Remembrance of a Garden of Szepesség

The New Sans Souci garden fell out of use some two-hundred years ago, yet its unusual history and charm, vivid in historical memory to this day, may well explain why it has retained a more prominent place in the cultural history of the region than many other baroque gardens of Hungary that have since fallen into ruin. Christened Új Sans Souci (or New Sans Souci), the garden was located near Illésfalva (Iliašovce in Slovak and Sperndorf in German), a village in the region of historical Hungary known as Szepesség (today perhaps more familiar as the Spiš region of Slovakia) some ten kilometers from Lőcse (Levoča in Slovak, Leutschau in German). The area of the one-time garden, which is still referred to as Sans Souci on maps made for tourists, lies roughly a half-hour’s walk from the village, on a knoll surrounded by pine forests. The surroundings have changed little. Far from the clutter of houses and buildings, nestled in the most beautiful landscape of the Szepesség, they recall the one time enchantment of the garden.

The garden was completed in 1776 on the basis of the conceptions of Count István Csáky and his wife Júlia Erdődy. Looking at satellite pictures of the landscape, one can still imagine how the original garden must have looked on the basis of its design, even if not a single building remains. It has fallen prey to the forces of nature, but there are no new buildings in the area, and no other traces of human intervention.

A short walk suffices to conjure the spirit of the place, and the way in which human hands once transformed the landscape. The flora is a bit different, the paths intertwine a bit differently, and the whole place has the mood of a park or grove. The view, if we manage to ignore the industrial area near Igló, creates the illusion of seeing the same breathtaking panorama, with the sublime peaks of the High Tatras in the background, as those who spoke so effusively of the place centuries ago.

The magical allure of the site, however, is clearly not the sole reason that historians of garden culture and local history return from time to time to attempt to reconstruct its past. It was also immortalized in the descriptions written in 1776–77 by people of various rank and station belonging to the milieu of the Count and Countess on the occasion of the opening of the garden, there are seven different verse and prose versions in four different languages.

Title page of the French verse account by Count Mihály Sztáray,
translated into Hungarian by Count István Csáky

Without exception, the authors of these varying descriptions, most of which were published in printed form, were inspired by the garden itself, and they seem almost to have been in competition with each other to extol not only the garden as a work of art (and a rarity in the area), but Count István Csáky, the man who designed and realized it.

Indeed, the unusual personalities of the Count and the Countess themselves may well offer some explanation for the continued interest in the history of the Sans Souci garden. Count István Csáky (1743–1810) never played a role in public life that would have made him a figure of any significance to historians. His view of life and his pioneering attempts to foster knowledge of and interest in culture among the local population, the majority of whom were Slovak speaking, has made him a man of high esteem to this day. People still pay tribute to his memory. Even in the 1960s, locals would regularly open his tomb in Illésfalva and throw money inside in the belief that it would bring them good fortune, even though there was nothing left in the village to recall the splendour of his day. His castle had burned down in the 1880s and nothing more than an obelisk remains to mark the spot where it once stood. The hill on which the Sans Souci garden is located is not only a popular site for excursions. There have been attempts on the part of the locals to excavate the foundations of the old buildings. These attempts have not all been in vain. The chapel, which was little more than ruins, has been reconstructed.

Count Csáky had estates in Zemplén County as well, the centre of which was Homonna. The castle, which is still in good condition, is today a museum, and some of the rooms are from Count Csáky’s day.

The Count and his wife Júlia Erdődy were both well-educated and refined. Their strong interest in French culture is reflected by the exceptionally rich collection of books that was once kept in the library in Homonna. Most of the books, which now can be found in the faraway Arad County Library of Romania, were collected by Júlia Erdődy. The collection, which consisted almost entirely of French books from the 18th century, was extraordinarily rich and modern not only by Hungarian standards, but in comparison with European libraries of the time. The library itself played a role in expanding our knowledge of the contributions to culture of Csáky and his wife. It was first chanced upon by the literary historian Sándor Eckhart in the 1920s, and he was the first person to seek to learn more about the distinguished couple. He was able to connect the library to the Sans Souci garden, and he pursued research in the family archives.

