Friday, October 15, 2010

Le sang d'un roi

"The blood of a king." That's why this otherwise artful gourd takes on a more sinister character. It was a pivotal moment in French history, a few years after the revolution had begun. The monarchy had been abolished and the king was stripped of his title by the Republican government. He had been arrested and imprisoned for high treason, and a reprieve had been voted down. So on the morning of January 21, 1793, Louis XVI (1754-1793) was executed before a large crowd. His spiritual advisor, English priest Henry Essex Edgeworth, accompanied him and described what he heard and saw:
"He was proceeding, when a man on horseback, in the national uniform, and with a ferocious cry, ordered the drums to beat. Many voices were at the same time heard encouraging the executioners. They seemed reanimated themselves, in seizing with violence the most virtuous of Kings, they dragged him under the axe of the guillotine, which with one stroke severed his head from his body. All this passed in a moment. The youngest of the guards, who seemed about eighteen, immediately seized the head, and showed it to the people as he walked round the scaffold; he accompanied this monstrous ceremony with the most atrocious and indecent gestures. At first an awful silence prevailed; at length some cries of 'Vive la Republique!' were heard. By degrees the voices multiplied and in less than ten minutes this cry, a thousand times repeated became the universal shout of the multitude, and every hat was in the air."
Immediately afterward, the excited crowd members rushed the scaffold to dip handkerchiefs into the spilled blood as souvenirs. Among them was Maximilien Bourdaloue, whose name is inscribed on the gourd along with images of key figures of the French Revolution. The gunpowder gourd became a reliquary for this morbid keepsake and was supposedly given to Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte before passing into the hands of an Italian family at the turn of the 20th c. The family contacted geneticists at the University of Bologna to test the residual blood in the gourd, although the handkerchief had long since vanished. Member of the team Davide Pettener said, "It’s a very strange story. We thought it was a joke at first because we work on population genetics. But we realized it’s very important from a historic point of view.”

The scientists scraped out 5 small samples of the dried blood to analyze the DNA, and published their results in Forensic Science International: Genetics. A gene from the Y chromosome (inherited from the father), indicated a male with blue eyes, which the king was known to have. They hope to match mitochondrial DNA (inherited from the mother) to a descendant of either the king or his mother. If they can't find a living relative, they will petition the French authorities for permission to take a sample from the dried heart of Louis XVI’s son, Dauphin Louis-Charles, who died at age 10. This relic resides in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Denis outside Paris. “A match on the Y chromosome of the Dauphin will immediately authenticate the blood as belonging to the king Louis XVI,” says team leader Carles Lalueza-Fox of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. At that point the gourd, presently valued at $700,000, would presumably be reappraised.

No comments:

Post a Comment

You may add your comments here.