X-ray technology reveals spicy writing in Marie Antoinette’s letters


The year was 1791, and against the backdrop of a bloody revolution in France, Marie-Antoinette begins a sordid and secret correspondence.

Written under strict surveillance at the Tuileries Palace – and only two years before Marie herself faced the guillotine – she wrote letter after letter to her friend (and alleged lover), Swedish Count Axel von Fersen. These letters have the potential to reveal not only historical romance, but also crucial insight into recent years of French aristocracy.

That’s if they weren’t covered by redactions.

With black ink covering entire sections of text, these letters and their content have intrigued historians for over 150 years. But now, using a combination of x-ray technology and chemical analysis, scientists have finally found a way to safely uncover these hidden phrases.

Anne Michelin, a curator of heritage documents at the Center for Research on Conservation in France, says he provides insight into the events of the time from a rather personal perspective.

“It is a secret, personal correspondence … and it is above all a rather exceptional document as testimony of a troubled time”, says Michelin. Reverse. “It shows how political events exacerbate emotions. We also see that the intimate aspects of their relationship mingle with political issues. “

The results were published in the newspaper on Friday Scientists progress.

Queen of France during the revolution of the 1790s, Marie-Antoinette is infamous for saying (allegedly) “let them eat cake!” »In reference to starving Parisians. Sepia Times / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

What’s new – Using modern technology to look back in history is far from a new hobby, but when it comes to reading old letters and texts, write researchers who have rolled or erased scrolls read much easier to manage as the redacted.

What makes written texts more delicate, Michelin explains, is that the ink used for the drafting can be exactly the same as the original text itself. Such was the case with Marie-Antoinette’s letters.

“Both are iron gall ink with very small differences in composition,” explains Michelin. “So it’s difficult to separate them.

This roadblock means Michelin and his colleagues had to dig a little deeper to find techniques that could crack this code.

“It’s … a very long job, almost different for each word,” says Michelin. “With each approach, adaptations – by modifying certain parameters of the algorithms – are possible and allow to improve the results.”

Why is this important – Much more than mere fodder for historical tabloids, the benefits of this research are twofold. The discovery of the lost writings of Marie Antoinette and von Fersen may provide new political insight into this moment in history and how a tender correspondence could be so simultaneously linked to political struggles. Such a juxtaposition is still common today, although we have traded feathers for keyboards.

The results of this study may also provide future research teams with a new toolkit for uncovering the lost text of other letters written in the story, potentially opening the door to even more untold stories.

As the revolution raged outside, Marie-Antoinette wrote letters to her friend and potential lover, Swedish Count Axel von Fersen.Heritage Images / Hulton Fine Art Collection / Getty Images

What did they do – The main x-ray technique the team used was something called “X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy,” which helped them determine the chemical makeup of different inks. If the ink for drafting and writing were different colors or even made up of very different chemicals, it would be much easier to disentangle them. But in many cases, these inks were almost identical in composition, Michelin says.

Unlike previous archival techniques, which could use visible light (which would have been totally absorbed by the black ink of these letters) or 3D tomography techniques, Michelin says the team is restricting their analysis to chemical analyzes. 2D.

See also: The decrypted “dead letters” of the pioneering renaissance of a new way of decoding history

The team applied this x-ray technique to high-detail scans of the letters redacted sections and compared to the chemical ratios of different elements, for example, copper, in each section. In total, the team was able to extract redacted sentences from eight of the Queen’s letters.

“The redacted passages are the most intimate passages of the correspondence, specifies Michelin. “Those where a vocabulary of the romantic relationship appears, [such as] “My dear friend”, “beloved”, [and] ‘love.'”

Using very precise scanners, the team was able to disentangle the written text by chemical analysis.@CRC

Through this analysis, the team concluded that it may have been Fersen himself who wrote these surviving letters.

“He decided to keep his letters instead of destroying them, but redacting certain sections, indicating that he wanted to protect the honor of the queen – or perhaps his own interests as well,” the researchers write. “In any case, these redactions are a way of identifying the passages which he considered to be private.”

And after – Going forward, Michelin says the team is looking to expand its technological arsenal to include machine learning.

“Sometimes the text is difficult to read, and we hope to be able to learn in depth thanks to the unwritten writings of Fersen and Marie-Antoinette,” says Michelin. “Today, this type of work exists only on manuscripts in good [readable] condition in order to make automatic transcriptions of handwritten historical texts.

Abstract: During the French Revolution, Marie-Antoinette, queen of France and wife of Louis XVI, maintained a very secret correspondence with the Swedish count Axel von Fersen, her close friend and alleged lover. An unidentified censor then wrote some sections of the letters exchanged. This presumably sensitive content has intrigued historians for nearly 150 years. We report the methodology that succeeded in unraveling this historical mystery. X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy was used in macro scanning mode on the drafted sections. Specific data processing has been applied to improve the readability of hidden entries (elementary reports, reduction of statistical data, merging of multimodal images, demixing procedure and image processing). This methodology made it possible to reveal the written content of eight letters, shedding new light not only on the Marie-Antoinette and Fersen relationship but also on the author of the essays. It will also be of great interest in other historical and forensic cases involving the disentangling of superimposed multi-elemental materials.

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