The Renaissance in Hungary


THE power of the Hungarian Kingdom reached its peak at the end of the Middle Ages under the reign of King Matthias I (1458-90). In the fifteenth century, Christian princes all over Europe, and particularly in its central and eastern parts, were alarmed by the successful military campaigns of the Turkish Empire. After the Fall of Constantinople the Turks swiftly advanced north on the Balkan peninsula, and within three years the Ottoman Army was standing at the gates of the southernmost fortified city of the Hungarian realm: Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade). It was the decisive victory by János Hunyadi in 1456 that stopped the Turkish Empire’s northward thrust for a long time, but the relief of Belgrade, in commemoration of which the Pope ordered all the church bells of Christian Europe to toll daily at noon, was Hunyadi’s last feat; he died a few weeks later of a fever contracted in the camp. Hunyadi was not the King of Hungary but the Regent. His son Matthias also became a national hero, and was at least his father’s equal if not his superior in fame and in the reverence in which he was held by posterity; he became the elected King of Hungary. Matthias, though not so brilliant a military leader as his father, was unquestionably a great soldier, besides being a skilful diplomat, a keen administrator, an intelligent legislator, a brilliant linguist, and a discriminating patron of the arts and letters. His character has been remembered ever since in popular tradition and folktales as Matthias the Just. What impressed his contemporaries, foreign and Hungarian alike, was his ostentatious extravagance; the splendour of his court surpassed anything seen in Eastern Europe before. In a word, he was a true Renaissance Prince.

Thanks to his flamboyance the Renaissance reached Hungary at an early date. Matthias, brought up by eminent Humanists, was passionately fond of the new artistic luxuries, and highly prized the relics of classical Greece and Rome. After he married Beatrix of Aragon (daughter of the King of Naples), representatives of Italian Renaissance found a second home in his court.

The Renaissance literally signified a ‘rebirth’ of the Arts and Sciences. It signposted the birth of a new era when the premises of the medieval Weltanschauung no longer seemed valid. Religion was no longer able to provide satisfactory answers to the questions that interested man; society and human relations could no longer be explained in theological terms. Man suddenly found himself the centre of his own interest, and no longer the devout champion of the other world. Princes were unashamed in their love of worldly values, of power, splendour, and lust.

Contemporary descriptions of the court of Matthias provide splendid pictures of the feasts where, after exotic and highly spiced dishes, Matthias and his guests – Hungarian lords, foreign diplomats, scholars, astronomers – indulged in spirited and witty conversations, with frequent references to the newly discovered and fashionable authors of Greece and Rome, were entertained by musicians, magicians and artists, and listened to poetry being recited. Apart from these descriptions of Matthias’s grandeur, only a few architectural relics of his reign and part of his library survived.

Matthias’s collection of books – most of them lavishly illuminated manuscripts in fine bindings – is known as the Corvina*i.e. Corvinus (Latin: corvus = crow), an allusion to the raven in the family crest of the Hunyadis. Library. The greater part of the collection was destroyed during the Turkish wars, but we know of several hundred surviving volumes scattered all over the world. Most of the codices are now housed, after long vicissitudes, in the Hungarian National Library, but individual volumes are to be found in the British Library in London as well as in the New York Public Library, and many more may come to light.*The latest Corvina to turn up came from an English private collection and was sold at Sotheby’s in 1974 for about $100,000. It was not one of the particularly outstanding examples of the Corvina Library-for some of these sumptuous volumes were executed by the best craftsmen of Italy and were unparalleled north of the Alps.

Matthias also patronized the latest technical invention – latest as far as the Western world was concerned – and in 1472 a printing press was set up in the capital, Buda. In 1473 the first book to be printed in Hungary was produced there by András Hess; it was the Hungarian Chronicle in Latin, predating the first book published by Caxton in England. It was also Matthias who founded the University of Pozsony in 1467 – unfortunately a short-lived creation.*There were two universities founded in the Middle Ages in Hungary. The first, the University of Pécs, was founded by Louis the Great in 1367, followed by the University of Óbuda (1389). Both of them had a short existence only. Much of the architecture suffered during the wars that were to follow, but those buildings which did survive, in particular the magnificent Coronation Church of Buda, prove to modern tourists that Matthias’s capital was one of the most elegant cities of the Europe of his time. Recent excavations have unearthed another fine example of Renaissance architecture of his age, the Royal Palace at Visegrád.