The character of Júlia Erdődy was immortalized by one of the most acknowledged authors of the period, Ferenc Kazinczy. He mentioned her in his correspondence and memoirs, referring to her as an emancipated, enlightened woman who, however, was of somewhat liberal morals. As someone who also had estates in Zemplén County, Kazinczy knew the aristocracy of Upper Hungary well, and he had information, if second hand, concerning the couple, whose attitudes and lifestyle were both far from customary at the time.

As I mentioned, the inspiration for the various descriptions, which verged on the literary, was not simply the unique beauty of the garden, but also the couple and their extravagant, even eccentric lifestyle. The wide range of these writings is itself rare, in particular if one keeps in mind that there are few examples in Hungarian literature of descriptions of gardens, though the genre was popular in the 18th century. At the moment only two other such works are known from the period. The poet György Bessenyei wrote about the visit of prince Rohan to Eszterháza in his poem entitled Esterházi vigasságok (Merry-Making in Eszterháza) in 1772. The other, written in 1782 by Le Roy de Lozembrune and entitled Les matinées de Lanschitz, was inspired by the Eszterházy garden in Cseklész (Bernolákovo in present-day Slovakia).

The first description of the New Sans Souci was written by Count Mihály Sztáray in French, though as of yet no copies have been found. We know that it existed, however, because it is mentioned on the title pages of all later descriptions. The second version, a translation to be more exact, which in all likelihood is the most similar of the extant descriptions to the one written by Sztáray, was published in printed form in 1776. It is from the pen of none other than the creator of the garden himself, Count Csáky, and entitled “A short description of the New Sans Souci, or A Place without Cares, originally written in French by G. SZ. M. [Count Mihály Sztáray] and translated into Hungarian by G. C. I. [Count István Csáky].” The Latin translation of the text by Antal Tamás Szirmay, the first sub-prefect of Zemplén County, was also based on the French original. It is notable because it contains a map of the garden. In 1777 three other descriptions were published that differ significantly from the earlier versions. The first one was a prosaic description in German entitled, “Das neue Sans Souci, beschrieben von Herrn Gr. M. Sz. übersetzt und mit einigen Zusätzen vermehrt von F. B. v. C.” The initials probably belong to a friend of the countess, Freiherr Baron von Capaun. The longest verse description was written by Lajos Erdődy Diószeghy, also in 1777.1 Finally, the version that differs the most from the putative original by Sztáray is the Latin poem written in 1777 by János Demkó, who was a divinity student in Szepes County.2

Four of the above mentioned six versions are significantly different from one another. They emphasize different details of the garden, offering an image of Sans Souci as if seen through a kaleidoscope. The authors introduce the garden in a manner that makes the reader feel as if he were strolling through it, mentioning all the beauties of nature and all the man-made adornments. Thus the descriptions are valuable as sources.

The New Sans Souci did not become the object of fascination because of its composition or the garden ornaments. Its significance lies not in the various solutions that were adapted to the problems of garden art, but rather in the fact that – as often is the case in periods of transition – its creator himself seemed to have sensed the winds of change and to have fashioned something in a relatively peripheral region of Hungary that drew visitors with the promise of new sights and sentiments. He gave expression to a new manner of seeing, making use, however, of old forms.

Only a few baroque gardens were built in the northern and north-eastern regions of Hungary, in part simply because of the cost (the construction of a garden was an indulgence not many could afford), but also in part because of the climate and the soil. Gardens were more often built in the flat regions of Hungary, in areas that were more hospitable. Most of the baroque gardens of Hungary are in the western and central part of the country, because the style became prevalent in Hungary somewhat later than in the rest of Europe, and the Baroque garden remained the ideal until the 1780s. Taking this into consideration, Csáky’s vision, which blended elements of the Baroque and the English landscape, seems particularly innovative for the time. The Sans Souci garden is based on a typically geometrical design, but the ground-plan is less rigidly regular and contains winding lines and additions that play new roles. This style is referred to as the sentimental garden.

