The ugly face of the French Revolution – is this Robespierre’s real likeness?

The ugly face of the French Revolution – is this Robespierre’s real likeness?

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Maximilien Robespierre was the poster boy of the French Revolution who, depending on your politics, became either an Enlightenment hero for equal rights, or a blood-thirsty tyrant who sent thousands to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror – before meeting the same fate himself in 1794, aged 36.



Robespierre's death mask
Robespierre’s death mask

French forensic scientists Philippe Charlier and Philippe Froesch have now created an unnervingly realistic 3D facial reconstruction based on a copy of Robespierre’s death mask, supposedly made by Madame Tussaud from his decapitated head.

The result, if the likeness is accurate, show just how flattering contemporary portraits of him were.

Writing in this week’s issue of the Lancet, Philippe Charlier (who specialises in historical medical mysteries) lists Robespierre’s many ailments, as described by contemporary witnesses.  They include: vision problems, nose bleeds (“he covered his pillow of fresh blood each night”), jaundice (“yellow coloured skin and eyes”), asthenia (“continuous tiredness”), leg ulcers, and skin diseases associated with the facial smallpox scars he received as a child.  He also had a permanent twitching of the eye and mouth, which got progressively worse between 1790 and 1794.

Painful skin lesions, a symptom of sarcoidosis
Painful skin lesions, a symptom of sarcoidosis

Probably most bothersome to him, as he was led to the guillotine on 28 July 1794, was the shattered jaw he received from a gunshot wound the day before.  Whether it was self-inflicted, or the result of a clash with the gendarmes who had come to arrest him, is disputed.  Nevertheless, when the executioner tore off the bandage that was holding Robespierre’s broken jaw in place, his agonised screams didn’t stop until the blade fell.

Dr Charlier’s retrospective diagnosis for Robespierre’s symptoms is sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disorder involving the abnormal collection of chronic inflammatory cells that form as nodules in multiple organs.  Symptoms may fluctuate over many years and are usually treated today with steroids.  The disease wasn’t recognised until 83 years after Robespierre’s death, so the treatment options available to his personal physician, Joseph Souberbielle, were limited.  Charlier believes it may have included a diet of fruit (Robespierre consumed a lot of oranges), as well as baths and bloodletting.

Dr Charlier concludes: “His disease did not play any part in his death, as judicial execution put the patient to death in a context of political crisis” – i.e. the guillotine sliced his head off.

Two views of Robespierre
Two views of Robespierre

Facial reconstruction images by Virtualforensic /Philippe Froesch /Batabat

Source: the Lancet

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