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29.05.2018
10:51

Bookshops in Budapest

As bookshops continue to close down in cities across the world, the pleasure of browsing becomes ever more difficult to indulge. Shopping online is undeniably convenient, if you know precisely which title you want to buy. But how do you find out about those books you never knew you wanted? Thankfully in Budapest there are still plenty of places where you can give yourself over to the serendipity of the shelves. Here we list our favourites, not in preferential order, but adding them one at a time, as we revisit (and making sure always to leave with a purchase or—in the case of bookshops with cafés attached—to stop for a drink and snack).

1. MASSOLIT

Massolit is a very special place, an old-fashioned bookshop, enticingly and scruffily crammed floor to ceiling with titles on diverse subjects from Archaeology to Zoroastrianism, mainly (but not only) in English. It takes its name from the Soviet literary clique of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. A warren of interconnected rooms leads through to a garden courtyard at the back, where you can sit with your book and a drink. There is a bar in the main room where you place your orders (simple food is also available). Although right in the heart of Budapest’s ‘Party District’, well known for its rowdy ruin pubs, Massolit preserves an air of wonderfully nerdy calm, possibly because it serves no alcohol. A chalkboard notice kindly asks co-workers to remember to order something from time to time if they intend to spend all day there on their laptops.

 

Last visited: 28th May

Book: Selected Poems of Endre Ady

Drink: Cherry juice and soda.

 

Massolit Books & Café

Budapest VII. Nagy Diófa u. 30

Open until 7.30pm.

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2. ATLANTISZ KÖNYVSZIGET

The Könyvsziget or 'Book Island' is a split-level bookstore belonging to the Atlantisz publishing house, whose list is strong on philosophy, history, art, classics and other Humanities subjects. Most of the ground floor is devoted to books in English and other languages. The location is extremely central, right behind Deák tér where three of the city's four metro lines intersect and the terminus of the 100E airport buses. Visitors to Pest's city centre and to the Jewish District will find this bookshop very handily placed. Service is friendly and there are one or two chairs for you sit down while you browse.

 

Last visited: 29th May

Book: Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary

(For a review of the recent exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery dealing with Communist-era art censorship, see here.)

 

Atlantisz Könyvsziget

Budapest VI. Anker köz 1–3

Closed Sat from 2pm and all day Sun.

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3. BEERS AND BOOKS

This is an eccentric and deeply delightful second-hand bookshop in Ujlipótváros, Budapest’s 13th District. You go down a few steps into a cool space lined on two sides with bookshelves, and on a third with an array of beers. You can buy either beer, or books, or both. It is also possible to drink a beer while you browse. I chose a bottle from the cool cabinet and it was poured out for me by the taciturnly friendly proprietor and served in a handsome long-stemmed glass. Beer in hand, you can pull up the high-backed faux-leather chair to a shelf of your choice and begin browsing. The offering is mainly in Hungarian but there is a small section of books in English as well. Not a chain, not a franchise, not an imitation of anyone else’s commercial prototype; this is a true Budapest original. The left-field choice of background music adds to the charm: on a scorching hot day in late May we were regaled with 'Santa Claus is coming to Town'.

 

Last visited: 30th May

Book: Lajos Hatvany: Urak és emberek. A novel trilogy on the history of Budapest Jewry, from their arrival, through assimilation to persecution (for more on Lajos Hatvany, his family story and his brother’s celebrated art collection, see Blue Guide Budapest)

Drink: Monyó Flying Rabbit craft beer (for more on the Monyó brewery see Blue Guide Budapest)

 

Beers and Books

Budapest XIII. Pannónia u. 46/b

Open until 9pm.

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4. BESTSELLERS

Opened in 1992 by accomplished bookseller Tony Láng and still going from strength to strength after over a quarter of a century. Bestsellers has firmly established itself as the go-to destination for people looking for English-language books in Budapest. They have an excellent range of stock over many genres, including children’s books, newpapers and magazines. The section on Hungary and its history is particularly strong. Staff are well-informed and helpful. Browsing here is a delight. The location, slap bang in the heart of downtown Pest, could not be bettered.

