Marie Antoinette's secret love 'affair' with Swedish count revealed by x-ray technology
Locked up under house arrest at the Palais des Tuileries on the right bank of the river Seine, with the French Revolution raging around her, Marie Antoinette wrote in a secret letter that “I love you madly and I can never be a moment without you.”
However, the tender words, which for 230 years were ineligible because they had been blotted out, were not for her husband, Louis XVI, but a Swedish count who was rumoured to be her lover.
Now, new technology has allowed researchers to reveal the exact content of the communications, and also show that it was the recipient, Axel von Fersen, who censored the text.
"Whether state secrets, escape plans, or evidence of a royal love affair, this presumably sensitive content has been puzzling historians for almost 150 years," said a report on the project in the US-based Science Advances journal.
"He decided to keep his letters instead of destroying them but redacting some sections, indicating that he wanted to protect the honour of the queen (or maybe also his own interests)," the study said.
Researchers from the Sorbonne, in Paris, used a novel method of X-ray imaging that was able to differentiate between the different compositions of ink used in the original text and the redactions.
In all they were able to reveal obscured passages from eight of the 15 letters studied, coming to the surprising conclusion that the censor of the letters was Fersen himself.
© Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images Marie Antoinette - Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Not all of the passages have been revealed, but one from November 2, 1791, finished: “Farewell, I am getting tired of ciphering; this is not my usual occupation and I am always afraid of making mistakes.”
Another said: “I will finish not without telling you my dear and loving friend that I love you madly and that I can never be a moment without adoring you.”
The French queen's missives were composed during the revolutionary upheaval of the early 1790s, the last just over a year before her execution by guillotine at the peak of republican fervor in the French capital.
The letters received by Fersen, who never married, were kept by his family until 1982, when they were purchased by the French national archives.
The project was first brought to public attention last year, when the Archives said the hidden portions showed the pair expressing themselves "using the terminology of love."
© Provided by The Telegraph Axel von Fersen - Alamy
“The choice of vocabulary (beloved, tender friend, adore, madly) attests a particular relationship between Marie Antoinette and Fersen even if there is an influence of the revolutionary torment, which favours a certain emotional intensity," the study said.
"In this time, people used a lot of flowery language - but here, it's really strong, really intimate language,” added Anne Michelin, a material analyst at the Sorbonne's Research Center for Conservation and co-author of the research.
“We know with this text, there is a love relationship.”
Beyond the specific case of this correspondence, the development of methodological tools to address this type of unredaction challenge is of great importance for historical and forensic sciences, the report says.
“We showed that macroscopic elemental mapping can be a powerful tool to disentangle iron-gall ink superimposition.
“We also demonstrated how several data processing tools and combinations can greatly enhance the legibility of hidden contents, even when the original maps are not initially promising.”
Ronald Schechter, a historian who studies Marie Antoinette's library and was not involved in the study, told Associated Press that the technique could also help decipher censored "phrases and passages in diplomatic correspondence, sensitive political correspondence, and other texts that have eluded historical analysis due to redactions."
Reference: The Telegraph: Jamie Johnson
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