|CSABA CSAPODI: HISTORY OF THE BIBLIOTHECA CORVINIANA|
An unparalleled achievement of Hungarian Renaissance culture was the library of King Matthias Corvinus (1458-1490). It was worthy to rank with the highest contemporary manifestations of European culture, and north of the Alps at that time its like was nowhere to be found.
How did Buda, the court of the Hungarian king, come to be the place where a sovereign founded the first great humanist library in the world outside Italy? Did the king merely wish to display his power or was his motive a love of pomp? Was the library of Buda the result of chance, did it come into existence through the intelligence, the will or perhaps the whim of a single outstanding individual? Did these precious manuscripts, fascinating rather by their outward splendour than by their contents, constitute a carefully guarded collection of works of art, created almost in a moment out of nothing, and then after a brief life passing out of existence without having exerted any noticeable influence? Or was perhaps the library no more than an obligatory feature of a court formed after the Italian model to please the queen, Beatrice of Aragon, who came from Naples in 1476?
The explanation given by the facts of history is quite different. The Corvinian Library is an integral part of the history of Hungarian cultural development, of the history of Hungarian books and libraries. When we trace previous and contemporary causes and motives in their logical connection, we find that the Bibliotheca Corviniana was very far from being some lifeless museum of books; it was, on the contrary, a library whose founder aspired to collect the supreme achievements of the human mind. The volumes were sought for the value of their contents, of which the bindings and the covers were to be worthy in their beauty and magnificence.
It was about A.D. 1000 when the first Hungarian library of a few dozen books was established in a modest niche at the St. Martin Monastery of Pannonhalma; it was in 1489 that the Florentine humanist Bartolomeo della Fonte declared that Lorenzo de'Medici had been inspired to found his Greek and Latin library by the example of the Hungarian king.
During the intervening period of nearly five centuries book culture followed a similar path in Hungary as in other European countries. Increasing numbers of manuscripts were required for the use in churches, convent schools and chapters, and in monastic life. Hungarian undergraduates became familiar with books on philosophy, theology; and law while studying at foreign universities, but the Hungarian universities and colleges (Pécs, Veszprém, Óbuda) could not be left without books either. From the time of the Anjou kings in the fourteenth century, splendid manuscripts have come down to us, proving the Hungarian court illuminators to have been in every way the equals of the artists of other countries. When writing became general in the management of affairs, the royal chancellery and other offices needed an adequate number of scribes proficient in reading and writing Latin, and who could also copy manuscripts. Thus by the beginning of the fifteenth century any earlier differences in the standard of books between Hungary and the western countries had disappeared.
This only showed, however, that the soil was favourable for future growth. That a humanist concern with books manifested itself earlier in Hungary than in other countries was the result of a fortunate combination of circumstances. One such contributory cause was the fact that between Italy and Hungary in the fourteenth century there was not a mere occasional contact, but a close, permanent and many-sided relationship. Not only did new incentives and impulses reach the country again and again through the relatives of the Neapolitan Anjous and as a result of the Italian campaigns of Louis the Great (1342-1382), but in the south-western parts of the medieval Hungarian monarchy, in Dalmatia and Slavonia, the doors were flung wide open to Italian influences. It was therefore no accident that the leading personalities of the early period of Hungarian humanism, the founders of the first libraries, came from these south-western regions.
The period of Sigismund, king of Hungary and sovereign of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Council of Constance, which was held during his reign, were both highly significant. It was at this time that Buda became the permanent capital of Hungary – sometimes, it seemed, for occasional brief moments, the capital of the world. When Sigismund appeared at the Council of Constance he was attended by professors of the University of Óbuda; in his retinue, in the management of world politics, of affairs of the Empire and the Church, he was surrounded and supported chiefly by Hungarian councillors. Though the king himself as well as his entourage retained to the end a medieval intellectual horizon, the continuously broadening relations with every part of the world and the regular contact with the humanist movement opened up fresh channels for the inflow of the new learning. Among the ambassadors who visited Hungary were such men as Ambrogio Traversari, Antonio Loschi, Francesco Barbaro, Francesco Filelfo, Poggio Bracciolini, Ciriaco da Ancona.
Nor was it only humanist ambassadors who came to Hungary, but also growing numbers of Italian artists, among them Brunelleschi's pupil, Manetto Ammanati, and Masolino da Panicale. These men gave a new impetus to Hungarian pre-Renaissance art which had long before begun to take form under Italian influence and had produced such works as the bronze statues of the brothers Martinus and Georgius Kolozsvari (their statue of St. George still stands in Prague). The imposing edifices erected by King Sigismund at Buda were built in Gothic style, but their magnificent metal doors and bronze sculptures were made in workshops under Italian Renaissance masters.
It was in this period that the opportunity first arose to found a royal library at Buda, since Sigismund had inherited the famous collection of beautiful books from his elder brother Wenceslas, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia. However, Sigismund was not one of those monarchs who cherished a special interest in books. Under the reign of his successor, Albert Habsburg, the books were taken to Austria, where in all probability most of them remained, though in 1455 Albert's son, Ladislas V, King of Hungary and Bohemia, made an attempt to recover them from his guardian, the Emperor Frederick III.
Thus in the opening decades of the fifteenth century everything favoured the success of individal initiative in the new cultural field of books. These initiatives came principally from two celebrated personalities: one was Pier Paolo Vergerio, the other Iohannes Vitéz, Bishop of Nagyvárad, later Archbishop of Esztergom.
Vergerio was the pupil and friend of Giovanni da Ravenna, a great figure of early Italian humanism. The latter's career, curiously enough, had begun in Buda, where he was born as the son of Louis the Great's Neapolitan physician, Conversino da Ravenna. In his childhood, however, he was taken to Italy, and it was here that he pursued his important activities. Of his pupils the most celebrated were Guarino Veronese and Pier Paolo Vergerio. At the Council of Constance Vergerio stood in the service of the Emperor Sigismund, whom he followed to Hungary; and here he lived from 1418 until his death about 1444. It was of the greatest importance that such an outstanding representative of Italian humanism came to settle down in Hungary.
His close relation to Vergerio exerted the profoundest influence on Iohannes Vitéz who had brought with him Dalmatian-Italian traditions from his native land, Slavonia, and who had abundant opportunity to meet Italian humanists visiting King Sigismund's chancellery as ambassadors. Later, when he became the chancellor of Iohannes Hunyadi and Ladislas V, he not only held in his hands the intricate threads of Hungary's foreign policy while she was fighting against the Turks for her existence but he also formed the closest personal relations with foreign humanists, especially with Aeneas Sylvius, later Pope Pius II.
As Bishop of Nagyvárad, Vitéz succeeded an Italian predecessor, Andrea Scolari, who had created a veritable Italian atmosphere at Nagyvarad, one of the most important centres of the Hungarian pre-Renaissance. It was here that Iohannes Vitéz set up the first Hungarian humanist library. The first Polish humanist, Gregorius Sanocki, also stayed here for some time, and it was in Nagyvárad that the Cypriot Filippo Podocataro found refuge and a home. Vergerio was a frequent visitor; most likely it was Vitéz who bought his valuable library. Callimachus-Buonacorsi describes as an eyewitness the debates on literature and philosophy which took place in the presence and with the participation of Iohannes Vitéz. The library as the setting for symposia – here already was the world of a true humanism. Nicolaus, Bishop of Modrus, a native of Cattaro, who spent the winter of 1463 at the episcopal court of Nagyvárad, looked back on his stay there with pleasure: "At your place in Várad we often sat together with many scholars in your magnificent library and spent a pleasant and happy time among the innumerable volumes of illustrious men." The owner of the largest copyists' shop of Florence, Vespasiano da Bisticci, declared that there were few Latin books of which Iohannes Vitéz did not possess a copy.