 

Last visited: 31st May

Book: District VIII by Adam LeBor.

 

Bestsellers

Budapest V. Október 6. u. 11

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5. FUGA

The Hermes Udvar or Hermes Court, was built in 1905 for a company specialising in safe deposits. Operated as such until the First World War, after which the building was converted into flats. The architects, Géza Kármán and Gyula Ullmann, are known for a number of early 20th-century buildings in Pest, in a recognisably thickset, Seccessionist style. Today the Hermes Court is home to FUGA, the Budapest Center of Architecture, with a bookshop, café and exhibition spaces. The bookshop is excellently stocked, with a huge array of titles on fine art, applied art, architecture, urban planning etc in Hungarian and English, all enticingly spread out on the enormous central table. There are cosy nooks to sit and have a drink and at the back and upstairs there are exhibition rooms. The shows here are usually free and—naturally enough—take architecture as their subject matter.

 

Last Visited: 1st June

Book: Budapest Atlantisza by Emőke Tomsics, a study of the development of inner Pest in the late 19th century

Drink: Tomato juice

 

FUGA

Budapest V. Petőfi Sándor u. 5

Closed Tues.

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6. RÓZSAVÖLGYI

The Rózsavölgyi building is landmark example of Hungarian Modernism, built in 1910–11 by Béla Lajta. Part of the building is occupied by a chemist’s, the other by a bookshop. Historically Rózsavölgyi began life as a music publisher and shop, run by the son of a popular composer, and there is still a wide range of instruments, scores, sheet music and CDs on sale on the ground floor. At the front is a section of souvenir books and guides. Upstairs there are books on art and architecture, and further up still, the Rózsavölgyi Salon, which hosts muisc and theatre events and has a café (opens an hour and a half before performances).

 

Last Visited: 4th June

Book: Schirmer Performance Editions, The Classical Era (piano music)

 

Rózsavölgyi

Budapest V. Szervita tér 5.

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7. LÍRA

 

As the name, ‘Lyre’, suggests, this chain of bookstores specialises in music as well as in the printed word. They have shops well distributed across Budapest, in busy downtown areas of Pest as well as in residential districts of Buda (typically in shopping centres). The offering is wide, with a selection covering fiction and non-fiction, arts and sciences, adults and children and usually with a good range of titles in English and other languages. A link to the list of stores is given below. The illustration above was taken in the Múzeum körút bookshop opposite the Hungarian National Museum.

 

Last visited: 5th June

Book: Ignác Romsics: A Short History of Hungary

 

Líra (at many addresses across town; for a list, see here).

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8. HUNGARIAN NATIONAL MUSEUM

 

The bookshop of the Hungarian National Museum is in the building’s lofty Neoclassical lobby, to the left of the ticket desk. You can visit the shop without entering the museum. Its stock ranges from books to souvenir replicas, maps, posters and postcards. The books are often a motley bunch and it is always worth popping in to browse and to see what new titles have cropped up. There is always a selection in English and other languages. Titles held here are on history, art history and the museum collections themselves.

 

Last visited: 6th June

Book: The Dowry of Beatrice. Exhibition catalogue on Italian majolica and the court of King Matthias Corvinus

Drink: Sparkling mineral water. The museum has a café in the basement which you can only visit with a ticket. When the weather is fine, you can sit outside in the courtyard.

 

Hungarian National Museum

Budapest VIII. Múzeum krt. 14–16

Closed Mon.

