While Marie Antoinette was confined to the Tuileries Palace during the French Revolution, she wrote secret letters to a suspected lover. But those letters were later censored. Now, technology is giving us a peek into what was originally written and the truth behind the queen's relationship with a Swedish Count.
It's hardly the first time scientists have used technology to delve deeper into historical artifacts and better understand what happened. But the letters from Marie Antoinette to Axel von Fersen presented a unique set of challenges, as whoever censored them did so by scratching out the lines with the same ink used in the letters' original writing. The consequence? There was not enough of a chemical difference between the inks to see what was lying underneath.
But finally, researchers found one effective method for reading the hidden texts: X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, which could tell apart the ink of the letters' writer versus its censor. A slight contrast in the chemical compounds of each ink, which were made up mainly of iron sulfate, was found. "The iron sulfate is not pure most of the time," explained Anne Michelin, assistant professor at the French National Museum of Natural History. "It contains other metallic elements, like copper and zinc. With that slight difference, we can differentiate the inks."
In fact, some of the letters had copper only in the original ink, making it even easier to separate the writing from the scratches. "Just with the map of the copper, I can read the text," Dr. Michelin shared. So what did the researchers find after uncovering as much as they could of the letters' original writings? The text contained terms of endearment, like "beloved," "tender friend," "adore," and "madly." So were the two figures having an affair?
"Very clearly, Marie Antoinette has a very deep affection for von Fersen, who at this stage of her existence is one of the pillars of her affection," said Catriona Seth, a French literature professor at the University of Oxford. But, according to the expert, this is hardly proof of an affair. Thinking about it from a modern perspective, Dr. Seth compared the sweet words to sending kissy-face emojis to a friend.
"You might use it to mean 'bye' to a friend, and yet someone who doesn't know about our emoji culture will assume you must be deeply in love," she pointed out. But one thing seems to be for sure: von Fersen himself was the censor of the famous letters. The ink used in scratching out the mysterious words matches the ink used by von Fersen in other documents.
You can read the complete study and results in Science Advances.