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 catalog1—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 the Ottoman Turks crossed the Bosporus and destroyed the remains of the Bulgarian empire, the Hungarians were in the front line of the battle. Concentrated behind the protective frontiers of the Danube and the Carpathian mountains, they formed a compact society; but with the extinction, in 1301, of their original dynasty, their political structure was weak. The terrible Tatar invasions, which had overrun and desolated Russia, Poland, and Hungary, had both exposed and, indirectly, increased that weakness. An oligarchy of castle-owning magnates had risen above the ruin to dominate the country, and the work of elected foreign kings (who were often kings of Bohemia or Poland too), if they had reigned long enough to be effective, was generally undone, through chronic default of male heirs, in the anarchy of a disputed succession. Nevertheless, in the critical years of the Ottoman advance, after the disastrous European crusade which was annihilated at Nicopolis in 1399, it was the Hungarian chivalry which formed the only force de frappe at the disposal of Christendom, and it was a Hungarian hero, John Hunyadi, who alone seemed able to use that force to protect it.
To the oligarchy of Hungary, John Hunyadi was an outsider: the son of a Vlakh immigrant, a despised Romanian. The Romanians indeed claim him today, calling him Iancu of Hunedoara; but the Hungarians long ago saved him for Hungary by declaring him the illegitimate son of their previous king, the Emperor Sigismund. He was also illiterate; but that, in Hungary, was hardly to be noticed. For a generation, Hunyadi, who had financial as well as military talents and became Voevod (or governor) and the richest landowner of Transylvania, was effective ruler of the kingdom. After a career of (not always consistent) success, he died in 1456, in a blaze of glory, after his greatest achievement: the preservation of the threatened southern bastion of Hungary, Belgrade.
It was as Hunyadi’s son that Matthias, known to history as Corvinus, at the age of seventeen, was elected king of Hungary. Being socially an upstart, he was not loved by the oligarchy; his constant support came from the lesser nobles, the gentry. But times were critical, and he used the crisis skillfully to enhance his power. To deal with immediate military threats, he raised a mercenary army, mainly from the broken remnants of the Hussite rebels in Bohemia; and being thus secure, he imposed large taxes both to pay the army and for other purposes, for he had inherited his father’s financial sense. That kept the magnates in their place. He could always plead the danger from the Turks: for most of his reign he faced that formidable Ottoman sultan, who had just captured Byzantium, Mehmed II, “the Conqueror.” In fact he did not challenge the Conquerer: entrusting frontier battles to his proxies, he left the Sultan to digest his rich meal, reserving his own army for other purposes.
In all this he reminds us of the Italian princes of his time. They too were upstarts. They too used mercenary armies to outmaneuver their domestic rivals. They too were careful not to weaken those valuable instruments by overexposure in serious war. The kings of Hungary of course knew this; they were familiar with Italian politics. The Magyar magnates might be a race apart—landlocked, self-contained, behind the barriers of their rivers, their mountains, their unintelligible language; but their foreign kings and their officials moved in the complex political world around them, and particularly in the Italian world. They had dealings with Rome, where all those abortive crusades were planned, with Naples, which had supplied two Hungarian kings, and, above all, with Venice. Hungary had common borders with Venice in Croatia and Dalmatia. Dalmatia, disputed between them, was the gate through which Italian influences came to Hungary; and it was Venice which supplied the ships while Hungary provided the armies for those crusades. And then there were the Italian ambassadors who came to Buda on special occasions: cultivated, sophisticated men who brought not only political and diplomatic expertise but new ideas: the humanist ideas of the Renaissance. Among them were some famous men: Ambrogio Traversari, Francesco Barbaro, Francesco Filelfo, Poggio Bracciolini….
One of the Italians who came to Buda is of particular interest. He was Pier Paolo Vergerio, a native of Capo d’Istria at the head of the Adriatic, where Hungary met the sea. He had studied at Padua and taught at Florence, had learned Greek from the famous Byzantine émigré Chrysoloras, had been inspired by Salutati and Bruni, and inspired in turn Guarino of Verona. His great work was on humanist education. In 1414 he had accompanied the King-Emperor Sigismund to the Council of Constance; then he had returned with him to Buda and had lived there for twenty-six years, a familiar figure in the royal chancellery in the generation before Matthias, and a source of Florentine humanist ideas.