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9. ÍRÓK BOLTJA

 

The ‘Writers’ Bookshop’ is not only famous for inhabiting the premises of the celebrated Japán Coffeehouse, haunt of artists and poets at the turn of the 20th century. It is also well known as the finest highbrow bookshop in the city. The shelves reach floor to ceiling (the topmost volumes are accessed by ladder) and the titles in stock cover poetry, fiction, philosophy, architecture, history, economics, law, sociology, theatre, gastronomy, design (and more). Books in English and other languages are on the upper gallery. The offering includes books on Budapest and a good choice of Hungarian literature in translation. There are also tables where you can sit and browse. Írók boltja often holds afternoon readings, discussions and other presentations: it is at the centre of a lively literary scene.

 

Last visited: 7th June

Book: Budapest Írókönyv (Liber ad scribendum). A beautifully presented anthology of archive photographs and extracts from prose and poetry thickly interspersed with blank pages, so you can write your travel journal. (The trouble is, the book is too beautiful to write in.)

 

Írók boltja

Budapest VI. Andrássy út 45

Open until 7pm, daily except Sun.

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10. HUNGARIAN NATIONAL GALLERY

 

The bookshop attached to the Hungarian National Gallery, in the Danube-facing wing of the former royal palace on Buda’s Castle Hill, has an excellent selection of books and souvenirs. The books on offer include publications on Budapest and Hungary, exhibition catalogues, artist monographs and numerous works on art history, including a wide choice of titles in English. The shop is separated from the museum: you can visit the shop without an entrance ticket. The same is true of the café, which is in the opposite wing of the same building.

 

Last visited: 8th June

Book: Painting the Town Red by Bob Dent

Drink: Iced coffee

 

Hungarian National Gallery

Budapest I. Castle Hill

Closed Mon.

28.03.2018
14:06

The 'Romanesque Hall' in Budapest

At last, after several years of closure for renovations and transformations, the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest is emerging from its chrysalis of scaffolding and tarpaulin. Stretching out its wings to dry at the moment is the Romanesque Hall, a spacious rectangular room inspired by the basilica architecture of Early Christian Europe. Newly restored, it is open to the public for free visits until 2nd April.

 

Information about the Romanesque Hall in the press tends to concentrate on statistics: how many years it has been closed for (70); how many kilos of gold were spent on the refurbishment (5.5); how many more square metres of space the museum will gain after all the restorations (2,000). And logistical details about the new café, the lifts, the disabled access and the solar panels. Hurrah! But what about the Romanesque Hall itself?

 

It is open now for just a few more days. After it closes again, it will not reopen until October. So, until then, here are some photos and a description.

 

The Museum of Fine Arts building as a whole was completed in 1906, the decorations of the Romanesque Hall a couple of years previously. The entire edifice was conceived as part of an elaborate scheme of celebrations concocted in 1896 to mark the (approximate) thousandth anniversary of the Magyar occupation of the Carpathian Basin. Unsurprisingly, the decorative programme draws from Hungarian history as well as from European architectural precedents.

 

The hall is a large rectangle, paved in a geometric pattern of yellow, red and grey. It is entered through double doors framed by a cast of the Goldene Pforte, the Romanesque west doorway of Freiberg cathedral (c. 1225). Elaborately moulded round arches are borne on pillars bearing statues of Daniel, the Queen of Sheba, Solomon and John the Baptist (left) and Aaron, Bathsheba, David and John the Evangelist (right). Above, in the tympanum, is a scene of the Adoration of the Magi. When it first opened, the whole hall was used as a cast gallery, displaying copies of some of the most famous works of antiquity and the Renaissance. Today just this portal remains, and one other, at the head of the left-hand ambulatory, a copy of the south door of the church of St Michael in Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia), Transylvania.

 

The rectangular space is articulated internally by an arcade which creates a sort of peristyle effect, giving an ambulatory on three sides. The arcade is borne on stout columns alternating with square pillars decorated with trompe l’oeil rustication. The column capitals are richly carved and gilded. The motifs are mainly floral but there are also capitals with paired birds pecking at grapes, stylised owls and stags. Above the square pillars rise two triumphal arches, spanning the inner space and adorned with pairs of painted Hungarian saints (Stephen and Ladislas on one; Margaret and Elizabeth on the other), with signs of the Zodiac in the soffits.