Regular consignments of books from Janus Pannonius greatly contributed to the enrichment of Vitéz's library. It was Vitéz who had sent his nephew, Janus Pannonius, to Ferrara to the renowned school of Guarino Veronese where he soon became known for his extraordinary talents, excelling as he did in the composition of poetry and in the study of Greek which he mastered in a remarkably short time. Some years later, and still quite a young man, he came back to Hungary as a celebrated Latin poet and a scholar completely imbued with the new humanist learning, to enter on his duties as Bishop of Pécs. His library of Pécs became the second humanist collection of Hungary and the first to contain not only Latin, but also Greek books. We may again quote Vespasiano, who spoke of Janus Pannonius as having established for his bishopric a splendid library which contained the material of every faculty of a university.
At the same time it should be recalled that during the first years of the reign of the young King Matthias, Iohannes Vitéz and Janus Pannonius were his principal political supports and councillors. A case in point will illustrate their close cooperation. The delegation sent to Pope Paul II in 1465 to solicit help against the Turks was headed by Janus Pannonius. When he came home he not only brought with him the confirmation of Vitéz as Archbishop of Esztergom and the authorization to set up the University of Pozsony (with Vitéz as its organizer and chancellor) but he also availed himself of the opportunity to make extensive purchases of books, inasmuch as “he bought in Rome every book that he could obtain, Greek and Latin works on various branches of science”.
When it is furthermore taken into consideration that Matthias's education during childhood was directed by Iohannes Vitéz, the closest adherent of Matthias's father, Iohannes Hunyadi, that already as a youth Matthias was so proficient in Latin as to be able to act as his father's interpreter in conversations with ambassadors and that in later years he liked to recall the books he had read as a young man, the acquisition of an ever more magnificent royal collection of books, the foundation of the Corvinian Library, seems entirely natural.
There is no direct evidence to show when King Matthias first began regularly to collect books. Nor is it possible to establish the date when the library may be said to have been actually founded. It is clear from what has been said that no sudden decision or formal foundation was made; rather, the king's personal collection, consisting of the volumes he had used in his youth, a few books left by his father, and manuscripts which had come down to him from his royal predecessors began to grow into a true library under the influence of Hungarian and Italian humanists, following the similar development of the libraries of Iohannes Vitéz and Janus Pannonius.
The first mention of the systematic collection of books and also of the activity of copyists working for the king is to be found in the reply sent by King Matthias to Pomponius Laetus, president of the Academy of Rome, in 1471. This letter has preserved a record of four important facts concerning the library. First: Matthias was at this time buying books in Rome through his own agent, who had just returned from a journey made for this purpose; secondly: this agent was Blandius, “miniator noster”, that is to say, the king had by this time his own miniaturist; thirdly: since Italian humanists offered books to King Matthias, his interest in books must have been well known in Italy; finally: Matthias did not regard books merely as ornaments, for even when he was taken up with wars abroad and difficulties at home he found time to read. Thus his collection of books satisfied a personal, inner need. (“These days we frequently read Silius Italicus,” he wrote, “because we enjoyed Silius in our youth, and now that we are engaged in wars we like him still better, for he sings of wars.”)
The letter of 1471 does not indicate the time when the activities to which it refers first began, but the date must have been considerably earlier than that of the letter. For we know of literary works which were dedicated to King Matthias in 1464 and 1466. One is the Elegy of Antonius Constantius Fanensis, the other the “Quare Christiani truduntur in manibus paganorum et Thurcarum?” by Frater Christophorus Carthusiensis. A phrase in the poem of Constantius Fanensis is of particular importance: “te memorant musas coluisse Latinas”; hence in Italy Matthias was known to be interested in Latin literature.
After the first slight indications, evidence becomes increasingly abundant from 1467 onwards. It was in this year that Andreas Pannonius, a Carthusian monk of Ferrara hailing from Hungary, made a present to Matthias of his work on the virtues of kings. On the last page of another Corvinian manuscript, the Ptolemy codex of Vienna (a translation of Trapezuntius), produced in the same year, the constellation of the stars is represented at the moment of the inauguration of the University of Pozsony, and there are three Corvinian manuscripts, copied by Petrus Cenninius at Florence, bearing the date of 1467.
The repeated occurrence of the date 1467 in the surviving books of the Corvinian Library cannot be regarded as accidental. Apparently it was the year when copyists and purchasing agents commenced to work for Matthias in Italy. This point of time coincides with the opening of the University of Pozsony and it accords with the new picture which gradually resulted from the change in Matthias's interests and conduct. After the restoration of his authority at home and abroad, the king turned his attention with increasing eagerness to the new learning. The first Italian humanists appeared at his court, and instead of pursuing an aggressive policy against the Turks the king concentrated upon making his power felt in the West. The first important success of this new trend hailing from Hungary was that, after having acquired Moravia and Silesia, he was crowned king of Bohemia in 1469. It is noteworthy that representations of Matthias's arms in Corvinian manuscripts almost all contain the crowned, doubletailed Czech lion. On the vaulting of the library itself the constellation of the stars represented the moment when Matthias became king of Bohemia.
In connection with the first period in the development of the library a third name has to be added to those of the Hungarians Iohannes Vitéz and Janus Pannonius – the Italian Galeotti Marzio. A friend and fellow-student of Janus Pannonius at Ferrara, he had visited Hungary at the invitation of the latter in 1461, and from 1465 he lived for a long time at Buda and became the first librarian of the Bibliotheca Corviniana.
The first phase in the development of the library lasted until the fall and death of Vitéz and Janus Pannonius in 1472. At the close of this period we may assume that there was in existence a royal library of considerable size and completely humanist in character. There are, it is true, very few books whose addition to the library can be dated accurately and with certainty within this period, yet it cannot be accidental that about one-third of the authentic Corvinian manuscripts which have survived were made before 1470. Moreover, most of these are decorated with plain white Florentine foliated scrolls. Incidentally, the date of a manuscript does not necessarily imply its addition to the Corvinian Library in the very same year; it is nevertheless improbable that his agents should for the most part have bought old manuscripts for King Matthias.
Apart from systematic acquisition, pursued before 1472, the large number of manuscripts illuminated with white foliated scroll and made between 1450 and 1470 may have another explanation, namely the confiscation of books which had belonged to Iohannes Vitéz and Janus Pannonius. In contemporary Italy it was not unknown for royalty to obtain possession of books by seizing volumes which had belonged to notables who had fallen into disgrace. In the light of such a procedure it is understandable how it happened that several manuscripts of Iohannes Vitéz have come down to posterity in Corvinian bindings.