In Buda, Vergerio came to know a Hungarian who also came from the Adriatic region, and who also had served King Sigismund, János Vitéz, bishop of Várad (now Oradea in Romania). Vitéz was a supporter of the Hunyadi clan, chancellor to John Hunyadi, and then Archbishop of Esztergom and Primate of Hungary. A learned man who acquired Italian tastes and humanist ideas of education, he was also a great builder and a great bibliophile who read the manuscripts he collected and corrected them with his own hand. In his episcopal palaces he created libraries and held philosophical discussions; and he sent his nephew, János Csezmiczei, to Italy, to Ferrara, to study under Vergerio’s friend Guarino of Verona. There the young man learned Greek and collected books for his uncle and for himself. He would become famous as a Latin poet under the name Janus Pannonius, “the bright star of the Hungarian Renaissance.” On his return to Hungary he would become bishop of Pécs and would found there the first library of Greek books in Hungary.
John Hunyadi, the crusading hero, might himself be illiterate, but he valued learning and he put Bishop Vitéz in charge of the education of his son. The bishop and his nephew, the poet, were the early mentor and the friend of Matthias, and it was they who inspired him with the idea of creating a great royal library in Buda. The pedigree of ideas is clear. As the Hungarian historian Jozsef Huszti writes, “without Vergerio there could have been no Johannes Vitéz, without Vitéz no Janus Pannonius, and without these two no humanist court of Matthias, no memorable Hungarian Renaissance.”2 The concrete result of this influence was the library which Matthias began to assemble, probably, about 1467. By 1471 he had his own Italian miniaturist buying books for him in Rome, Italian humanists were sending books to him as a known collector and possible patron, and he was trying to attract to Buda another well-known Byzantine émigré, John Argyropoulos, who was then teaching Greek in Florence.
Unfortunately the friendship between Matthias and the Vitéz family did not last. In 1472 the old archbishop, who had encouraged John Hunyadi on his crusades, decided that Matthias—who was now king of Bohemia too—was directing too much of his attention to the West and neglecting the Ottoman threat in the East. He therefore mounted a conspiracy to replace him with the King of Poland. He also involved his nephew in this conspiracy. It failed; the archbishop died in disgrace; and Pannonius fled to his native Croatia, where he committed suicide to escape trial. Matthias thereupon confiscated both their libraries, which went to swell his own.
Was it true that Matthias sacrificed the defense of Christendom in the East to his personal ambitions in the West? His own answer, in effect, was that Hungary, by itself, was too small a power to face the Turks, who could muster such huge armies from their conquered lands. It needed the backing from other Christian kingdoms which only political union could give—the embryo of the later Habsburg empire—and this could perhaps be achieved in the period of détente made possible by his father’s great victory at Belgrade. Others, of course, would differ, espeically the Romanian marcher princes: Stephen the Great of Moldavia and the terrible Vlad the Impaler, alias Dracula, of Wallachia, who were left to fight alone. Matthias indeed kept Vlad as a captive, or hostage, at his court for twelve years. That helped to keep the peace. Foreign visitors looked with awe on that fabulous Wallachian warrior-chief; his appearance, they said, was “cruel and terrible”: short and stocky, bull-necked, with a thin red face, bulging temples, and green eyes—a frightening figure to find in that cultivated royal court. The Romanian historians support their princes; as the Hungarians would no doubt say, They would, wouldn’t they?
Ilona Berkovits, Illuminated Manuscripts from the Library of Matthias Corvinus (Budapest: 1964); Csaba Csapodi and Klára Csapodi–Gárdonyi, Bibliotheca Corviniana (Shannon: Irish University Press, 1969).↩
Cited by Csapodi, Bibliotheca Corviniana p. 30.↩