 

The walls are completely covered in painted decoration. On the long sides are Hungarian kings and heroes and coats of arms. Between them are peacocks (symbols of immortality) and trees bearing silver fruits, reminiscent of the design of the 12th-century mosaics in King Roger’s room in Palermo. Latin words in ‘Gothick’ script exhort us to occupy ourselves with Truth, Science and the Arts. Our rewards, presumably, will be the glories promised on the other side: Eternity, Omnipotence and Immortality.

 

On the short wall above the Goldene Pforte is a painted roundel of the Virgin and Child flanked by angels holding Gothick Latin legends. At the opposite end is a matching roundel of the Good Shepherd, and more angels with Gothick legends in Greek: ‘God is Holy’; ‘Strong, Holy, Immortal’. Between the angels, at each end, is a three-light blind aperture with colonnettes divided by trompe l’oeil drapery. The drapery device is continued all around the top of the walls, below the line of the simple pitched roof. Above it rise painted towers and battlements. The iconography here is all derived from mosaics in early Christian churches.

 

But this is a secular space. The primary aim of its decorative scheme is to demonstrate Hungary’s position at the heart of Europe, an integral part of the continent’s history as well as its artistic and cultural traditions. It is a testament to an age of optimism, confidence and self-belief.

Daniel and the Queen of Sheba: detail of the Goldene Pforte cast
Peacocks, Tree of Life and trompe l'oeil drapery

Charles I: King and Collector

This magnificent display of Old Master paintings from the royal collection amassed by King Charles I, many of them reunited for the first time since the mid-17th century at the Royal Academy in London (running until mid-April) has been met with frenzied enthusiasm. And rightly so. There are some stunning works on show here, by Titian, Veronese, Mantegna, Correggio, Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck and others. Many of them are from the Royal Collection. Others are from the National Gallery, London. Still others have been borrowed from international collections, to which they made their way following the Commonwealth Sale after the beheading of Charles I, when his collection was dispersed (from 1649).

 

Charles I, as is well known, was frail and diminutive of stature but magnificent in his own conception of what kingship meant. His ideas about the Divine Right of kings were to be his undoing: he met his death by beheading in January 1649. While alive, Charles made full use of his own image to create an iconic status for himself as God’s appointee. In Britain he was the first monarch to do this. With the aid of his court painter, Anthony Van Dyck, who was appointed to the position in 1632, he drew on Classical models, derived from the painting and sculpture of Renaissance Italy, to create an awe-inspiring image of a ruler somehow superhuman. Superhuman but not remote. Just as Roman imperial statuary was impressive in its ability to portray a natural likeness, so the portraits of the king and his family by Van Dyck show a real man, inhabiting and dominating the picture space in regal fashion, but a flesh and blood mortal nonetheless.

 

The paintings here, though ‘reunited’ in a sense (King Charles exhibited them throughout his palaces and the two great equestrian portraits of the king in armour would never have hung side by side in his lifetime as they do now in the Royal Academy Central Hall), cannot, in the exhibition space offered by the RA, replicate the effect they would have produced when seen at the end of carefully contrived vistas at Whitehall, for example. What they do show is the way Van Dyck, inspired by Rubens, reached constantly back into the world of the north Italian Renaissance (and through that, back into antiquity) for iconographical models to convey divinity and power. These models were made available to the artist by his royal patron, who bought wisely and well, with the express aim of setting up a collection to rival those of the great courts of Europe. His desire to do so appears to have been kindled during a visit to Spain in 1623, in an attempt to secure the hand of the Infanta Maria Anna. The marriage negotiations failed but the young prince had seen the magnificent portable trappings of the Spanish Habsburg court and his baggage train on his journey home to London creaked and groaned with masterpieces by Titian and Velázquez. After 1627, when the House of Gonzaga, rulers of Mantua, became extinct in the male line, Charles purchased the bulk of the family’s stupendous collection, which included masterpieces by Mantegna (the Triumph of Caesar cycle) and Correggio (The School of Love, which fetched a particularly good price in the Commonwealth Sale. Young men loved Correggio’s semi-suppressed salaciousness).

