A team of conservation scientists recently went through 230-year-old correspondence between Marie Antoinette and her close friend (and rumoured lover) Axel von Fersen, a Swedish count, and were able to reveal redacted portions of eight letters exchanged between the two.
The research team used X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, a well-proven method for looking at the chemistry of historic inks, to reveal what was written under the later scribbles, which were done with iron-gall ink. Beneath those censors, the team found words that a hitherto-unidentified person deemed too sensitive to see the light of day. They even found that some letters thought to be penned by Marie Antoinette were by another’s hand and were able to identify the culprit: the count himself. The team’s research is published today in Science Advances.
“Many letters written by Marie-Antoinette were copied by Fersen, either because the original was initially encrypted (to prevent the correspondence from being read by anyone, some of the letters were also encrypted) or simply because it was a common practice at the time,” Anne Michelin, a conservationist at the Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation and the study’s lead author, told Gizmodo in an email. “Political reasons may explain the existence of these copies: in times of crisis, for their security, it is sometimes necessary that the authors of the letters cannot be identified.”
Michelin added that making copies of letters was a pretty standard way of preserving correspondence and keeping track of exchanges (and you thought your inbox was hard to keep track of). But all normality of letter-copying aside, there’s reason enough to speculate on the close friendship between the count and the queen, as described on the Versailles website:
There is no solid historical proof that they were lovers, but enough mystery persists to maintain the myth. Nonetheless, their secret correspondence provides ample evidence of their mutual attachment, as do the count’s letters to friends and family. Writing to his sister Sophie Piper, von Fersen declared: “I have decided never to marry. It would be unnatural… I cannot belong to the one person I truly want… So I prefer to belong to nobody.”
Poor count. The censored text from the letters affirms how strongly the two felt about one another. Some of the redacted words were “beloved,” “tender friend,” “adore,” and “madly,” speaking to the intensity and intimacy of their relationship. The team was able to reveal language from eight of the 15 letters they inspected, which are held in the French National Archives.
As the team noted in their paper, revealing these censored portions of text does less to reveal any hidden components of the relationship (their closeness is a matter of public record) than it does to reveal how the correspondence between them ended up being rewritten and subsequently censored.
To reveal the writing that had been censored, the team compared the composition of the inks used to write the letters with the inks used to redact them. They used X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy, a tool for detecting chemical differences in materials. XRF is also a crucial component of the PIXL instrument on the Mars rover Perseverance, which will search for fossilized microbial life. The technology can be used to peer into the near and ancient past, thanks to the chemical signatures most everything leaves behind.
“The technique is not new, but it is good to see that, as said by authors, it is becoming a standard and easy to use technique at laboratories/museums,” wrote Marine Cotte, a beamline scientist at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility who was not affiliated with the research, in an email to Gizmodo. Cotte was part of a team that used X-ray fluorescence to unpack the chemical composition of 5,000-year-old Egyptian inks.
Compared to ancient Egypt, ink used around the French Revolution isn’t old. But the recent team had other questions besides what words were redacted: They wanted to figure out who redacted them, if possible, and who wrote the letters in the first place. Besides learning that some letters thought to be penned by Marie Antoinette were actually copies written by Fersen, the team found that Fersen was responsible for the redactions. The type of ink used to cover up text was identified as the same that Fersen used to write another letter. In a different letter, Fersen added words above a redacted passage, as was confirmed by a handwriting specialist, further corroborating the team’s results.
“The authors did it well and took it one step further. While the instrument they used is commercially available, they were very innovative on the data processing part, using tools used in other fields to find the hidden patterns in the XRF data,” said Matthias Alfeld, a molecular and structural archaeologist at TU Delft in the Netherlands who specialises in X-ray spectroscopy and was unaffiliated with the recent research.
“While their developments made some redacted texts readable and contributed to the progress in the field, they admit themselves that they only made 8 out of 15 investigated passages readable again. So, there is lots of work still to be done for our community,” Alfeld wrote in an email to Gizmodo.
Besides the unread letters between the two royals, XRF can be used to reconstruct other redacted missives or text that’s simply faded due to poor conservation. Art historians have also been able to reveal hidden paintings under finished works, including ones by Picasso.