Vol. 7

KATHRYN NUERNBERGER
Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of Virtue and Failing

 

When Charlotte Corday left for Paris after the September massacres, she was carrying a copy of Plutarch’s Lives and a kitchen knife with a six-inch blade. 

Plagued by a chronic and debilitating skin condition that is never depicted in portraits, Jean-Paul Marat was known for conducting much of his business from his bath. There were rumors he bathed in the blood of his enemies. Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting, “The Death of Marat,” shows only his own reddening the tub. The picture is described as the first modernist painting for how it “took the stuff of politics as its material and did not transmute it.” To be sure, this is a painting with some journalistic integrity, although the artist moved the knife from Marat’s chest, where Charlotte Corday left it, to the floor. And he moved Charlotte Corday, who waited in a corner to be arrested, from the scene entirely. In Marat’s hand rests the note he had been reading: “Citizen, my extreme misery gives me a right to your benevolence.”  

So ended the summer of 1793, when, fearful of what would happen if the invading armies of neighboring monarchs freed the prisoners of France, who would no doubt turn on the people in a murderous rage, Marat of the Mountain, as he was known, called on the draftees to kill the prisoners before they marched to the front lines. By September half the prison population of Paris was dead. 

At her trial, Charlotte Corday said, “I killed 1 man to save 100,000.” Everyone in the room understood she was echoing Robespierre who said, “With regret I pronounce the fatal truth: Louis must die so that the nation may live,” and who would soon replace Marat at the head of the Terror. 

Harper’s Weekly, covering the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 observed that Corday is the only assassin history has forgiven. And even she was a fool and a tool of her enemies. “The heart recoils, whatever the excuse, the instinct of mankind curses the assassin.” In the famous painting, Marat’s arm is draped over the lip of the tub like a mother whispering pieta. No one in the room of David’s portrait suffers except Marat. 

When the executioner brought the red shirt and scissors, she cut her own hair and handed a lock to the court room artist who had been completing her portrait, begun at the trial only hours before. 

There was much debate after her death about the color of her hair. Her passport says chestnut, but people wanted to believe it had been lightened by powder. In the portrait it is brown and covered with a bonnet.

After her decapitation, a carpenter who made repairs to the guillotine lifted her head from the basket and slapped her on the cheek. Witnesses reported an expression of “unequivocal indignation” came over her face. This man was imprisoned for three months for his actions by order of the Jacobin councils, which also called for her body to be autopsied for the purpose of determining if Charlotte Corday had been a virgin. 

Reports indicate she was intact, which is one more fact that tells us nothing about whether she was virtuous or whether she failed.

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