International Conference in the Esztergom Castle Museum of the Hungarian National Museum

Esztergom, perched over the Danube, was the first capital of the Kingdom of Hungary between 1000 and 1256, as well as the oldest and most important cultural centre of the country. In 1256 the king moved to Buda but the Prince-Primate of Hungary, the second highest dignitary after the king, remained in Esztergom. During the 140-year-long Turkish rule and the 136 years of Habsburg military control that followed, the Primates resided elsewhere, and it was only in 1820 that Cardinal Primate Rudnay could finally return to Esztergom. In the meantime the magnificent medieval church was destroyed by the Muslims – only the beautiful Renaissance chapel remained, built from lustrous Hungarian red marble in 1506 by Tamás Bakócz, but converted into a djami by the Turks. This central chapel, a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance architecture, was disassembled into about 1,600 numbered pieces in 1823 on the orders of János Páckh, the renowned Hungarian architect of the cathedral, and incorporated into the Neoclassical Basilica in its original form. This marked the first noteworthy instance of monument preservation in Hungary and Europe.

In light of the above it is perhaps not surprising that in the 1930s, historical and archaeological research discovered Hungary’s most important medieval and Renaissance art monuments here: the first-floor halls of the donjon of the 12th-century royal palace with its exquisite early-Gothic chapel. In the 15th century, Archbishop János Vitéz (1465–1472), Chief Chancellor of King Matthias Corvinus and a renowned humanist Europe-wide, had his quarters installed in these same halls. During the great siege of 1595 the vaultage of these quarters collapsed together with the floors above them and the debris filled the rooms of the piano nobile, the first floor. Nearly a hundred years later, at the time of the liberation from Turkish rule, nothing was left on the southern side of the Castle Hill, not even ruins that would have indicated the former location of the royal palace. Subsequently, the Austrian military occupied the Castle Hill until 1820. In 1934, after 340 years of interment, the medieval spaces were finally unearthed with the beautifully preserved, magnificent 12th-, 14th- and 15th-century mural paintings. Their restoration was carried out by the well-known restorer of the Pinacoteca di Brera of Milan, Mauro Pellicioli, using a then state-of-the-art method, which however did not entirely stand the test of time. Later, in the 1960s, the frescos underwent another intervention: they were repainted, graphically made up, and received a paraloid coating. As a consequence they were in fairly bad shape by 2000. It was then that Zsuzsanna Wierdl, PhD, painting restorer, president of the ICOMOS International Mural Painting Scientific Committee, won the competition for restoring the unique murals of the medieval royal palace. Since that time she has been working on their preservation and cleaning as well as studying them in close cooperation with the author of the present article.1

The extremely bad condition of the murals caused numerous unforeseen difficulties during the work, which Zsuzsanna Wierdl has overcome thanks to her exceptional expertise, professional experience gained in Italy, great determination and unswerving enthusiasm. Results were soon to come. By virtue of her unflagging and meticulous work, the painting restorer uncovered the original layers and took notice of the exceptional artistic quality of the wall paintings of the Esztergom royal palace. It then had to be determined who their masters were.

The first results were obtained in connection with the 15th-century Renaissance frescoes (the Four Virtues). In 2007, at the international conference dedicated to the memory of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, organised in Villa I Tatti at the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, we already presented and illustrated our findings concerning the direct relationship between the allegories of virtues of Esztergom and the art of Botticelli. The conference volume was not published until four years later, in 2011.2 In the meantime our summary of the restoration and the results of our art historical and architectural historical research were published in Hungarian and Italian in 2009, entitled Botticelli, In Pursuit of the Virtues, edited by Zsuzsanna Wierdl.3 Hungarian Review also dedicated an article to the results of our research in 2011.4 In 2015 Mme Sabine Frommel, professor at Sorbonne, offered to publish my report on the Renaissance frescoes of the studiolo of Esztergom in Monumental, a prestigious journal of monument protection in Paris, entitled Les Fresques Renaissance du palais archiépiscopal d’Esztergom en Hongrie [Renaissance Frescoes of the Archiepiscopal Palace of Esztergom in Hungary].5

Following the above and further expositions and presentations, our research in Esztergom was met with growing interest. It was first and foremost voiced by Professor Sabine Frommel, who even came to Esztergom on two occasions in the past few years and became familiar with the details of the cleaning and salvaging, and findings of the technical and art historical study of the Renaissance in-situ frescoes representing allegories of virtue.