Sans Souci was also distinctive because it was built on a site that was not ideally suited to an amusement garden. In general such gardens were designed to provide an area for recreation and the necessary accoutrements, but usually within a relatively narrowly confined space. The Sans Souci garden of Illésfalva, in contrast, was designed with greater ambitions in mind: it was expansive, encompassing hills and dales, and it was intended to provide a site for amusement in the most broad and even noble sense of the word. As one can read on the map included alongside Tamás Antal Szirmay’s Latin description, it was made to be a shelter “for the arts, solitude, peace, liberty, and love.”

The characteristics of the artificial ornaments and additions go beyond the classic solutions of the Baroque garden, though they certainly reflect the influence of the baroque. Count Csáky sought to create a garden in which the spirit of the Enlightenment would be readily discernible.

The Plan of New Sans Souci. Contemporary Drawing.
Commemorative obelisk of Sans Souci from the 19th century.
Decayed (Photograph from 1955)

It is worth making a few observations concerning the choice of the name, which itself unites these diverse influences. The Sans Souci garden in Potsdam, built by Prussian king Frederic II in 1744, was one of the most famous Baroque-Rococo gardens. He named it a place “without cares,” where he spent more and more time in quiet seclusion with the most prominent figures of the French Enlightenment, leading a life free of social constraints. The Potsdam garden was also built on a hill, and one of its most distinctive peculiarities was that there was a vineyard on its southern slope.

Apart from the siting, however, the two gardens have little else in common. The garden in Potsdam served as a model more on the basis of the nature of the social events that were held there. Csáky may have been influenced in his choice of the name for his garden by the mentality of the Prussian ruler himself, the French milieu that surrounded him in Sans Souci, and everything that the garden itself embodied at the time. In the case of Illésfalva, the notion of a life without troubles referred to the creation of a milieu in which social intercourse was determined by shared mentality, play, and art.

There is another circumstance worthy of mention that may also have made Sans Souci a sort of model for the couple. The father of Countess Júlia Erdődy also had a famous Baroque garden in Pozsony (today Bratislava, Slovakia) that was compared by contemporaries to the Sans Souci castle and garden of Potsdam. It also had a vineyard, and in front of the one-story building there was a Baroque ornamental garden. This example undoubtedly had a considerable influence on the couple, inspiring them to create an ideal place that they had known only from pictures and second-hand descriptions.

Any presentation of the garden should begin much as the descriptions of earlier centuries begin: before the garden was constructed, the landscape was wild and barren. The transformation of the area was a remarkable achievement in and of itself. The taming of nature created a kind of idyllic state: fertile lands that could be farmed, vegetable gardens instead of weeds, a parterre burgeoning with fruits and flowers.

The garden was relatively far from the village, so houses were built in which the owners and their guests found accommodation. The buildings, it should be noted, are remarkable for their modesty rather than the pomp typical of the baroque. Of the elements that seemed to allude to the Baroque, one should mention the geometrical garden near the buildings, itself divided into parterres.

Remains of the chapel in 1947
Remains of the chapel at present, under partial restoration

They were used to grow flowers, but also useful plants. There were straight paths bordered on either side by hedges, where peacocks strutted, and trellised arbours and other man-made edifices provided additional adornment. 

Another Baroque feature of the garden was the playing field, which however to some extent evokes the atmosphere of the fun parks that appeared much later. Winding paths led the visitor to the recreation area. In the centre of the field there was a pyramid-shaped theatre made of earth from which one could watch the games. There were tournaments, swings, pigeon shootings, and a carousel, which aroused the greatest enthusiasm among the visitors. The authors of the descriptions of the garden did not fail, of course, to take note of the carousel. Women could sit on swans, men could sit on horses, and while riding around they had to hit a heart that was hanging in front of them, or they could take aim at a head that popped up and shoot it with a lead bullet, or remove a ring with the help of a dagger. The winner was applauded.