The confiscation of the Greek books of Janus Pannonius is only one of the reasons of the unusually high proportion of works by Greek authors among the books of the Corvinian Library. Although in 1472 there was a large increase in the number and value of the volumes in the royal library, this seems to have been followed by a pause; the downfall of Iohannes Vitéz and Janus Pannonius and the king's temporary disillusionment with humanists were naturally not without their effect on the fate of the library: there is hardly any Corvinian manuscript or volume which can be dated as having been acquired in the period between the death of Vitéz and the king's marriage to Beatrice. This situation may have been the cause of the failure of the first printing press in Hungary, which was established at Buda by Andreas Hess. He could not have chosen a more inauspicious time (1472) for arriving in Buda from Rome. Since King Matthias had nothing to do with the founding of the printing press, it could not hope to subsist on royal patronage or from the execution of royal orders. For a year or two Hess managed to survive, but he was then compelled to give up Hence his printing press cannot have played any role in the list of new additions acquired by the Corvinian Library.
It was only the king's marriage to Beatrice of Aragon in 1476 which brought a favourable turn in the life of the library. The handsome volumes imported from Naples and the fame of the magnificent Library of Aragon revived the king's interest in his own collection. The strengthening of Italian influence is known to have brought about a complete change in King Matthias's way of life and in his household; it was contact with Italian humanists which gave a new impetus to the development of the library rather than the personal influence of Queen Beatrice herself. There are three grounds for this conjecture.
In the first place, the library entered upon its heyday not in 1476, but in 1485, and its expansion was most rapid in the last years of the king's life, when questions concerning the king's illegitimate son, Iohannes Corvinus, and the succession caused ever deepening discord between the royal couple.
Secondly, Queen Beatrice possessed her own personal collection of books, which suggests that she could hardly have regarded the Corvinian Library as her own. There is much evidence to support the assumption that apart from the Bibliotheca Corviniana Queen Beatrice possessed a library of her own. There are manuscripts still in existence which bear not only King Matthias's coat of arms, but also the shield of the Hungarian king and that of Aragon combined in one achievement. This double shield is usually referred to as the coat of arms of Matthias and Beatrice, but this is an error; it was not the joint coat of arms of the king and queen but that of the queen alone. The same seal was used by Queen Beatrice on her charters, while the seal of King Matthias on royal charters and deeds never included the arms of Aragon. In this respect Matthias and Beatrice faithfully followed the example of their predecessors: neither earlier nor later can the consort's arms be found in the seal of the Hungarian king; the queens, on the other hand, invariably used a seal uniting their own arms with those of the king. That contemporaries knew about Beatrice's separate collection of books is proved by the two manuscripts of Agathias, one of which, with the double shield and Beatrice's portrait, the translator dedicated to the queen, whereas the other, with Matthias's shield and imagined portrait, was dedicated to the king.
The third and weightiest argument against any personal role of Queen Beatrice in the development of the Corvinian Library is that no special relations were established between the library and Naples after the Neapolitan marriage. On the contrary, it was the connections with Florence which were strengthened and now became the closest. In the history of the Bibliotheca Corviniana this was the golden age of Florentine illumination and copying.
The strengthening of Florentine relations is indicated by three names: Marsilio Ficino, Francesco Bandini and Taddeo Ugoleto.
Ficino, in the Latin form Ficinus, the founder and leader of the neoplatonic academy of Florence, sent to Hungary his life of Plato as early as 1477. In its introduction, addressed to his friend Bandini who was already staying at Buda, he wrote that he was sending his Plato, not to Athens, because that city was ruined, but to Buda, to King Matthias who "with marvellous power and wisdom has restored in a few years the temple of the great and wise Pallas". From this time a permanent, close connection was maintained between the circle of Ficino and Buda where Bandini, following the Florentine pattern, gathered around himself a firm circle of neoplatonists who looked forward with keen interest to the new works of Ficino, particularly to his translations of Greek writings. As regards the developments of the library itself, the greatest credit must go to King Matthias's new librarian, Taddeo Ugoleto.
Unfortunately much less is known about Ugoleto's life in Hungary than we would wish in order to gain a better insight into the events which shaped the history of the library. There can be no doubt that he was the tutor and master of Iohannes Corvinus. That it was he who reorganized the Bibliotheca Corviniana is known from his own statement to this effect. It is also certain that he was sent by the king to Florence to arrange for the copying of manuscripts, and it was he who established the fame of the library. Moreover, in all probability it was he who commissioned Naldus Naldius to write a laudatory account of the library, having first himself supplied the necessary information. Most likely it was in the service of King Matthias that Ugoleto made the study tour in the course of which, as he wrote, he visited nearly all the libraries of Europe. At all events, a humanist librarian cannot be imagined in the modern sense of the word as a cataloguing expert doing administrative work during office hours; he should much rather be thought of as a court humanist who travelled, negotiated, searched everywhere for manuscripts, while organizing and supervising copyists and miniaturists.
Ugoleto's journey to Florence presumably did not take place until 1485-6, in the truly glorious days of the Corvinian Library. However, four important steps may be supposed to have been made before 1485, in the first phase of Ugoleto's activities as an organizer. The first was the acquisition of the Greek manuscripts, the second the superb furnishing of the library premises, the third was the painting of the royal arms on the title-page of every manuscript, the fourth the introduction of typical Corvinian bindings.
Most probably the first group of Greek volumes came to the Corvinian Library from the confiscated estate of Janus Pannonius. However, the Greek manuscripts of Janus, which he had brought from Italy, could not have made King Matthias's library famous for extraordinary wealth in Greek books or raised it to the rank of a model Latin and Greek library in the eyes of the Medici. Both contemporaries and posterity found evidence of King Matthias having acquired his large Greek collection from the Ottoman Empire, from within Greece itself. This enterprise could hardly have been carried to a successful conclusion during the librarianship of Galeotti who knew little Greek; its achievement may be much rather attributed to Ugoleto, who knew Greek well and taught this language to Iohannes Corvinus. It may have been carried out prior to Ugoleto's journey to Florence, since in Naldus Naldius's catalogue the volumes are divided into Greek and Latin groups and the Bibliotheca Corviniana's wealth in Greek authors is evident.
The luxurious furnishing of the library, mentioned for the first time in Naldus Naldius's panegyric, may also be presumed to have been accomplished during the librarianship of Ugoleto.
The highly vaulted premises of the library on the first floor of the royal palace of Buda in the wing overlooking the Danube were situated in the immediate vicinity of the royal chapel. An adjoining room was added later when the increase of the collection made it necessary. Light streamed into the room through two stained-glass windows, between which stood the king's couch covered with a golden cloth. Gilded shelves in three rows ran all around the walls. On these lay the manuscripts, grouped according to content, in brilliant glittering, gilded bindings of leather, or of red, green, blue, violet silk or velvet, bearing the owner's arms, with gilded silver studding and clasps decorated with enamel. Curtains woven of coloured and golden yarn protected the precious volumes from dust. The rest of the books, for which there was not enough room on the shelves, were kept in richly carved chests beneath the shelves. There were three-legged chairs in the room for readers.
