Marie Antoinette Autograph Letters: X-Rays Analysis Reveal Content of Her Censored Writings October 12 2021
In the late 18th Century, France was on the verge of upheaval, with many
groups vying for power. After an attempted escape to Varennes, France failed, the country's queen, Marie Antoinette, was intensely observed and tracked.
Nonetheless, she was able to smuggle letters to her acquaintance and suspected lover, the Swedish count Axel von Fersen.
Right: Marie Antoinette a la rose - Oil painting by French painter Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Le Brun (1755-1842).
Marie Antoinette was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1755, and married the future French King Louis XVI when she was just 15 years old. The young couple quickly came to represent the excesses of the despised French monarchy, and Antoinette herself became the focus of many rumors.
The royal family was compelled to live under the control of revolutionary authorities following the start of the French Revolution in 1789. The monarch was beheaded in 1793, and Marie Antoinette was imprisoned and prosecuted for fabricated crimes against the French republic. On October 16, 1793, she was convicted and sentenced to death by guillotine.
Before her death, and while the Queen did not enjoy popular support in France, she did have a pen pal friend. Von Fersen, a Swedish count and friend of the French queen, was her confidant. She managed to smuggle messages to the count, and he made copies of the letters, currently housed at the French national archives.
However, between the time the letters were penned and when they arrived at the archives, some unknown actor censored them, scrawling out phrases and lines with black ink. For years scholars have been wondering what mysteries lie within these 229-year-old letters.
DECIPHERING MARIE ANTOINETTE'S LETTERS
Researchers uncovered the letters' previously concealed sentences and phrases in a report published in the journal Science Advances. The researchers employed a method known as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, which can identify the chemical fingerprints of various inks without causing damage to the papers.
One of the copies of Marie Antoinette´s letters
The letters suggest Antoinette and von Fersen had a close relationship, but do not establish that they were romantically involved.
"It's always extremely intriguing to discover what makes up those ideas that a person deems really private and wishes to suppress," said Anne Michelin, a conservation researcher at the French Nativity Institute.
Michelin and her colleagues examined the censored parts of 15 letters using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. The researchers were able to decipher 8 of the letters and discovered consistent variations in the copper-to-iron and zinc-to-iron ratios of inks in the original texts and redactions, which they mapped to expose the original text. Statistical analyses were also employed by the researchers to explain other parts.
Deciphering Marie Antoinette´s letters
The redacted text revealed enthusiastic expressions of love between the French queen and the Swedish count, including phrases like "dear," "sensitive friend," "amour," and "madly."
According to the experts, many of the letters in the archives that were written by Marie-Antoinette were duplicates of the originals created by von Fersen. The act of copying letters was a regular practice at the time (like backup storage before hard drives). Von Fersen was the individual who censored the papers since the ratio of ink components in the writing and the blacked-out parts was identical.
To ensure that the line remained readable, the count deleted it and put writing above it in the same ink, altering "the letter of the 28th made my delight" to the gentler "the letter of the 28th reached me."
According to the experts, this was done for political reasons, to avoid a potentially embarrassing situation if the letters fell into the wrong hands.
Aniko Bezur, a researcher from Yale University’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, was part of the team that recently revealed the Vinland map, which represented Viking journeys to North America, was a forgery.
According to her, researchers have both problems and possibilities when dealing with material that is layered with other literature.
"Sometimes you get very lucky because the ink is different enough that you can tell, and other times you're unlucky,” Bezur said.
She added the writers of the study don't simply utilize one technique to reveal the writing; they explain a variety of ways that might be useful to other scholars.
Researchers concentrate on non-invasive approaches to preserve the records for future scientists who may have even better tools to utilize. "Everything we do in terms of managing the items has a cost," Bezur stated.
"We need to perform this type of cost-benefit analysis with the object's caretakers and owners so that we don't jeopardize future attempts at decoding if there are new techniques or new analytical approaches that can do a better job than we can."
Michelin was fascinated by the letters' combination of private connection and political concerns, as well as remarks on current events and politics.
"The words are strong, and we can perceive a very genuine bond. However, it is also impacted by the current crisis: it is fascinating to observe how political events and human relationships are intertwined."
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