It was also Professor Frommel who suggested we should organise an international conference and workshop to present Renaissance studioli, especially the one in Esztergom, and proposed a title for the conference: The Renaissance Studiolo in Europe. It was announced to be held on 9–10 May 2017. We asked participants to primarily present research on Renaissance studioli in their respective countries. Professor Frommel was kind enough to help us invite prominent scholars in the field, who in turn readily accepted the invitation of the Esztergom Castle Museum of the Hungarian National Museum, and in due course sent us the abstracts which we published with the conference programme by 9 May 2017.

The conference indicated in the title of this article was thus organised with the financial support of the Prime Minister’s Office, and under the auspices of the Hungarian National Museum. Twelve eminent European scholars gave an account of their research conducted in their respective countries, following which they visited the Renaissance studiolo on the piano nobile of the late 12th- century fortified castle of Esztergom, holding their breath with wonder and amazement, as Renaissance studioli known so far in Europe, namely those in Urbino and Gubbio, are considerably smaller in size. Only the one-time studiolo of the humanist Pope Nicholas V in the Vatican might have been of similar size – as pointed out by Professor Christoph Frommel, a leading expert on Renaissance architecture. By way of introduction we told our guests about the role of Esztergom in the history of the Kingdom of Hungary and Europe, and showed them around its extant monuments.

It was dr János Lázár, the Minister heading the Prime Minister’s Office, who inaugurated the conference, highlighting the role of culture and academic research in the life of the country. As host of the event, Benedek Varga, director-general of the Hungarian National Museum also greeted the participants of the conference.

This was followed by an introduction by Sabine Frommel. The professor emphasised that the objective of the international conference was to present the latest findings of research on Renaissance studioli conducted in different countries of Europe. She expressed her high opinion of the ongoing research on the studiolo in Esztergom decorated with in-situ 15th-century mural paintings.

The first two presentations were delivered by Hungarian experts. Two eminent literary historians, László Szörényi and Péter Sárközy, gave an overview of Hungarian and international findings of the research led under their direction on Hungarian Renaissance culture of European importance. Péter Sárközy presented the proceedings of the 12 Hungarian–Italian conferences he organised between 1970 and 2013 with the joint support of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Giorgio Cini Foundation.

The studiolo decorated with Quattrocento mural paintings of the royal, later archiepiscopal castle of Esztergom was presented by myself, the painting restorer Zsuzsanna Wierdl and Konstantin Vukov, historian of architecture. In my introduction, I mentioned my earlier papers in which I dated the murals to the mid-15th century on account of their style and presumed their master belonged to the circle of Filippo Lippi. From among the Primates of the period I considered Archbishop János Vitéz – commonly referred to as Lux Pannoniae in Italy at the time – as the only possible client who could have commissioned the frescoes.6 The presentation detailed János Vitéz’s political career, which began in the court of Sigismund of Luxemburg, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary, in Buda in the 1430s. Vitéz became the protonotary of Albert of Habsburg who followed Sigismund on the Hungarian throne, and the chancellor of three subsequent kings: Vladislaus of Jagiellon, Vladislaus V, and finally Matthias Corvinus. His church career rose parallel with his political one; first he became the bishop of Oradea between 1445–1465. During his 20 years of bishopry Vitéz founded an important humanist centre there with a famous library, of which Vespasiano Bisticci, a Florentine humanist and bookseller, wrote with great esteem in his biography of the bishop. Vitéz’s library in Oradea was frequented by the most eminent Italian, Polish and German humanists of the age – Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, Callimachus (Philippo Buonacorsi), Georg Peuerbach and Regiomontanus, among others. Georgius Trapezuntius, Johannes Argyropylos, Galeotto Marzio and others dedicated their major works to the archbishop of Esztergom.