 

Rubens, who first visited London in 1629 on a peace-keeping mission from Spain, was to dub King Charles ‘the greatest amateur of paintings among the princes of the world’.There are many highlights in this show. To choose just two, it would be Titian’s Supper at Emmaus (c. 1534; sold for £600 in 1651, now in the Louvre), a magnificent scene with calm mountain peaks of the Veneto dolomites in the background and a cat and dog duelling under the table; and the deliciously self-satisfied self-portrait by Van Dyck, in which he looks complacently out at the viewer, holding up the gold chain that he received upon his knighthood in 1632, and pointing with his other hand at an outsize sunflower, surely a symbol of gilded royal patronage.

 

This is a triumph of a show, not least for the extraordinary borrowing power it demonstrates. Many of the works on display here are not readily lent. It also reminds us how intrinsically interlinked are all the strands of human endeavour and human progress. There has always been a great symbiosis between artists, of course. Antonello da Messina was influenced by Netherlandish painters. Dürer was influenced by Bellini. Without the great allegorical celing paintings of Venice, by Veronese and Tintoretto, or of Rome and Florence by Pietro da Cortona, or of Parma by Correggio, could we ever have had the Banqueting House in London by Rubens? Not likley. And the art of Rubens was brought to foggy Albion by Charles I. The canvases he painted for the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace, between 1629 and 1630, celebrating the power and wisdom of Charles’ father and predecessor James I and culminating in the apotheosis of the monarch, had brought allegory, monumentalism, grandeur and godliness to the art of Britain. It came to a squalid end. It was through a window of that very Banqueting House that Charles I climbed onto the scaffold. His cosmography, his taste, his spirit and his vision were extinguished at an axe-stroke.

 

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

A full official exhibition catalogue is available on Amazon, check the links below.

08.03.2018
15:18

A late Art Nouveau treasure in Budapest

"Mrs Schiffer and her Daughters" by József Rippl-Rónai, now in the Hungarian National Gallery

On one of the leafy residential streets opening off Andrássy út, the great 19th-century radial boulevard of downtown Budapest, stands the Schiffer Villa, slightly ponderous and ungainly from the outside, but an extraordinary treasure trove within. Since the 1990s it has been the headquarters of the Hungarian Customs and Tax Authority: not in itself a great draw, perhaps, but they have laid out a museum on the subject on the first and second floors and access is free of charge.

 

The house, in a late Secessionist style, was built in 1910–12 by József Vágó for the wealthy railway magnate and patron of the arts Miksa Schiffer, who lived here with his wife and four daughters. Vágó designed both the exterior (inspired by Josef Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet in Brussels) and the interior furnishings; the result is a Gesamtkunstwerk in the manner of the Wiener Werkstätte.

Detail of the stained glass window in the central hall.

Beautiful stained glass with a repeated pattern of swallows allows light to filter into the entrance lobby. From here, you go up steps into the main hall, the centrepiece of the villa. At the top of the steps is a statue of a seated male nude, part of the original furnishings. There was formerly a marble fountain in the middle of the floor (bronze statuettes belonging to it are now in the Hungarian National Gallery). To the right, between the doors (which are inlaid with beautiful wood and mother-of-pearl marquetry), is a Carrara marble jardinière borne on stout yellow columns and decorated with carved reliefs of male and female nudes. The walls are clad in deep green Zsolnay tiles picked out with red studs in imitation of rivets. A tall window completely fills the left wall, its stained-glass panels (reproductions) designed by Károly Kernstok and showing women and children in a pastoral, Elysian setting. The aim of the villa’s entire design was to show how art can lift mankind heavenwards.

