Matyas Corvinus Library

A visit to Hungary is not complete, for book historians at any rate, without investigating the Bibliotheca Corviniana. The reign of Mátyás Corvinus (ruled 1458-1490) the "Renaissance King" was a high point in Hungarian history, his court ruling over a major central European empire and being an important centre of the new learning. So we were lucky to be able to catch the very last day of an exhibition assembling – mainly in excellent facsimile – most of the Corvinian volumes in the National Széchényi Library. By dint of precarious contortions to avoid the reflections of overhead lighting and the risk of setting off any alarms, I managed to capture fuzzy images of a few of these wonderful illuminated manuscripts, which do not really do justice to the originals any more than the crumbling foundations scattered across Buda's Castle Hill do justice to the glories of the court of Mátyás Corvinus.

Hartmann Schedel. Weltchronik. Nürnberg: Anton Koberger, 1493. National Széchényi Library.

Buda merits one of the relatively few authentic town views in the massive Nürnberg Chronicle of 1494, which show Castle Hill bristling with towers. Reports of humanists, diplomats and travellers visiting Buda in the 16th century indicate that the library was situated in the most prestigious part of the palace, close to the throne room and the chapel. The arches of the library rooms were painted blue and gold, depicting the constellations when Mátyás was born and ascended the Bohemian throne. He used the combined arms of Bohemia and Hungarian to mark his ownership of the books. So the library was not just a "musarum sacellum" (sanctuary of the muses) as described by Bonfini, or a "sacellum sapientiae" (sanctuary of wisdom) according to Naldo Naldi but also a medium of propaganda and a means of proving his political credentials.

Agathas. Historiae. Naples(?), 1483-1484. National Széchényi Library, Cod. Lat. 413.

Queen Beatrice of Naples played an important role in luring humanist scholars to the court in Buda. This volume of the works of the Byzantine poet and historian Agathas (523-582/594) was translated by Christoforo Persona and dedicated to Queen Beatrice – Mátyás also received his own copy. The scribe Clemens Salernitanus, copied the text in humanist minuscule and it is adorned in the antique style including putti and portraits, some taken from Roman coins. In the dedication we read "I cannot keep myself from admiring Your Highness, since your vast erudition and scholarship manifested themselves for me. You can rightly be compared to the great women of antiquity …". The Queen probably owned her own library volumes from which can be identified through the armorial bearings. This volume found its way to the Viennese court by 1576 and was only returned to Hungary following the Venice Agreement in 1934.

Bonfini, Antonio. Symposium de virginitate et pudicitia coniugali. Italy, c.1485. National Széchényi Library, Cod. Lat. 421.

The volume purports to be an account of a three-day symposium on virginity and the purity of married life with Beatrice and Mátyás as well as humanists and priests participating at the court in Buda. Bonfini was Beatrice's reader for some time and wrote this piece in Recanati preparing for his journey to Hungary and intending it as a gift for the Queen, whose portrait is in the initial letter C. It is the only manuscript copy of this text. The manuscript was published in Basel in 1572 and reached the Viennese court. It was returned to Hungary in 1933.

Philostratus, Heroikos ; Bioi sofiston ; Philostratus Lemnios, Eikones. Buda ; Florence, 1487-1490. National Széchényi Library, Cod. Lat. 417.

The works of two Greek rhetoricians, Philostratus and his nephew, were translated into Latin by Antonio Bonfini, historian of the royal court, in 1487. It is one of the most beautiful codices from the Bibliotheca Corviniana and was illuminated in Florence in the workshop of Boccardino Boccardi. It was finished by 1490 and was bound after the accession of Ulászló (Vladislav or Ladislaus) II, as the binding features the Jagellonian coat of arms.

Johannes de Thwrocz, Chronica Hungarorum. Augsburg: Theobald Feger ; Erhard Ratdolt, 1488. National Széchényi Library, Inc. 1143.

Italian bibliohpiles of the later 15th century looked down on printed books – Federigo de Montefeltro of Urbino would not allow a printed book into his library and Mátyás seemed to have shared this opinion. This is the most important of the very few incunabula that can be attributed to the Bibliotheca Corviniana. Two copies are known printed on parchment with the dedication to the king printed in gold ink, so these copies must have been printed for the court in Buda. It represents the first known use of gold ink in printing. The woodcuts have been carefully over-painted in this copy. Johannes de Thwrocz wrote this history of Hungary down to 1487 at the request of Mátyás. Editions were printed in Brno and Augsburg in 1488. The woodcut shows the fight between St. Ladislaus and the Cuman warrior. The dedication by the printer Theobald Feger includes: "In our age when there is an abundance of learned scholars one cannot fear that your deeds are forgotten. However to highlight the greatness of your soul when comparing you with previous kings and keep your memory even more alive in people's minds I have therefore made sure that the deeds of the king of Hungary are printed with the greatest care and thoroughness for your glory. I even added very nice illuminated pictures so that your tiredness caused by reading is relieved by the variety of the pictures."