One of the very innovative aspects of the playing field and indeed the entire garden was that it was open every day of the week. The locals could visit the grounds of the garden and try out the various games and pastimes as if they were visiting a public park. The Count also had a ballroom built for the entertainment of the villagers. This enlightened view of life won him the praise of those who wrote about the garden, in part because such enlightened ideas did not really begin to gain ground in Hungary until considerably later.

Other aspects of Sans Souci were reminiscent of a sentimental garden, especially Parnassus hill, a distant rise with a church on its summit, difficult to approach. According to the descriptions, the building, which was dedicated to Apollo, was surrounded by nine life-size statues in honour of the muses. Celebrations and ceremonies were held in imitation of events of Antiquity. The descriptions mention an important detail of these rituals, according to which the daughter of the Count and Countess wove a garland for those who arrived with her virgin hands. Thus, to the extent that the sources are reliable, we know that Csáky and his wife had a child. Archival records reveal that the little girl, who according to the descriptions in 1776 was twisting garlands on Parnassus hill, died unexpectedly in 1777. They had no more children, and the Count, as if the tapestry of his dreams had hopelessly frayed, began to spend less and less time in Sans Souci. In 1785, less than ten years after the garden had been opened, he turned the management of his estates over to his wife and withdrew to his recently built, quite modest manor house in the village near Homonna, to which he gave the telling name Stephans Ruhe, or “István’s peace.” From then on Sans Souci was only used by his wife in the summer months. She continued to organize gatherings on the grounds, as the surviving records concerning the various items ordered for the events suggest. The records indicate that the gatherings were similar to those in Eszterháza, though considerably more

View from Illésfalva (Iliasovce). Sans Souci was built beyond the forest and the ridge

modest. The Countess spent a great deal of time in Sans Souci, until she left Szepesség forever in 1803, indeed so much that she hardly ever used the manor house in Illésfalva.

The Count and Countess separated, and in 1803, after some twenty years had passed, they divided their property as well. The aging countess, citing reasons of health, entrusted the management of their affairs to her husband and moved to Pozsony to be among members of her family. She died in 1809.

The buildings in Sans Souci were still standing in 1803, though many of the adornments of the garden no longer existed. The transformation of the garden and the ruin of the holiday home was a gradual process. With the death of his wife, the Count seemed to have lost any desire to maintain Sans Souci. He intended neither to return, nor to redesign or use it for other purposes. The destiny of the eccentric couple and the famous garden were intertwined, and there were many legends of its ruin according to which the garden was deliberately destroyed as a sort of response to the libertine lifestyle of the countess. The buildings have indeed been demolished, but this was the result of a longer process. Every man-made addition, each a testimony to human vanity, slowly vanished from Sans Souci. The only building that has survived the centuries is the chapel, which was the only part that was of any importance to Count Csáky in the years leading up to his death in 1810.

NOTES:

1 The Hungarian title is: Ujj Sans-Soucinak, avagy gond nélkűl való helynek rövid lé irása mely francia nyelvben G. Sz. M. által irattatott magyarra pedig G. C. I. forditotta mellyet utóllyára egyűgyű magyar versekben foglalt Diószeghy Erdődy Lajos [in English translation, “A short description of the New Sans Souci, or a place without cares, originally written in French by Gr. M. Sz. and translated into Hungarian by G. C. I., then written in simple verse by Erdődy Diószegi].

2 Novum in Scepusio Sans-Souci Sive Locus Absque Curis Versu Epico celebratus Per Joannem Nepomucenum Demko Clericum Dioecesis Scepusiensis, SS. Theoligiae Studiosum. The seventh version is the Hungarian translation of the German text by Imre Vitéz. It was first mentioned in the correspondence of Ferenc Kazinczy.

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