In her presentation the author of the present article also mentioned some of the extant volumes of Vitéz’s library, illustrating that he put great emphasis not only on their contents but on their artistic presentation as well. On becoming archbishop of Esztergom he thought it even more important to surround himself with works of art of the highest standard befitting his high office, an aspiration that could be realised by his increased wealth. His greatest achievement in Esztergom was the organising of a Hungarian university with four faculties, endowed with a papal approval7 and enjoying equal rights with Bologna. The Academia Istropolitana was inaugurated on 20 June 1467.

Hungarian scholars, as well as noted professors from Paris, Rome, Vienna and Kraków also accepted my invitation. I considered it very important to call their attention to the iconographic representation of the programme of the said university at the conference opening. I presume that the decoration of the great hall occupying a floor space of 10×5 m on the first floor of the 12th-century donjon of the Esztergom royal castle – the painted allegories of the four cardinal virtues on the North wall, the Zodiac signs on the archivolt, the depiction of planet Mars as god of war, and other fragments – represented in all probability the programme of the Academia Istropolitana, following the imagery of Dante’s Paradise.

In her presentation Zsuzsanna Wierdl expounded the main phases of her ongoing work begun 18 years ago. She dwelt on the latest graphic and technical research, the more than 15 phases of cleaning, the layers of multiple repaints, and the results of analyses conducted on the original layers of paint.

Konstantin Vukov, a Forster Prize awardee architectural historian, confirmed the correctness of the Botticelli attribution by a comparative analysis of the painted architecture which serves as the frame, as it were, of the mural paintings, and presented an authentic reconstruction of the space of the studiolo. The capitals of the half-columns of the loggia motif, shaped according to Alberti’s ideal, are of a special form which conforms neither to the classical Corinthian capital, nor to the composite one: the volutes on the painted capitals follow the Corinthian order, but there is also a row of “eggs” (oval motifs) with no volutes at the ends, unlike in the composite capital. This is therefore a completely unique, special formula. Examining the works of contemporary painters we find that only Botticelli used such capitals in his early works: in the Madonna della loggia (cca.1470), now in the Uffizi, and the Madonna Corsini (around 1470), in the Mellon Collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Edina Zsupán, a classical scholar and research fellow at the Manuscript Archive of the Hungarian National Library spoke about the hand-written marginal notes of archbishop Vitéz to the description of Pliny’s villa in Laurentum, found in a János Vitéz codex (ÖNB, Cod.141) of letters by Pliny the Younger, kept in Vienna, which testify to archbishop Vitéz’s knowledge of and interest in architecture.

The first foreign speaker to give his presentation was Christophe Poncet, research fellow at Villa Stendhal – Research Centre for Platonic and Christian Studies in Paris. In his presentation entitled Les Vertus cardinales du studiolo d’Esztergom et leurs modèles. Nouveaux indices à l’appui de l’attribution à Botticelli [The cardinal virtues at the studiolo of Esztergom and their models. New evidence in support of the Botticelli attribution] he highlighted the importance of tarot cards in the cultural life of Florence around 1460–1475. He then more specifically went on to point out the connection between the murals of the allegories of virtue in Esztergom and tarot imagery in Florence, as well as a connection with stylistic elements and formal features of Botticelli’s early work. All this corroborates the attribution of the Esztergom wall paintings to Botticelli and their dating to earlier than 1471.

Pierre-Gelles Girault, former deputy director of the Royal Castle and Museum of Blois, talked about the study of French king Francis I in Blois, built between 1515 and 1518. This is the only extant royal study in France, and the only room in the Blois castle whose original decoration more or less survived.