It has been mentioned as the third merit of Ugoleto as a librarian that every Corvinian manuscript was decorated with a miniature of the royal arms. For a long time it had been the custom to paint the owner's coat of arms in an ornamental frame on the title-page of a manuscript prepared to order, and generally intended as a present. Numerous such manuscripts of Iohannes Vitéz are known to posterity. However, this occasional use of a coat of arms – encountered in a few early Corvinian manuscripts – was very different from the custom now first introduced in the Bibliotheca Corviniana of systematically decorating volumes with the owner's coat of arms, virtually his ex-libris.
In nearly one quarter of the preserved Corvinian manuscripts arms of uniform type may be seen, done bythe same hand: a shield divided into four fields, with the Hungarian arms in red and silver in the first and fourth, the Bohemian silver lion on a red ground in the second and third, and in the middle the arms of the Hunyadi family, a black raven on a blue ground. The lion's body is massive and stocky, the golden crown on his head disproportionately large. The shield and the frequently added, more or less elaborate, ornaments around it often clash with the colours of the original illumination. In the relevant literature the master of these shields and decorations is referred to as "the first heraldic painter of King Matthias". There are Corvinian manuscripts of which the whole modest illumination is the work of this master,bg and which were therefore executed entirely at Buda.
The arms in about twenty-five manuscripts have been identified as the work of another heraldic painter. Their composition is similar to that of the examples we have just described, but instead of silver the miniaturist has used white, and the lion has exceedingly slender, delicate lines. It is a characteristic feature of these shields that they occur together with coloured (red, blue, violet, green) silk or velvet bindings, the gilt edge of whichis sumptuously decorated with coloured floral design, found nowhere but in Corvinian manuscripts. Hence there can be no doubt that this heraldic painter, too, was active in Buda. It is a typical feature of these arms that the letters M and A may be frequently seen on either side of the shield. These letters have been interpreted as the initials of "Matthias Augustus", the title of Matthias as emperor. On this basis the date of these arms would have to be put after 1485, the year of the occupation of Vienna.
Neither this interpretation of the letters M and A, nor the dating of the shields subsequent to 1485 is acceptable. In the first place, King Matthias did not use the expression "augustus" among his titles at any time. Even the colophons of the manuscripts produced for the king between 1488 and 1490 contained only the title of "serenissimus rex", nor did the greatest flatterers among the humanists address Matthias as emperor in their dedications. In the second place, the occupation of Vienna did not make King Matthias emperor; moreover, Vienna was not at that time the seat of the emperor. In the third place: the letters M and A on either side of the shield are nowhere to be found in the richly illuminated manuscripts prepared for King Matthias at Buda and in Florence after 1485, not even in those including the arms of Vienna and Austria as acquired possessions. What is more, these letters are absent from the Philostratus manuscript, in which the principal miniature represents the entry into Vienna. The letters M and A may be regarded merely as the first two letters of Matthias.
Thus there is no justification for putting the date of the "second" heraldic painter after 1485. On the contrary: most probably it was these small, unassuming arms which were painted earlier.
Be that as it may, the two kinds of shields executed in a different manner certainly suggest two major undertakings in heraldic painting, both carried out after 1469, since the Bohemian lion is present in the arms. One undertaking included the application of coloured gilt edges and the binding of the works in a silk or velvet cover; this was the work of the so-called "second" heraldic painter, presumably produced in the late 1470s, which may have been connected with the cataloguing of volumes originating from the collections of Iohannes Vitéz and Janus Pannonius. The other undertaking was carried out by the "first" heraldic painter, most likely about 1480. The volumes supplied with coat of arms of the latter type are of as early origin as those from the years between 1450 and 1470, but they have no delicately coloured floral patterns on their gilt edge, and instead of silk covers they have in most instances a gilded leather binding with arms, if any binding still exists. It may be assumed from the date 1481, which is to be seen on one of these covers, that the production of these typical Corvinian leather bindings now became customary.
The armorial bearings on the binding of Corvinian manuscripts was the quartered Hungarian-Bohemian shield of King Matthias, found also inside the manuscript, as a sign of ownership; therefore it was also the ex-libris and .ruper ex-libris of the Bibliotheca Corviniana. (In all probability both occurred for the first time in the Corvinian Library, to become conventional in other collections later.)
In addition to this mass of routine work done by the two heraldic painters, shields were still fitted also into the border decoration of manuscripts produced at Buda or abroad to the order of King Matthias. In their varying type and composition these shields were always characteristic of the miniaturists who illuminated the volume.
Besides the painting of shields, the appearance of a style of binding peculiar to the Corvinian Library has been mentioned as the fourth achievement of the Ugoleto period; the close correlations between shield painting and bindings have also been pointed out. It must be briefly remarked here that evidence obtained by recent research has made it possible to trace the antecedents and also the sequence of the motifs and arrangement of gilded Corvinian covers in earlier Hungarian monastic bookbinding. The early stage of Corvinian bindings is marked by a Renaissance arrangement of blind-stamped Gothic elements; this stage was followed or accompanied by the development of the peculiar gilded, later occasionally also painted, chased, gilt-edged Corvinian leather bindings bearing the shield, elaborated with the assimilation of Neapolitan and oriental effects, which may be said to constitute a special chapter in the history of the art of bookbinding.
King Matthias must have felt it to be the highest moment of his triumph when he marched into conquered Vienna at the head of his eight thousand armed warriors on 1 June 1485. More than twenty-five years had gone by since, as a mere boy, he had ascended the throne of his country harassed by confusion and threatened by enemies. In the meantime he had overcome anarchy, put down conspiracy, settled accounts with pretenders, and made the Turks feel his power. Now, as the sovereign of the strongest country between the two Emperors, between East and West, in possession of Bohemian provinces and Austrian territory, conscious of his own talents and successes, in unbroken health, he felt that the time of unlimited opportunity had arrived and at last he could approach the goal, the imperial crown, an aspiration encouraged by his humanists for ten years.
The occupation of Vienna brought a turningpoint in the history of the Bibliotheca Corviniana. However, as in the case of the king's marriage to Beatrice, when interest in the library was revived not by the personal influence of the queen but by the resulting change in the king's way of life and the quickening of cultural relations with Italy, so the turning-point of 1485 cannot be ascribed to any Viennese influence on the development of the Corvinian Library. Matthias's library far surpassed that of the Habsburgs, and humanism had advanced much farther in Hungary than in Austria. But the growth of the Bibliotheca Corviniana was still further stimulated by the enhanced respect in which humanism was held and by the tremendous efforts devoted to its development in the years preceding and following the occupation of Vienna. These tremendous efforts soon turned into what may be termed feverish anxiety. As the years passed the health of the king deteriorated, his vital energies declined and at the same time one could see him making an enormous effort fully to realize his aims.
Never before had such planned methodical activity been noticeable in the organization of the library as became apparent after 1485. The introductory stages of this period were Ugoleto's abovementioned journey to Florence and Naldius's description of the library. From 1485 there was a noteworthy change in the outward appearance of the volumes. Earlier manuscripts with predominantly plain illumination were succeeded by gorgeous Renaissance masterpieces from the hands of such Florentine masters as Attavante dei Attavanti, Giovanni Boccardi, Gherardo and Monte di Giovanni and Francesco Antonio del Cherico. Border decorations begin to display emblems encountered nowhere in earlier Corvinian manuscripts, the symbolical emblems of King Matthias: a sandglass, beehive, casket; ring, dragon, a well, an astronomical celestial globe. Dating of manuscripts is more frequent. Miniature portraits of Matthias and Beatrice are also novel features in the new manuscripts.