Isocrates, Orationes. Buda, 1470-1480. National Széchényi Library, Cod. Lat. 430.

A Latin translation of the speeches of the Greek orator Isocrates (died 338 BCE), this was probably the work of the Buda scriptorium, the title-page being illuminated by the "first heraldic painter". The volume was purchased by Johannes Fabri, Bishop of Vienna by 1540. He bequeathed it to Saint Michael's College of the University of Vienna whence it passed into the Couth Library and was returned to Budapest in 1932 under the terms of the Vienna Agreement.

Caecilius Cyprianus, Opera ; Cyprianus Gallus, Cena Cypriani. Florence 1450-1470. National Széchényi Library, Cod. Lat. 529.

As well as the classical writers humanist scholars like Mátyás also collected the works of the church fathers, in the case the works of St Cyprian (200/201-258) the archbishop of Carthage whose portrait appears in the initial D, and also because of a confusion of names, the poem of the fifth century port Cyprianus Gallus describing the wedding at Cana. The decoration employs whire vine patterns. Owned by the French nobleman Chrétien-Guillaume de Lamoignon in the 18th century, it passed into Sir Thomas Phillips' collection and it was purchased by Hungary in 1964 at Sotheby's auction. It is the most recent Corvinian acquisition by the Széchényi Library.

Polybius, Historiae. Florence, c.1460. National Széchényi Library, Cod. Lat. 234.

The first five books of the 40 volume history of Rome by the Greek historian Polybius (201?-120 BCE) were translated into Latin by Niccolò Perotti (1430-1480) and a copy of this translation found its way to Buda in the 1460s. The title-page is decorated with Florentine white vine motifs and incorporates the Hungarian and Czech crown of Mátyás by the "second heraldic painter" who worked in the Buda scriptorium. The volume is in a velvet binding. The ex-libris inscriptions reveal its wanderings from the Turk Ibrahim Maczar who owned it in the 16th century, to the Serail, as shown by the Turkish librarian's note, and later to Sultan Adb-ul-Aziz who presented it to Franz Joseph who in turn gave it to the National Széchényi Library.

Matyás Corvinus binding, c. 1480. National Széchényi Library.

The volumes acquired by Mátyás received distinctive bindings, some in leather and others in fabric, to provide them with a dignified presence on the shelves of this renowned library.

The court of Mátyás was a high point in Hungarian history, ruling over a major central European empire and an important centre of Renaissance culture. So after the death of Mátyás in 1490, when the library ended up in the hands of his successor, the less educated Ulászló II it became an empty symbol. The majority of the codices in the Bibliotheca Corviniana left Buda during the reigns of Mátyás' successors. Viennese diplomats were especially gifted in extracting manuscripts. Johannes Cuspianus is known to have possessed at least nine volumes acquired during visits from 1512. Alexander Brassicanus managed to make off with a number of books between 1524 and 1526 and even tried to scrape off the ownership marks of Mátyás. The collections of both these Humanists ended up with Johannes Fabris, bishop of Vienna whence they reached the University Library and in 1756 the Court Library in Vienna. In the 18th and 19th centuries Corvinus codices had a great reputation with bibliophiles and the Széchényi Library has had to struggle to reassemble a collection of them. The founder Ferencs Széchényi (1754-1828) possessed none, but over the past two centuries an excellent representative collection has been built up by gift or purchase.

I thought this final illustration related to: Iohannes Chrysostomus (died 407 "Golden Mouth"), Homiliae in epistolas sancti Pauli. Florence, 1485/1490. (National Széchényi Library, Cod. Lat. 346). Lavishly decorated by Attavante degli Attavanti it was presented to Hungary by Prince Francis of Modena in 1847 but was seized by Vienna and, after various vicissitudes, only finally reached the Library in 1927. However, closer inspection of the roundel reveals that the volume contains Joannes Damascenus Sententiae and the Monologio of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury – so I may have noted the wrong caption. Whatever its identity it is too splendid a volume to leave out of this brief account.