Hervé Mouillebouche, senior lecturer at the University of Dijon, vice-president of the Centre for Castle Study of Burgundy, analysed the description of the Dijon palace of the Dukes of Burgundy, Philip the Bold and John the Fearless, built in 1366, and of the representative parts built to it by Philip the Good in 1450–1455, which however does not specifically mention any room for studying. Philip the Bold’s wife, Margaret III, Countess of Flanders, placed her personal “secrétaire” in the gallery built for her between 1380 and 1392. Philip the Good presumably retired to work in the library tower of the castle. Only Charles the Bold is mentioned to have had a room built for studying purposes in 1474. This may be considered the first Burgundy studiolo, which unfortunately did not survive.

Xavier Pagazani, architectural historian at the André Chastel Research Centre of Sorbonne University, Paris, reported his most recent findings: he determined the location and function of King Henri II’s studiolo in the Château d’Anet, based on the description of the famous architect, Philibert Delorme, dating from 1552. This large “cabinet” was already the size of a proper room.

Maurice Howard, president of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain and professor at the Centre for Early Modern and Medieval Studies, University of Sussex, discussed early modern studioli in England based on 16th–17th century inventories.

Presentations on Italian studioli were initiated by Professor Christoph L. Frommel, director emerite of the Bibliotheca Hertziana and internationally renownedexperton Renaissance architecture in Rome. He spoke about the studiolo of Pope Julius II in the Vatican, the Camera della Segnatura (1508–1512), decorated with frescoes by Raphael. He pointed out that before 1509 studioli known to us had been smaller rooms, usually equipped only with a writing stand, a bench and a bookshelf. Pope Julius II moved to the stanzas on the higher floors from the ground- floor Borgia suite in 1507– 1508, where he had a modern suite installed. Sources however make no mention of a studiolo. The pope kept his books in the Stanza della Segnatura, the room that presumably served as a astudiolo. Raphael’s intention was not to make a series of portraits of notabilities; he nevertheless represented the greatest figures of European thought from Homer to Leonardo, Bramante and himself on the frescoes. These are not four separate paintings meant for the four walls of the room, but form a single series, with Raphael directing our eyes, like a dramatic poet, first to the Disputa, then to The Parnasse and The School of Athens. The series culminates in the figure of the pope sitting on his throne on the southern wall.

Marco Folin, professor at the University of Genoa talked about the Renaissance studiolo of the Ferrarese d’Este family, from the studioli in Belriguardo and Belfiore dating from the 1430s and 1440s to Alfonso I d’Este’s room in the castle of Ferrara.

Claudio Castelletti, a noted iconographer and professor at La Sapienza University in Rome, also discussed the Ferrara palace of Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara. Most notably, he examined the mythological and allegorical representations of the reliefs of the Via Coperta connecting the Castello Estenze with the Palazzo Municipale, as well as their Latin inscriptions. They adorned the “Studio di marmi” room of the duke from 1508. Based on the mythological scenes and the inscriptions, Castelletti determined the philosophico-iconographic programme of the study rooms (the camerini) of Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and explained how greatly they influenced the decoration of the grotta in Mantua of his daughter, Isabella d’Este.

The recent iconographic findings on the pictorial decoration of the Cinquecento studiolo in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, completed from 1569 to 1576 on the commission of Francesco I, Grand Duke of Tuscany, were reported by Valentina Conticelli, researcher at the Uffizi Gallery. In 1583, that is a few years after the studiolo was completed, Francesco I de’ Medici established the Tribuna of the Uffizi for his treasures of art. This new room was also a continuation of the Renaissance tradition of the studiolo.

The initiator of the conference, Professor Sabine Frommel examined the studiolo on the basis of Book 6 of Sebastiano Serlio’s I sette libri dell’ architettura [Seven books of architecture] and his architectural practice. Serlio arrived to Fontainebleau in 1541, bringing with him the architectural tradition of the Italian Renaissance. Since the creation of the studiolo of Urbino, the study became an essential part of the home of a humanist. The cabinet was its French counterpart. The buildings realised by Serlio, most importantly the chateau d’Ancy-le-Franc and Grand Ferrare at Fontainebleau, show how perfectly he combined Italian and French traditions in his art.