The development of the library is furthermore marked not only by endeavours at greater luxury in the execution of the volumes; Matthias evidently wished to build up a library which would be outstanding for the number of its volumes and for the range of their content. Hardly half a year before the king's death, on 16 September 1489, Bartolomeo della Fonte wrote from Florence, "the king intends to outshine every other monarch with his library as he does in all other points, and I think he will".
In what way was the Bibliotheca Corviniana to overshadow every other collection? Not only in outward appearance, but also in completeness. For the humanist library was not a scientific library in the modern sense of the word. Stress was laid not on a steadily widening organization capable of amassing works embodying the latest results and the most recent achievements of science; but on the achievement of completeness. The ideal of humanism was classical antiquity. In the eyes of humanists it was antique literature which was truly valuable, particularly the works of classical Greek and Latin authors, including the Fathers of the Church during the first centuries of Christian literature. Here was the treasure-house of knowledge, the supreme source of all value. The discovery of unknown works and the making of arrangements for their copying were the task of the librarian, while it devolved upon the scholars to render the contents of these writings more accessible by the addition of commentaries and to ensure as far as possible that all corruptions in the text had been emended. The works of Greek authors were to be put before the reader in Latin translation, if practicable.
Thus the most extensive and most important fields of humanist literary activity were and remained translation and commentary. The rest conaisted mainly of occasional verse and prose, of panegyrics and correspondence which the humanists themselves do not seem to have taken very seriously, except, perhaps, correspondence which they collected and circulated in volumes. Apparently such activities were pursued chiefly because they afforded opportunities for attracting attention, as well as chances to acquire a reputation and to obtain pecuniary support. It is characteristic that Naldius's catalogue of authors of the Bibliotheca Corviniana does not contain the name of any contemporary writer.
In fact the importance of a library of this kind depended on the completeness of its collection of works recognized as valuable literature. Hence perfection was, in principle, attainable. This may have been the ideal which inspired Matthias, and which he strove to accomplish with feverish haste in the last years of his life. Commissioned by the king, Fontius, too, did his best "to finish completion of the library as soon as possible and without wasted effort". To this end copying and illumination were carried on with increased energy in Florence; they were also started in Vienna, and the work at Buda was doubtlessly accelerated.
We now come to the question of the workshop of Buda, whose part in the history of the Corvinian Library remains mysterious. In art history it has been recognized for a long time that some Corvinian manuscripts were executed in a mixed style which cannot be attributed to any foreign workshop; the very mingling of various elements suggests that these volumes were produced on this side of the Alps, obviously at Buda. In the available sources three names occur which are often mentioned in connection with the illumination of Corvinian manuscripts, notably Blandius, Cattaneo, Abbot of Madocsa, and Felix (Petancius) Ragusinus. However, there is no agreement concerning the attribution of any special work to any of the three men.
The problem is rendered exceedingly difficult by the fact that we do not know of a single manuscript whose colophon explicitly states that the volume was copied or illuminated for King Matthias at Buda. On the other hand, as early as 1471, in one of his letters the king alludes to Blandius as "miniator noster". In a laudatory speech delivered in 1489 Ransanus praised Matthias for employing from every part of Europe carpenters, sculptors, silversmiths, painters, and "transcriptores librorum", i.e. copyists of books. The reminiscences of Nicolaus Olah are well known: "I have been told by my predecessors that towards the end of his life King Matthias employed about thirty copyists of whom I knew several after his death. Nearly every Greek and Latin manuscript was the work of these scribes. At their head was the Dalmatian Felix Ragusinus, whom I knew personally as an old man who knew not only Greek and Latin but also Chaldean and Arabic. Moreover, being well versed in painting, he took very good care that the copying of books should be faultless."
Thus there can be no doubt that manuscripts were actually produced at Buda, even if we are ignorant of the origin of the material from which they were copied. So far as we know, the stock of books in Hungary was too small to give work to thirty copyists for several years and, what is more, relatively few of the works required for the Corvinian Library may be presumed to have been available in the country. Of course, it is not clear whether the miniaturist Blandius, who came from Rome laden with manuscripts and printed books, worked at Buda or in Italy. From the words of Nicolaus Olah it does not follow that Matthias employed all his thirty copyists at Buda, for he only says that according to rumour thirty copyists were working for the king. Some of them may have done their copying in libraries of other countries. Cattaneo, Abbot of Madocsa-proved from the evidence of his original Italian name Zoan Antonio Cattaneo to have been Iohannes Antonius Cattaneus de Mediolane – is mentioned in King Wladislas's account books of 1494 as "miniator librorum regiorum". From this entry it was concluded for a long time that Cattaneo must have been the king's most eminent illuminator, and the finest manuscripts from the time of King Matthias were attributed to him.
However, "liber regius" does not denote a library but a register used in archives. Therefore the entry in the account book provides no information about the library and the king's copying workshop. It is possible that Cattaneo copied manuscripts during the reign of Matthias, but there is no proof; we only know that several years after the death of King Matthias he was active in the chancellery.
The role of Petancius likewise awaits elucidation; presumed to be identical with the Felix Ragusinus Dalmata in Nicolaus Olah's records, he has been regarded as the leading master of the workshop in Buda and the miniaturist who developed the new style of the Bibliotheca Corviniana. Tempting though it is, this assumption still requires thorough investigation. For, when speaking of the merits of Felix Ragusinus, Nicolaus Olah emphasizes his extraordinary proficiency in languages and his zeal in watching over the authenticity of texts, but not a word is said about the splendidly illuminated volumes which he painted. The phrase "ipsa quoque in pictura exercitatus" may merely mean that he was an adept in calligraphy and could make corrections to manuscripts himself in his own beautiful hand, implying certainly no more than experience and skill in illumination. Olah does not say that he was one of the most outstanding miniaturists.
Lately it has also been questioned whether Felix Ragusinus and Felix Petancius were in fact the same person. On the evidence revealed by recent research Petancius first acted as clerk of the chancellery and officer of the court of justice. Having arrived in Buda at the close of 1487, he had few opportunities to establish the new style whose introduction is in any case dated much earlier by art historians. It is much more likely that as head of the royal workshop of copyists and illuminators he was a humanist employed as organizer and philologist rather than an artist. This assumption is supported by the fact that his name does not appear in any of the magnificently illuminated manuscripts produced at the workshop of Buda. While the existence of a royal workshop of copyists and miniaturists at Buda is beyond doubt, none of the manuscripts produced at this workshop can be attributed with certainty to any one of its illuminators. The results of investigations into the respective styles of Cattaneo and Petancius have been vague and contradictory. Owing to the disastrous lack of sources we are reduced to hypotheses concerning the artists who were active at the workshop.