Who were the people surrounding King Matthias? He invited to his court learned foreign Humanists, and wandering scholars, usually from Italy. Two of these foreigners ought to be mentioned here, for their works became part of the Hungarian cultural heritage. Antonio Bonfini (1434-1503) came to Hungary in 1486 seeking a position at the court of Queen Beatrix, and was eventually commissioned by the King to write a history of Hungary. His history (Rerum Ungaricarum Decades Quattuor et Dimidia, 1487-96) was finished only after the death of Matthias, and published much later (Basel, 1543). It narrated events up to 1496. Bonfini’s work is a compilation of Hungarian and foreign sources embellished with the Humanist technique, but when he talks of his own age he becomes more original. His real power lies in characterizing his contemporaries vividly, describing what he has seen and dramatizing scenes. He is a victim, of course, of the absurdities of the day: for example, he has traced the Hunyadis’ ancestry back to a Roman consul, Matthias being a direct descendant of Jove and a nymph. But his main message, the depiction of the idolized figure of Matthias as the mighty prince of the Hungarian national Renaissance, influenced Hungarian historians for a long time.

The other foreigner, Galeotto Marzio, was also Italian. He became acquainted with the poet Janus Pannonius in Ferrara and visited Hungary several times, staying for long periods. For a time he was librarian to the Royal Library, the Corvina. He also lectured at the University of Bologna. On account of his philosophical views he had to appear before the Inquisition, and it was King Matthias who saved him. A versatile person, he wrote on widely differing subjects. His manuscript, written in Latin, Of the Remarkable, Wise and Amusing Sayings and Deeds of King Matthias, was published posthumously (Vienna, 1563). It is a collection of anecdotes and personal reminiscences of the court of Matthias as seen by a foreigner, frequently witty and entertaining, and always praising Matthias as the true Renaissance Prince, or paying tribute to his eloquence and depth of knowledge. The work displays definite literary ambition, and it is also remarkable as a source of information on the daily life in the court of King Matthias. As Galeotto did not know Hungarian, he could report only business conducted in Latin in the court, yet he did not fail to remark that the noble Hungarian lords and the King were best entertained when singers praised the heroic deeds of their forefathers in their native tongue. Moreover, Matthias’s human weakness also emerges from the anecdotes (e.g. he was an excellent orator in Latin: nevertheless Galeotto once caught him using the relative pronoun in the wrong gender. The king immediately corrected himself, as Galeotto faithfully recorded, yet the modern reader cannot suppress a smile; this mistake is made by many Hungarians, since Hungarian has no grammatical gender). Galeotto, unlike Bonfini who died in Hungary as a naturalized Hungarian and had been ennobled by Matthias, led a life shared by many Humanist scholars; he stayed in various courts*Sir Walter Scott, in his novel Quentin Durward (1823) made him appear as a minor figure in the court of Louis XI. as a guest, whose well-read and often amusing though superficial conversation was a contribution to the entertainment of the court, and a tacitly agreed return service to his royal host.

Among native Humanists, perhaps János Vitéz was the most outstanding figure. Born around 1400 in a family of Croatian lesser nobles and educated at the University of Vienna, he rose swiftly to the position of Lord Chancellor and eventually became the Archbishop of Esztergom, the highest ecclesiastical dignitary and second only to the King in the secular world. In the 1460s he opposed the King’s intention to conquer Bohemia, and became the leader of a conspiracy that aimed at the overthrow of Matthias. Matthias exposed the conspiring lords in 1472 and Archbishop Vitéz was arrested. Although Vitéz was eventually released he did not outlive his fall from grace. Having had an excellent Humanist education, he was an eloquent church dignitary and one of the Humanists most accomplished in the art of letter-writing. It was his nephew who became the first lyric poet of Hungary.