María José Redondo Cantera, lecturer at the Art History Department of the University of Valladolid discussed the place of the room for private reading in 16th century Spanish palaces. When restoring the Royal Alcazar in Madrid, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor had a room made for that purpose. His son, Philip II had a separate room installed for the purpose of studying and reading in the Alcazar in the new Torre Dorada, later enlarged by his grandson Philip IV.

Collections of exotic items were highly popular in 16th-century Portugal. In order to accommodate them, “Wunderkammers”, or “cabinets de curiosités” were created in aristocratic palaces – explained Nuno Senos, professor of architectural history at Nova University of Lisbon, at the beginning of his presentation. He then went on to examine contemporary sources, inventories and descriptions of court events in order to point out that palaces of the élite included a special room, a symbolic and at the same time real space, to house treasures from outside Europe, which can be rightfully called a studiolo in the context of Portuguese Renaissance.

All of the speakers illustrated their presentations with a rich selection of excellent pictures, thus helping us visualise the studioli of each country, those special rooms of Renaissance palaces that allowed their owners to separate themselves in the library or gallery in order to devote themselves to reading, meditating, or studying the sciences.

As a closure to the conference, the organisers – Mme Sabine Frommel and myself – thanked the participants for their contribution and gave a short summary of the two-day symposium. Both of us emphasised that research would continue.

After the final discussion speakers visited the hall decorated with the allegories of virtue, as well as all the medieval and Renaissance halls and spaces of the Esztergom castle. They then went to see the most significant and most intact monument of Hungarian Renaissance architecture of European importance, a chapel annexed to the cathedral in 1506–1507 on the commission of Tamás Bakócz, Archbishop of Esztergom, the work of architect-sculptor Andrea Ferrucci – a close collaborator of Michelangelo’s – and Johannes Fiorentinus. Participants of the conference admired the unique collections of the cathedral’s treasury and the Christian Museum, following which the conference was crowned with a Renaissance concert given in the early Gothic chapel of the Esztergom Castle.

It is clear from this short summary of the presentations that the spacious hall, installed in the middle of the 15th century as a studiolo on the first floor – the piano nobile – of the royal, later archiepiscopal palace of the Esztergom Castle, stands closer to Italian examples than to those in Western Europe. For us, the information available on the studioli in Ferrara, Belriguardo and Belfiore is especially important, since Archbishop János Vitéz had a close, friendly relationship with the head of the Ferrara Academy, master Guarino Veronese (1374–1460). Guarino created a veritable new Athens in Ferrara where pupils came in great numbers from all over the world – Janus Pannonius informs us in his poem The Glories of Guarino. A magnificent poem by Guarino provided the iconographic programme for the pictorial decoration of the studiolo in the Belfiore Castle. Among the talented Hungarian young men sent to Guarino’s school in Ferrara by János Vitéz, a painter by the name of Michele Pannonio, an illustrious artist of Quattrocento Ferrarese painting, also took part in the painting of its murals, the allegories of the Muses. The direct cultural relationship between the Kingdom of Hungary and Ferrara in the 1440s–1450s preceded the close contacts established with the city after the marriage of King Matthias and Beatrice of Aragon in 1476. We must note here that all three children of Beatrice’s sister, Eleonora and Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, spent long years in Buda in Matthias’s court. We may thus almost be certain that the design of the studiolo in Mantua of their first-born, Isabella d’Este, was inspired by Hungarian Renaissance studioli as well. From among Renaissance studioli in Hungary, the one in Esztergom fortunately more or less survived – the others, including the one in Buda, exist no more.