The Bibliotheca Corviniana was at the peak of its magnificence and growth when the great king's sudden death interrupted its rapid development. It has always been felt to be an intriguing question how many manuscripts and printed volumes the Bibliotheca Corviniana may have actually comprised. The fabulous number of 50,000 books'g first mentioned in the seventeenth century is, of course, very remote from reality. The later estimates of 400 to 500 volumes err no less in the opposite direction. This wide variation is the result of the lack of any positive proof regarding the actual number of the volumes owned by the Bibliotheca Corviniana. When every circumstance is carefully weighed – the remarks of contemporaries, the facts known about the libraries of Italian sovereigns, the probable size and furnishing of the premises which held the Bibliotheca Corviniana, the manner of storing volumes, the presumable number of manuscripts inherited from predecessors, the probable number of books copied and purchased at the different stages of development – the total number of manuscripts and printed books in possession of the royal library may be conjectured to have been between 2,000 and 2,500 volumes. (This number probably included relatively very few printed books.)
So the account of Brassicanus, the German humanist, does not appear to have been exaggerated, though he saw the Bibliotheca Corviniana in 1525, when it had been neglected and plundered. "I have looked at all the books. But shall I say books? Every book I saw is a treasure... It seemed in truth as if I were not in a library but – as it is customary to say – on the lap of Jupiter. There were more Greek as well as Hebrew volumes which King Matthias had bought for immense amounts of money in the interior of Greece after the fall of Constantinople and the destruction of many other Greek cities ... And more ancient and new Latin books here ... than anywhere else within my knowledge."
Beside the royal library, Queen Beatrice's own smaller, personal collection of perhaps 50 to 100 volumes also was kept in the palace, as were an approximately equal number of ornamental ritual books used in the king's chapel, and especially the 600 to 800 volumes of predominantly theological, canonical, liturgical and ministrative volumes supplied to the religious body founded by King Matthias and dependent on the royal chapel. All things considered, the total stock of the different collections of the Buda palace may have numbered about 3,000 volumes.
On the whole these figures do not tell us much. More revealing than the number of volumes is the number of works. Very often a volume contains not one but several works, and, what is more, by different authors. When the material of the Bibliotheca Corviniana is considered in terms of works and not of volumes, when account is taken not only of the fragments which have been recovered but also of the works which we know from available evidence to have been lost, then the wealth and variety of the library become apparent, and the project of a library which would be, in the humanist sense of the term, "complete", is seen to have been more than a mere dream. According to the present state of knowledge, the number of surviving or authentically known works from the Corvinian Library may be put around 650, and on this basis the stock of the royal library about 1490 may be estimated to have numbered between 4,000 and 5,000 works. This figure does not include the theological material of the abovementioned religious body.
Thus the fame of the Bibliotheca Corviniana was due to its numerous authors and works, to its rich content, and not merely to the splendour of the bindings and the sumptuous decoration of its premises. In the fifteenth century it was not only in Italy that there were sovereigns who had libraries rivalling the Corvinian Library in beauty (the Medici, Sforza, Este, the House of Aragon, Federigo de Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, etc.), but also north of the Alps, for instance, Wenceslas, German and Bohemian king, the elder brother of the King and Emperor Sigismund. Moreover, when we think of the finest manuscripts of the Hungarian Anjou era (the Illuminated Chronicle, the Vatican Legendary, Nekcsei's Bible), we realize that among King Matthias's books there seem to have been relatively few which could equal these volumes in the splendour of their execution. Indeed, even in the magnificent manuscripts produced in the last five or six years of Matthias's reign in Florence or at Buda, most often only the first page or the first two pages are profusely illuminated; apart from a few initials of wonderful delicacy and some floral border decoration, the inner leaves of the manuscripts rarely contain anything but the text in handsome uniform handwriting. Many of the Corvinian manuscripts are illuminated with white foliated scrolls of average workmanship, demanding no special skill in execution.
From the viewpoint of content, on the other hand, it is beyond doubt that north of the Alps no other collection could compare with the Bibliotheca Corviniana. Even Italian libraries, except for the Vatican collection, could hardly do so, when we remember its wealth of Greek manuscripts and its rich variety. Today it is impossible to assess how near the Corvinian Library came to the contemplated target of completeness, or possession of the whole of known literature, but the very fact that until the death of King Matthias almost two-thirds of the works known from the Corvinian Library had not appeared in print is highly significant, supporting the assumption that it was not a collection consisting mainly of works which were generally known and easily available. Therefore it was not for aesthetic reasons alone that the Corvinian Library was for the most part a collection of manuscripts, with only a small number of printed books.
Several of the manuscripts of the Bibliotheca Corviniana which have survived ruin and destruction are the sole copies of the works they contain. Such are not only the volumes dedicated to King Matthias by Naldus, Carbo, and by Cortesius, but also the work of Constantinus Porphyrogenitus dealing with the customs of the Byzantine court and the ecclesiastical history of Nicephorus Callistus.
There are records of manuscripts whose disappearance involved the loss of the sole existing copy of the work in question: Brassicanus claims to have seen in the Corvinian Library a complete Hyperides with an extensive commentary; the only existing manuscript of Cresconius Corippus' "Iohannis" (an epic poem on the Libyan war) contains only seven books. Cuspinianus saw eight books "in the royal library of Buda". It was he, furthermore, who borrowed from the library the original "marvellously ancient" Greek manuscript of Procopius whose text he declared to be better and more complete than the surviving Latin translation. He returned the manuscript, but it later perished.
Philologists have so far made scarcely any attempt at the textual evaluation of surviving Corvinian manuscripts. It is certain that in most cases the texts contained in these volumes are not the best and most complete versions at present known. This is natural. It is not astonishing that today, after five hundred years of research, we are in possession of older and more authentic texts of classical authors than could be acquired by King Matthias's librarians. The Corvinian manuscripts were copied from the texts which were available at the time; they are no worse than the texts of the manuscripts in contemporary Italian humanist libraries. Even so, there are particularly valuable pieces among them, for instance the Sylvae manuscript of Statius is one of the best versions of the work.
At any rate noticeable efforts were made to obtain several, and if possible the best, texts. How else is one to explain the survival of certain works from the Corvinian Library in more than one specimen (e.g. Livy)?
As regards the rich content of the Bibliotheca Corviniana, the large number of works by Greek authors in their original form and in Latin translation is particularly remarkable. Of the 650 known Corvinian manuscripts about one-third are of the works of Greek authors of Antiquity – apart from a few late Byzantine writers. This number almost equals that of works by ancient Latin authors and exceeds the total of medieval and humanist writings. Of course, it should be borne in mind that the foreign humanists who visited the library invariably strove to acquire in Buda from the library or wrote in their records about the works which they considered to be the most valuable. Yet the proportion cannot have been merely accidental. To mention only the more important Greek authors, the Bibliotheca Corviniana contained works by Aeschylus, Aristotle, Athanasius, Basilius, Dionysius Halicarnasseus, Diodorus Siculus, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Hesiod, Homer, Hyperides, Isocrates, Constantinus Porphyrogenitus, Origen, Philostratus, Plato, Plotinus, Polybius, Plutarch, Ptolemy, Sappho, Sophocles, Strabo, Theophrastus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Zonaras. As stated by Naldus Naldius in his description of the library, the names of Greek authors defied enumeration.
In connection with the Greek manuscripts it is important to note that they included hardly any marked with a shield, the authentic book-plate of Corvinian volumes. Except in two instances, the authenticity of the Greek Corvinian manuscripts at present known is confirmed only by historical records and not by any shield. Most of the Greek manuscripts removed from Buda will therefore be impossible to identify as having once belonged to the library of King Matthias. Still less has been discovered about the Hebrew manuscripts, known from statements by Brassicanus to have been of considerable number. The plain exterior of the Greek manuscripts which have come down to us – there is not a single profusely illuminated specimen among them – again proves that in setting up the library content was the first consideration. These old volumes, most of them damaged, were certainly bought not for their beauty, but only for their contents, and chiefly to increase the stock of the library after they had been translated.
