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?

After 1472, and the windfall from the two disgraced bishops, Matthias seems to have lost interest, for a time, in his library. Perhaps it was on account of that episode. No doubt it was depressing to have been so betrayed by his old mentor and his old friend, and the disillusion may have spread to their common interests. For Matthias was now building on a great scale: “Palaces, gardens, fountains, temples, fortresses,” the work of his Florentine architect Chimenti Camicia.3 Besides, there was so much else to do. However, the real debt which Matthias owed to his first mentors was not forgotten in the long run. After the suicide of Pannonius, he would take steps to ensure that his poems were collected and preserved, and he would follow the example of Vitéz in having his own son taught Greek.

Unfortunately it was just at this time of temporary distraction or diversion from books that a German printer, Andreas Hess, came to Buda and set up a press. Matthias’s library was now famous, and it was clear that his books were for use and not merely for ostentation. The copyists and miniaturists in Florence and Venice, Ferrara and Naples were busy on his behalf; he had his own copyists at Buda: Why should not this new German technology be used to quicken the process with good Gothic type and expressive woodcuts? Alas, there was no royal patronage for Hess and, as yet, not enough readers in Hungary. Even royal example could not persuade Magyar nobles to read. Native literature was still basically oral, locked in its impenetrable language. Even the higher clergy, if literate, were too busy with administration to read works of literature. Though there were some cultivated Italian bishops, there was not another Vitéz, or another Pannonius. King Matthias had founded a university at Pozsony—alias Pressburg, alias Bratislava—in 1467, but it did not last, any more than the previous university at Pécs—alias Fünfkirchen—founded by the Angevin King Louis the Great exactly a century before. There were simply not enough candidates. Those Hungarian clergy who sought university degrees (or university life without degrees) could get all they needed in Vienna or Cracow. Like the first Hungarian universities, the first Hungarian printing press was wound up.

However, the first great library was not. In 1476 a new impetus revived it. In that year Matthias married, as his second wife, Beatrice of Aragon, from the Aragonese dynasty which had replaced the Angevins at Naples. This brought a new Italian influx into Buda. The Aragonese kings of Naples had a fine library, and the new queen brought her own books which formed a separate collection in the palace. Naples was a sophisticated city: Pontano presided over a literary academy there; and the new courtiers and officials who came to Hungary reanimated Matthias’s Italian interests. So, once again, the word went out to the workshops of Italy; the copyists, miniaturists, and binders were mobilized; new names appear—almost all Florentines—and in particular, a new librarian, Taddeo Ugoleto, also from Florence: a great organizer who quickened and supervised every department, traveled abroad to inspect foreign libraries, improved the furniture of the library, marshaled scribes and correctors, commissioned books, arranged publicity, competed with the Medici, scouring Greece for Greek manuscripts, and, in the intervals, taught young John Corvinus Greek. As the fame of the library grew, some of the most famous Italian authors, eager for patronage, sent their work and offered their services to the greatest royal bibliophile beyond the Alps.

One of them was Angelo Poliziano. He had been taught Greek at Florence by Argyropoulos, whom Matthias had sought to lure to Buda in 1471. He now offered to translate Greek works for the library. Another was the most influential of all Italian writers of the time, the philosopher par excellence of the Renaissance, Marsilio Ficino, the founder of the Neoplatonic Academy in Florence. In 1477 Ficino sent his life of Plato to his friend Francesco Bandini in Buda. In his preface he envisaged the spirit of Plato begging to be sent not back to Athens, now desolate under Turkish rule, but to Buda, where the great and wise King Matthias was rebuilding the temple of Athena and refounding schools of Greek letters. Matthias failed to lure Ficino himself to Buda, but from now on there would be a neoplatonic circle there, inspired from Florence, organized by Bandini, and the classics of Greek neoplatonism were in the library. Buda even forestalled Florence in one respect, if, as we are told, it was the example of Matthias which inspired Lorenzo de’ Medici to found his Greek and Latin library.

Certainly Greek was at the center of the library, as of the Renaissance itself. To the men of the Renaissance, who believed, like the philosophers of the eighteenth century, in the essential unity of human knowledge, the first step towards the new Englightenment was the complete recovery, as far as possible, of Greek learning. Matthias himself, as a reader, might choose history—the exploits of Greek and Roman heroes, lives of Alexander, poems of the Punic wars—but the purpose of the library went beyond his personal taste, or even his personal glory. It was to serve this general “revival of letters.” So Greek texts were to be found, corrected, and translated into Latin, “the universal language.” The Greek manuscripts, in themselves, were of secondary importance, for few would read them: they received no special attention—no illuminated transcripts, no rare bindings. They were raw material for the translators, whose work, carefully copied and corrected and exquisitely decorated, would then be available to be read. Of the 650 Corvinian manuscripts whose existence and identity have been established, one third are the works of Greek Antiquity, and two thirds of those had not yet appeared in print. The library was thus to open the way to a new intellectual world.

In 1485 Matthias entered captured Vienna at the head of eight thousand troops. It was the culmination of his western campaign for the sake of which, say his critics, he had allowed the Sultan to mop up the South Slavs and prepare his next forward spring. He was now at the height of his power: undisputed king of Bohemia and Hungary, richer than any of his predecessors. The imperial crown seemed within his reach. If only he could ensure the succession of young John Corvinus, so carefully educated to be a humanist prince, he might hope to be remembered as the founder of a native dynasty, a new Renaissance monarchy ruling a multinational empire, able to withstand the pressure from the Muslim East. The library would be not only his monument but the intellectual arsenal of such a monarchy. He would replace Charles V. Buda (for Vienna was not yet the imperial city) would be the capital of a Hungaro-Austrian empire.