From among the Italian studioli known for us today, the one presented by Professor Christoph Frommel, the Camera della Segnatura commissioned by Pope Julius II and built in 1508–1512, half a century after the Esztergom studiolo, has the most similarities with the latter. The commissioner of this spacious, high hall was also a pontiff (the sovereign pontiff), like the commissioner of the Esztergom hall, the Prince-Primate of Hungary, a public dignitary (the first man after the king). This accounts for the highly representative function of both studioli, that of the Pope and the Primate alike. However, none of the studioli mentioned in the presentations or the specialised literature was made for a humanist scholar of international renown, who at the same time was the founding chancellor of a European university with four faculties, endowed with a papal approval. Kings, dukes or generals – like Federico da Montefeltro, Lord of Urbino – or monks needed only a smaller “cabinet” for reading or studying. Previously, there had been such a room in Esztergom too, in the 12th-century dwelling tower – a fact my attention was kindly drawn to by the foreign participants of our conference during our tour of the castle.

This small room with a floor space of only 2×1.5 m is adjacent to the ornate medieval throne room on the first floor of the eastern wing, and opens from it with an elaborate door. It is flooded with light through a twin-window occupying the entire eastern wall, with a view on the Danube. Some fragments of the Renaissance mural paintings survived on its side walls, indicating that it was still in use in the 15th century; in other words, Archbishop János Vitéz may have used it as a studiolo. In doing so he may have followed in the footsteps of his great ideal, the 12th-century king, Béla III, famous patron of the arts and sciences and builder of the medieval walls of the fortified castle we can see even today, who no doubt had intended this room to be a study adjacent to his throne room.

János Vitéz certainly needed a bigger and more representative room to present visually the university’s programme on frescoes at the inauguration ceremony on 20 June 1467 and subsequently to have discussions with professors and other eminent European humanists close to his library. It is most likely that the venue of the Esztergom symposia Galeotto Marzio writes about, at which King Matthias was often present, was this very room adorned with frescoes evoking Dante’s vision of Paradise.

The artistic representation of the allegories of virtues clearly inspires their viewer to contemplation and scholarly study. In his authentic topographical description of the Esztergom castle dating from the late 15th century, the humanist historian, Antonio Bonfini unfortunately makes no mention of the rooms of the dwelling tower, only of the then newly built great hall looking on the Danube and the Chapel of Sibyls attached to it, the hot-and-cold water baths and the terraced gardens – an excellent place for contemplation.8

After publishing the proceedings of our international conference and workshop on the Renaissance studiolo held in 2017, we wish to continue our work with a technical discussion on the frescoes’ attribution.

Translation by Orsolya Németh


1 An antecedent of the present article was “Botticelli in Esztergom” (Hungarian Review, Vol. II, No. 1, January 2011, pp. 80–95) by Mária Prokopp, which described the cleaning process of the Renaissance frescoes discovered in 1934–1937 in the medieval royal castle of Esztergom, during which the original artistic representation of the paintings had been unravelled and thus their attribution to Sandro Botticelli became possible.

2 Italy and Hungary. Humanism and Art in the Early Renaissance (Eds. Péter Farbaky, Louis A. Waldman), Firenze, 2011, Villa I Tatti, pp. 293–345.

3 Mária Prokopp – Zsuzsanna Wierdl – Konstantin Vukov: “Botticelli. Az Erények nyomában” [Botticelli: In Pursuit of the Virtues], Studiolo, 2009, pp. 1–179.

4 Mária Prokopp: “Botticelli in Esztergom”, Hungarian Review, Vol. II, No.1, pp. 80–95.

5 Mária Prokopp: “Les Fresques Renaissance du palais archiépiscopal d’Esztergom en Hongrie” [Renaissance Frescoes of the Archiepiscopal Palace of Esztergom in Hungary], Monumental, 2015, pp. 58–59.

6 Casparus Tribrachus: Eclogae, Hungarian National Library, Cod. 419.

7 Pope Paul II’s diploma to János Vitéz, archbishop of Esztergom, in which the pope approves of a university with four faculties, equal in rights to Bologna, in accordance with the archbishop’s draft: dated 19 May 1465, Esztergom Primatial Archives.

8 Antonio Bonfini: Rerum Hungaricarum decades libri IV.

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