As a matter of fact, few fifteenth-century humanists, either in Italy or in Hungary, understood Greek. We do not know of any Greek manuscript copied at Buda, but there is abundant evidence that much translation was done. At the king's wish, Bonfini made for the library translations from Greek into Latin of Aphthonius Sophista, Hermogenes Tarsensis, Herodianus and several works of the two Philostratuses. The volume containing the translations of the two Philostratuses is one of the most magnificently illuminated Corvinian manuscripts; the presumably plain Greek original has been lost. After a veritable battle possession of the translation was finally secured by Gremper on instructions from humanist circles in Vienna; he even resorted to tears in order to persuade the emotional King Wladislas into making a gift of the volume. So this copy survived.
Angelo Poliziano offered from Italy his services to King Matthias to do much translation from Greek. Thus the Corvinian Library, it may be said, contributed to bringing nearer to humanist Europe the vanished world of ancient Greece.
Besides translation, the emendation of texts was an important humanist activity. Such work was carried on also in the Corvinian Library. This is evidenced not only by the emendations and notes, written in Iohannes Vitéz's own hand, which are to be found in numerous Corvinian manuscripts, but also by the allusions of contemporaries. Naldus himself wrote that at the order of King Matthias he was engaged in the emendation of manuscripts preparetd a Florence. From the records of Nicolaus Olah, mentioned earlier, it emerges that the principal activity of Petancius, the last head of the Buda workshop of copyists, was to check the accuracy of texts. The very fact that emendations, so detrimental to the beauty of a page, are to be found in the most lavishly illuminated Corvinian manuscripts provides incontrovertible proof of the high value attached to textual accuracy.
Besides the translation and emendation of texts, use was also made of the material of the Bibliotheca Corviniana in the literary activities which were pursued at the court of King Matthias. Ransanus claims to have been encouraged to write his Hungarian history by Queen Beatrice, who lent him a manuscript to read, a "series principum", containing the history of Hungary from Attila to Matthias, in order that he might treat the subject in a more literary style – "stilo paulo cultiore". It was at the commission of King Matthias that Bonfini began to write his Rerum Hungaricarum decades which he finished much later, in the reign of King Wladislas. His book could not have been produced without the Bibliotheca Corviniana, nor could the chronicle of Iohannes Thuroczy. There are records of King Matthias having himself given instructions to Petrus Varadi, Archbishop of Kalocsa, desiring him to collect the epigrams of Janus Pannonius who, accused of conspiracy, had killed himself rather than face trial.
These instructions by King Matthias are proof of his personal participation in the affairs of his library. His directive influence is also apparent from a letter of the librarian Ugoleto, in which he informed the king that certain manuscripts copied "at your order" in Florence were finished.
The king made as much use of his library as his busy life permitted. He liked to read the works of historians – Livy, Caesar, Curtius and Silius Italicus. Being well versed in philosophy and theology, he could join in discussions on questions arising in these fields. He was familiar with works on military science and tactics and was interested in astronomy, even in astrology. (It was in the king's presence that his court astronomer, Martinus Ilkus, had a debate on astronomical problems with Iohannes Stercze.)
The king tried to persuade the noblemen of his court to read books, but he had little success. Galeotti describes an incident when Matthias rebuked those who laughed at Nicolaus Báthory, a bishop, for devoting the time before the meeting of the council to reading while Bonfini describes how on his arrival from Italy he presented to the king the books which he had brought to him as a gift: after having examined the volumes with close attention, the king distributed them for study among the prelates and the great men of the country who were present. Though he failed to induce Marsilius Ficinus to visit Hungary, the philosophy of neoplatonism found a home at his court in the circle of humanists headed by Bandini, whose symposia, attended by the king, we may suppose to have been held in the premises of the Bibliotheca Corviniana. In the library all branches of literature and science were represented: poetry and drama, philosophy and theology, astronomy, medicine, geography, rhetoric, grammar, architecture, military science, mathematics.
The library included works by writers of many peoples and ages, ancient classics, medieval scholastics and humanists in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Hungarian literature was also represented, partly in Hungarian-for instance, the Latin poems of Janus Pannonius and the Hungarian Bible of Ladislas Bathory. A large and rich collection, well suited to become in later centuries the basis of the first national library, provided that it fell into the hands of worthy successors ...
Let us trace the destiny of the library after the death of King Matthias.
The library remained in its original premises from 1490 to 1526, that is to say for a period longer than the whole of King Matthias's reign. But in reality it was undergoing a slow death. Only a personality of similar stature could have carried on the policy and life-work of Matthias and continued to maintain and develop his library. The successors of King Matthias, Wladislas II (1490-1516) and Louis II (1516-1526), were entirely unfit for the task. From the time of King Matthias's death until the battle of Mohacs penury was the constant partner of the Hungarian crown. Beset by nagging financial cares, it was impossible to make any additions to the Corvinian Library or even worthily to maintain it.
It was a heavy loss that a large number of handsome manuscripts remained at Florence in an unfinished state and subsequently came into the possession of other owners. In a letter addressed to the town of Florence in 1498, Wladislas professed himself to be "filled with the same desire to improve the library", and he declared his intention to have the manuscripts completed but these were no more than empty words.
Nor did the contents of the library escape untouched. King Matthias had wished to settle the succession by having his illegitimate son, Iohannes Corvinus, acknowledged as heir to the crown. After the king's death, when Iohannes Corvinus had to flee from Buda, together with other treasures he took with him manuscripts from his father's library. But Iohannes Corvinus was defeated by his enemies, and having seized the volumes among the other loot, the conquerors returned most of them to the library. Meanwhile, there were opportunities for plunder, and therefore the councillors adopted a resolution enforcing "a restraint on the alienation of any piece belonging to the library which has been set up to the glory of the country". Iohannes Corvinus was given permission, of which he presumably availed himself, to borrow books for his own use.
After its first losses, the affairs of the library seem to have been managed in an orderly manner in the early years of Wladislas's reign, although no more is heard about a librarian. Nor did the copyists' workshop immediately cease its activities, since several manuscripts which had been begun at Buda for King Matthias were completed for Wladislas; as a result the black raven of the Hunyadi family was replaced in the escutcheon on the shield by Wladislas's emblem, the white eagle of Poland. The evidence, however, suggests that after 1492 the royal workshop of copyists was no longer active. Now and then King Wladislas may have received a manuscript as a present, but these were not the products of the royal workshop. Most probably several of the scribes and miniaturists returned to Italy together with the departing Italian humanists, while others were given posts in the royal chancellery. Finally, they may have got work at the brilliant courts of humanist prelates where the collecting of books continued without any setback. The art of book production was decentralized among these episcopal courts, as was in general the early humanism of the king's court.
