Marat (rodama1789.blogspot.com)]
To set the scene, we are taken to the 6e arrondissement of Paris where Marat lived and worked. Charlier's guide is the art historian Marc Soleranski. We visit the café Procope, with Marat's printing works opposite, and see the famous bell which was rung when the latest edition of his paper was about to be printed. The various historians give an account of Marat's assassination by Charlotte Corday.
35:10 Inside the Bibliothèque nationale
Charlier has been given special authorisation to take samples from the newspaper in the Bibliothèque nationale. He is assisted by a police technician called "Ludovic", and the occasion is made to feel like an episode of CSI. The curator Corinne Le Bitouzé specialist on 18th-century engravings, fetches the dossier. This is interesting to see; the bound volume from the Collection de Vinck (vol.32) includes a collection of engravings of Marat's death as well as the newspaper itself. Corinne Le Bitouzé observes that the paper is a precious relic, with the provenance carefully traced; we see a close up of an annotation of 1837: "These pages, stained with the blood of Marat, were found on the table beside his bath when he was stabbed by Charlotte Corday..."
Charlier notes that the colour and spread of the stain is indeed consistent with blood. Improved forensic techniques make it possible to take a sample without damaging the relic.
At this point we return briefly to Catherine Bourgain, who explains how the degradation of DNA makes it possible to identify samples which are historical in origin. The analysis is to be carried out by Professor Carles Lalueza Fox and his team at the University of Barcelona, a process which will take months. It will be a world first to extract DNA from paper this old.
41:00: The bath
43:00 The newspaper
In Charlier's opinion, this cocktail of nasties would quite possibly have killed Marat - if Charlotte Corday's knife hadn't got to him first. The thought, which I hadn't quite grasped before, is that the Malassezia fungus, which causes a surface skin infection, would have been be liable to pass into the bloodstream and cause sepsis. An abrasive sulphurous treatment would only have encouraged this to happen.
47:00 Robespierre's table
Sadly, Dr. Poupon has bad news about the table. He explains that there are two methods of detecting blood: The first, familiar to CSI aficionados, is to use a peroxide compound which reacts and changes colour in the presence of blood. The second is simply to measure the amount of iron present. Both tests have proved negative . The peroxide revealed only the tiniest amount of blood: 7 nanolitres. There was slightly more iron detected, but not a significant amount, given that iron is present in all sorts of substances besides blood. Philippe Charlier has to admit he "hasn't had much luck with his inquiries into Robespierre" - the mask is probably a fraud and the table has yielded no forensic evidence; he is forced to conclude that science cannot currently reconstruct the medical history of Robespierre.
THE FACIAL RECONSTRUCTION OF MARAT
After that note of negativity, let's cheer ourselves up with the facial reconstruction of Marat by Philippe Froesch! This is definitely more plausible than the Robespierre. (I don't get why Robespierre ended up with a ton of pockmarks but Marat, with his "leprosy", was allowed to have perfect skin).
The high-definition images are certainly scarily real!
To appreciate the detail of the work, you need to look at the pictures posted by Philippe Froesch's company Visual Forensic (There is a Mirabeau which is pretty impressive too.)
"Marat, Robespierre : les malades de la révolution (Science Grand Format)", conceived and introduced by Philippe Charlier, directed by Dominique Adt. Broadcast on France 5, 15th February 2021.