Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Philippe Charlier on Robespierre and Marat

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.

This is one of those documentary with an irritatingly long preamble.  Philippe Charlier introduces his work as a  forensic pathologist and anthropologist.  Historians Serge Bianchi, Olivier Coquard and Patrice Gueniffey outline biographies of Robespierre and Marat, with the aid of some, admittedly well put-together, dramatic tableaux.


Almost five minutes in, Philippe Charlier finally starts his investigation.  He begins by going in search of the mortal remains of Robespierre and Marat.  We know all along that he won't find anything, but there is still some good footage of the Paris catacombs where, who knows, a few jumbled bones of the Incorruptible may still lie hidden.  After Marat was expelled from the Pantheon, his body was reburied in the cemetery of the adjacent church of St-Etienne-du Mont; the area is now paved over and his remains likewise totally lost. 


8:10: The Death Mask of Robespierre

We now come to the death masks.  We learn that Madame Tussaud claimed to have made a death mask of Robespierre at the foot of the guillotine and that there are various copies scattered around France. 

Charlier visits the Atelier Lorenzi, a firm specialising in traditional plaster casts, which still has a mould for the Robespierre mask.  (Indeed you can buy a copy from their website for £150).  I thought this was one of the most interesting part of the programme as I never quite understood before how the moulds were constructed.  The Robespierre is a so-called  moule à bon creux, that is it consists of a series of separate pieces held in place with a retaining "cap".  The whole thing is quite a monster, weighing around 15 kilos.  The plaster is poured in; then, when it is set, the outer casing can be removed and the pieces taken off one by one.  According to the Lorenzi website, some customers now prefer to keep the marks of the joins on their finished casts.

The finished Robespierre on the Atelier Lorenzi website:

12:40:  Is this really the face of Robespierre?
 Charlier  asks this question straight up, without a word about his collaboration in 2013 with Philippe Froesch on the controversial "facial reconstruction" based on the mask.  The expert for this part of the programme is Emmanuelle Heran, conservatrice en chef at the Louvre and a specialist on death masks.  She confirms that the mask has been known since the beginning of the 19th century.  The first examples appeared in the 1810s and 1820s.

Charlier observes that the mask reflect Robespierre's known medical history, in that it shows smallpox scars and small lesions at the base of the nose. But clearly this is not enough to identify it positively.

Froesch's Robespierre
According to Emmanuelle  Heran the first methodological step is to compare the mask with portraits of Robespierre.  The two are clearly different.  Robespierre's lips are more pursed, his chin more prominent.  And, "above all" there is "the question of the nose":  the nose on the mask is straight, whereas Robespierre's is "en trompette" and "un peu retroussé".   Although the mask is old, in her opinion it is not Robespierre.

Rather unexpectedly Emmanuelle Heran  now offers another reflection:  the mask is "trop patibulaire", too sinister,  the head of a thug ("une tête de brute épaise")  Charlier accepts the implied criticism  with scarcely a murmur.  

It would seem the line of enquiry based on the death mask of Robespierre has come to a dead end.

15:20: The death mask of Marat

This section is once again introduced by a dramatic scene featuring  Mme Tussaud who, in her Memoirs, claimed also  to have made a death mask of Marat.  There are numerous copies of the Marat mask, which seems to be authentic.

Mask of Marat in the Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon:

Charlier goes to see what is said to be the oldest example in France,  held in the archives of the Municipal Library in Lyon. We are taken through the book stacks to watch Pierre Guinard, the director, reverently open the box containing the mask.  Charlier then takes it to the radiology department at the Hôpital Edouard Herriot in Lyon to be scanned.  Evidently, this is the origin of that haunting image of Marat seemingly in his shroud.  

The Friend of the People is clearly recognisable from his sunken eyes and his lopsided nose. The interior structure of the material is also revealed, the plaster granular and bubbly; and with no metal reinforcements - some indication that the mask is a genuine antique cast.

17:55:  But is this truly the face of 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.


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 (]

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

According to Dr. Joël Poupon in Lyon, the bath itself  is 99% pure copper. The swab from its surface has yielded five or six different elements but the only one present in a substantial quantity is sulphur; the rest are only trace and can be considered as impurities. This proves that the bath was used for medicinal purposes: sulphur has been used as base for remedies since Roman times.

43:00 The newspaper 

In Barcelona Carles Lalueza Fox has successfully isolated human DNA which quite probably comes from Marat.  The subject is male and comparison with the geographical databank shows he had mixed ancestry, from the south of France and Italy.

 The Professor has also finds traces of infectious agents: a fungus, Malassezia fufur and two bacteria,  Staphylococcus aureus, and Cutibacterium acnes.  This means that Marat was the victim of multiple infections.

 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.


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.

1 comment:

  1. Jean-Paul's condition affected his legs and lower half, not his face, hence sitting in a bath helped. There's no reason for his face to be marked.
    Max's pockmarks were quite faint, judging by the physionotrace: another reason to be suspicious of the mask.
    I know what Mme Héran means about it looking "like a bruiser" – an older man who's had a physically tougher life.


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