This, however, must remain no more than surmise, since all the episcopal libraries were destroyed in the fighting against the Turks in the sixteenth century. When a town (Pécs, Veszprém, Győr, Esztergom, Eger, etc.) fell into the hands of the Turks, the conqueror set it on fire. The volumes which together with the most important treasures of the churches were rescued from destruction can hardly have been more than a few elaborately illuminated ritual books. It is appalling that from all the material of medieval episcopal libraries almost nothing has survived. We thus have no basis for any comparative studies by which to trace the influence exerted in Hungary by the Bibliotheca Corviniana and the further activities in the country of the scattered members of the workshops of Buda.
As regards the royal library itself, it seems certain that from near the end of the last decade of the fifteenth century no further additions were made, either from the royal workshop or by purchase or by having manuscripts copied abroad. Neglected, the library fell into utter decay. From contemporary sources we learn that the illuminated manuscripts were left to lie about in dust and dirt, gnawed by vermin, and that if a volume was needed, it could hardly be found.
What would now have been the sense of producing splendidly illuminated manuscripts with gorgeous bindings, only to be consumed by mice and worms? Already in the reign of Wladislas the most precious volumes were being carried off, and the library was still further ransacked under Louis II. Astute ambassadors and foreign humanists gained possession of a number of Latin and Greek manuscripts, which may be said to have been fortunate, since these volumes have at least survived. Viennese humanists (Cuspinianus, Gremper, Brassicanus) in particular spared no effort to acquire the treasures of the Bibliotheca Corviniana.
The bulk of the library, in terms of quantity, was nevertheless still housed in the old premises when the Sultan Solyman entered Buda in 1526. Pest and Buda were reduced to ashes, but the royal palace was spared. "Since he took up his residence in it he did not deem it proper to have it burnt down." But "the immense wealth, household chattels, the cannon and shells of the miserable king were seized".
The magnificent volumes of the Corvinian Library must have been among the mass of plunder carried off, for Corvinian manuscripts repeatedly made their appearance from this time forward in Constantinople. The last such discovery was made in the rooms of the Seraglio by a deputation of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1862. Except for a few specimens, these volumes have since been sent to Budapest as gifts of the Turkish Sultans Abdul Aziz and Abdul-Hamid II.
Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the destruction of the library could hardly be credited either at home or abroad, though the evidence was only too clear. In the autumn of 1527, Nicolaus Olah, having spent two weeks in the entourage of the widowed Queen Maria, wrote: "After the death of King Louis on 29 August 1526, on the battlefield near Mohacs, the Turks, having occupied Buda on 8 September, tore up many [of the books] and used the rest for other purposes, ripping off the leaves from the silver [chains]." In his preface to an edition of Brandolinus Lippus, dated 1 August 1541, that is to say directly before the final loss of Buda, Martinus Brenner says that "in the preceding years [the library] had been destroyed by Asian barbarism, for when I carefully examined it two years ago I could hardly find a trace of its former brilliance, except for a few Greek authors".
Despite such records, the belief grew stronger with the passage of years after the Turkish occupation of Buda that the library of King Matthias was still in being, and where it always had been. Many attempts were made to acquire, or at least to see, the library. As early as 1605, when the Turkish Grand Vizier crowned István Bocskai on the field of Rakos, Peter Alvinczi, a preacher from Kassa in the retinue of Bocskai, went to Buda to see King Matthias's library, but he was denied admission to the palace. About two decades later Pal Enyedi writes with joy: "The library of King Matthias is still in Buda, in its old place as before, and it has not suffered any loss, being watched by guards. When the Germans wrote that the library had been burnt down by the Emperor Solyman, bringing about its complete destruction, it was not true."
According to later, unconfirmed reports Gábor Bethlen, Prince of Transylvania (1613-1629), and his contemporary, Péter Pázmány, Archbishop of Esztergom, made attempts to obtain possession of the library. There is, however, fully authenticated evidence that Bethlen's successor, Prince György Rakóczy I, tried on four occasions to acquire from Hussein, the Pasha of Buda, and even from the Sublime Porte, the remnants of the Corvinian Library for the school of Gyulafehervar. The efforts of György Rakoczy I were doomed to failure, as were those of the foreigners Count Althan and Corderius, who endeavoured to gain access to the library by making intercession to the pope and to the palatine of Hungary, Miklós Esterházy.
It is nevertheless certain that during the Turkish occupation of Hungary there were books in the palace of Buda, and in no small number. From time to time released prisoners brought with them a volume from Buda (but not a single Corvinian manuscript bearing Matthias's arms). Finally Peter Lambeck, court librarian of Vienna, was sent in 1666 to Buda to acquire the remnants of the Bibliotheca Corviniana for the imperial library of Vienna. He saw books lying about in heaps and in a deplorable condition, but he was allowed to take no more than three volumes (none of them bearing a shield).
Immediately after the recapture of Buda in 1686, the Italian military engineer Marsigli, to his great sorrow, saw the books under the smouldering ruins of Buda Castle. Of the volumes which were still usable approximately three hundred were catalogued and taken to Vienna, to the imperial library, where they still are.
However, the books that survived the 150 years of Turkish rule had never belonged to the Corvinian Library. They had been part of the library of the religious body housed in the palace, as mentioned earlier, which consisted of plain manuscripts, most of them written on paper, and printed books, including a few theological works. These books of unassuming exterior, kept in modest surroundings, presumably escaped the notice of looters and were left behind because Solyman and his retinue did not think it worth while to carry them off.
Thus the pride of Hungarian humanism, the volumes of the Corvinian Library, were scattered to the four winds, and most of them perished. When speaking of this destruction, even the foreigner Brassicanus was moved to quote the words of Virgil: "On hearing this, who could retain his tears ?"
And what a loss for the Hungarians! It would, however, be wrong to conclude that the Corvinian Library perished without leaving any trace, or that it exerted no influence. Nor was it only memory of the library which kept alive in Hungarians and foreigners alike their admiration for it, but certainly also the volumes which were taken from it to the West and which greatly contributed to the advancement of Central European humanism. It is precisely from among the most valuable Corvinian manuscripts that quite a number has survived; indeed, foreign scholars made the strongest efforts to acquire these, since they regarded the library as a treasure-house of classical authors, waiting to be exploited. There are a number of Greek authors whose works came to be used by scholars in the original version or in translation from the Corvinian copy. In Europe north of the Alps the Bibliotheca Corviniana thus became a fountain-head of the works of Greek authors.
After the death of King Matthias the focus of Central European humanism shifted from Buda to Vienna, and credit for the publication of formerly unknown works went to German, chiefly Viennese, humanists. The "Aethiopica" of Heliodorus, five books of Polybius in Greek and in a Latin version, two works of Bessarion, works of Diodorus Siculus, Nicephorus Callistus, and Salvianus, the correspondence of Basilius and Gregory Nazianzen were published from the Corvinian copies. Since the seventeenth century the imperial library of Vienna has referred to the books of King Matthias as constituting an important part of its basic material.
Few volumes have survived from the Bibliotheca Corviniana, but the existing manuscripts preserve much from the treasures of old Buda. The inscription on the palace, composed by Bonfini, proclaimed that the glory of Matthias would live for ever, being guarded against oblivion by "metal, marble, and writing". The metal has vanished without trace, of the marble, only fragments still remain; but writing and books still bear witness to the grandeur, to the brilliant erudition of a vanished age, to the life-work of a great king.