Bibliotheca Corviniana: 14901990 April 6October 6, 1990
Bibliotheca Corviniana: 14901990
The year 1989–1990 has been one of the most dramatic in remembered history: a general revolution in Europe, unparalleled in time of peace, at least since “the year of revolutions,” 1848. Indeed, it has many similarities with that year: the crumbling of an imposed international order; the rediscovery, by the nations of Eastern Europe, of their national identity, their long-suppressed individualism, their continuous history. Of course such rediscovery is always selective, and it can be painful. The recent controversy among German historians, the famous Historikerstreit, has shown that. But one can generally find the right elements to select, and cultural history offers a safe field for commemoration. So it is very appropriate that the restoration of Hungarian freedom and the return of Hungary to its place in Europe and in European culture should coincide with an anniversary which could have been devised for the purpose. For 1990 is the fifth centenary of the death of Matthias Corvinus, the king who, it can be said, brought medieval Hungary into the Europe to which it has now returned.
The centenary is being celebrated by an ambitious exhibition in the National Széchényi Library in the old royal palace of Buda. It is an exhibition of all the relics—never before reassembled—of Matthias’s most famous creation: his library. In opening the exhibition, the Archbishop of Esztergom, Prince Primate of Hungary—himself a symbol of the public revolution—touched lightly on the happy coincidence of dates; and indeed it will not bear much weight, for the exhibition must have been planned long ago. The intellectual preparation takes us back to the 1960s, when the two splendid and scholarly works of Ilona Berkovits and Csaba Csapodi and Klára Csapodi-Gárdonyi—the basis of the present catalog—were published. At that time, so soon after the brutal repression of 1956, the idea of such a coincidence would have seemed chimerical. The practical organization, especially under the previous regime, must have taken long and weary months, for the manuscripts exhibited are widely scattered. Of more than a thousand volumes believed to have been assembled in the original library, only 216 are known to remain. Only thirty-nine of them are in Hungary; the rest are dispersed in fifty-two public or private collections in twelve other countries and three continents.
The timing of the exhibition is thus the result of chance, not design. But it provides an opportunity to consider the topic which it commemorates: the historic function of Hungary in the fifteenth century as the eastern bastion of Christian Europe against the Turks and the accidental function of Matthias in establishing the first deliberate outpost of the Italian, and specifically the Florentine, Renaissance north of the Alps.
First the defense of the West. Throughout history, Europe has been invaded by nomads from the East, and each wave of such invaders, if they have stayed and formed stable states, has found itself, in turn, obliged to turn round and face the next: By the fourteenth century, when …