From that year, we are told, the operations of the library quickened:

Earlier manuscripts with predominantly plain illuminations were succeeded by gorgeous Renaissance masterpieces from the hands of such Florentine masters as Attavante dei Attavanti, Giovanni Boccardi, Gherado and Monte di Giovanni and Francesco Antonio del Cherico. Border decorations begin to display emblems encountered nowhere in earlier Corvinian manuscripts, the symbolic emblems of King Matthias;…miniature portraits of Matthias and Beatrice are also novel features in the new manuscripts.4

In 1489 one of Matthias’s agents in Florence wrote that “the king intends to outshine every other monarch with his library, as he does in all other points, and I think he will.”

It was all in vain. Next year Matthias died. His son did not succeed him. The lesser nobles, the constant supporters of the Hunyadi family, would have liked to have him, but the magnates had had enough: they wanted a king whom, as they said, they “could hold by the forelock.” Having got him, they soon pulled down the edifice of Matthias’s Renaissance monarchy. The new taxes were abolished. The mercenary army was disbanded. Work on the library ceased.

Then, after thirty wasted years, the Ottoman threat returned. In 1521 Belgrade, which John Hunyadi had saved, fell at last to Suleiman the Magnificent. In 1526, on the fatal field of Mohács, the Hungarian army was destroyed and the new young king killed. Matthias’s new Italianate castle of Buda was occupied, its great iron doors and statues carried off and melted down. The library was pillaged, its contents either destroyed or delivered as loot to the Sultan’s palace. Fifteen years later Buda would become, for 150 years, the capital of a Turkish pashalik.

Happily, some at least of the contents of the library had leaked out. Queen Beatrice had carried a few of them back to Naples. John Corvinus had kept some, which his widow, on her second marriage, would take with her to Germany. Many splendidly illuminated works, still in the shops of the Attavanti or the di Giovanni in Florence, would be snapped up by the Medici or by the prior of the Dominicans in Venice. The emperor Maximilian, a great collector, contrived to extract a few through his humanist envoys, Johannes Cuspinian and Bishop Gremper, who also took the opportunity to pick up choice pieces for themselves. So did Maximilian’s poet laureate Johannes Köll, alias Brassicanus, and other humanists.

Even after the disastrous battle of Mohács, some documents escaped. The widowed Queen Mary fled from Buda, before the Turks arrived, taking with her the marvelous Roman missal by Attavante, now in Brussels, where she was governor for her brother, Charles V. Other volumes, having reached Constantinople, trickled out again as gifts to favored ambassadors, and turned up later in the hands of private collectors. Among them were some unique texts: the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus’s work on Byzantine ceremonies, the Byzantine chronicle of Nicephorus Callistus, and the description of Matthias’s library by his Florentine agent, Naldo Naldi. All these seem to have leaked out in the sixteenth century. After that, the curtain fell. Long afterward, two successive sultans, Abdul Aziz in 1869 and Abdul Hamid in 1877, presented, between them, twenty-six manuscripts to the Emperor Franz Josef: all the rest, it was assumed, had perished, victims of “the combined destructive work of carelessness, fires, worms, mildew, and mice.”

It is from the undelivered codices of the workshops of the Florentine illuminators, the furtive leakages of the sixteenth century, and the sudden generosity of nineteenth century Sultans, that the present splendid exhibition in the National Széchény Library has been recreated. The exhibits came from the old Austro-Hungarian empire and its dynastic extension in Poland: from Budapest and Vienna, Esztergom and Györ, Salzburg and Melk, Prague and Olomouc in Bohemia and Moravia, Zagreb in Croatia, and Torún in Poland; also from Habsburg capitals in the West—Madrid, Brussels, Besançon.

Italian libraries are also well-represented: Rome, of course; Florence thanks to the Medici; Modena thanks to the Este family. There are copies with special associations: János Vitéz has corrected his own copies; a work of Xenophon was presented to Pannonius by the son of Guarino; the copy of Tacitus now at Yale was a present to Beatus Rhenanus, the friend of Erasmus, and has his inscription.

On the illuminated title pages other coats of arms and emblems painted over those of Matthias—the white eagle of Poland, the golden balls of the Medici, the escutcheon of the king of France—record subsequent migrations. The unique work of Naldi has come from Torún in Poland (it had belonged to a secondary school there); that of Porphyrogenitus from Leipzig. Many works have come from Germany, especially from the great library at Wolfenbüttel in Hanover formed by another princely bibliophile, Duke Augustus.

Oxford has sent Seneca’s tragedies, picked up by an early English ambassador to Constantinople. New York has sent three manuscripts: one from the New York Public Library and two (one of them very splendid) from the Pierpont Morgan Library: these last had disappeared mysteriously from the Jesuit church in Rome in 1870. The library of the old Etruscan town of Volterra has sent an epithalamium for a proposed marriage of John Corvinus, which did not come off. It contains the best portrait of Matthias. (See the illustration on page 10.) A manuscript from Uppsala in Sweden was, I suppose, part of Queen Christina’s loot from the sack of Prague in 1648.

All this is a mere fragment—but what a fragment!—of what was once the greatest library after that of the Vatican. It would be agreeable to dwell on the happy coincidence of two Hungarian renaissances, but historical parallels are not to be forced, and perhaps it is better to go no further than the Archbishop of Esztergom—himself the successor of János Vitéz—and leave it as a suggestion.

This Issue

July 19, 1990