Marquetry work on one of the interior doors
Schiffer's monogram on a doorhandle

There is lovely stained glass in all the rooms on the main floor, much of it continuing the theme of bird life. Some of the door handles still bear Miksa Schiffer’s ‘SM’ monogram. Archive photographs show the villa as it appeared in Schiffer’s day. The large painting that hung in the study, Summer by Béla Iványi Grünwald, and another that hung in the main salon, a famous work by József Rippl-Rónai showing Mrs Schiffer and her daughters in the garden of their summer villa, are both now in the Hungarian National Gallery.

Wooden stairs lead up to a gallery overlooking the main hall. In Mrs Schiffer’s former bedroom, above where her bed once stood, hangs a copy of István Csók’s Spring, which features girls in diaphanous pink gowns under a blossom-laden cherry tree. The original has survived and hangs in the National Gallery. Csók, a lover of bright colour, had studied in Paris, as indeed had all the artists whose work is featured here. Csók was influenced mainly by the Impressionists, Kernstok by the Fauves, Rippl-Rónai by the Nabis (in fact he was one of their number, le nabi hongrois). Iványi Grünwald, who had gone to Paris together with Csók, went on to become a founder member of Hungary’s Nagybánya school of plein-air painting, in 1896.

 

The customs and excise and tax-collection exhibits (captions also in English) are interesting and include material on smuggling and its detection. One curiosity among the confiscated items is a bottle of an unidentified spirit in which floats a huge cobra with a scorpion in its mouth.

 

Blue Guide Budapest will be published in April

István Csók's "Spring", once in Mrs Schiffer's bedroom (designed to fit around her bed-head), now in the Hungarian National Gallery

The Scythians at the British Museum

“The Scythians: Warriors of ancient Siberia” is the title of a major new exhibition at the British Museum, London, running until 14th January. The show attempts to redeem from oblivion the culture and character of a people who strewed their path across the steppe with gold but who are otherwise little remembered and little understood.

The Scythians flourished in the 9th–3rd centuries BC. Their heartland was the Siberian steppe, but at their greatest extent they controlled territory and maintained trading links from north China to the Black Sea. They were never a single people, but a loose confederation of tribes, sharing certain customs and, it appears, speaking a language or languages with Iranian roots. They were herdsmen and hunters, nomadic and warlike, fighting both outsiders and each other over territory and livestock. They were superb horsemen. Their mounted archers, riding with saddles but without stirrups, struck fear into the hearts of Persians, Assyrians and Macedonians. And it appears that Scythian women rode as expertly—and fought as dauntlessly—as Scythian men. Scythian art is filled with representations of totem animals: deer, big cats, birds of prey. Chief of all these, though, was the horse. It was the horse that, in death, was caparisoned for the final great ride, to the world beyond, where it is presumed it would live again with its owner, roaming and grazing Elysian pastures. It is thanks to the Scythians' mastery of the horse and their skill with metal that they were able to rise to dominance.

 

The first room sets the tone for the show with an audio display of howling Siberian wind. As it whistles in your ears, you can admire the stunning gold belt plaque of the 4th–3rd century BC: a warrior, presumed deceased, lies in the lap of a woman, presumably a deity, under a tree in whose boughs he has slung his quiver of arrows. Beside him a groom holds two horses, their harness very carefully rendered. It is exquisite—and in Scythian terms, quite late. This type of narrative scene does not seem to emerge until about the 4th century and human representations before this seem to be rare. Instead we find examples of the so-called “animal style”: gold plaques fashioned in the form of stylised beasts: stags, vultures, panthers, often shown tortuously attacking each other, often inlaid with pieces of turquoise. Some of these plaques are quite large in size, designed to be worn on a belt around the waist. Others are smaller, for decorating bow cases or quivers or for use as bridle fittings. Others are tiny appliqué pieces that would have been attached en masse to articles of clothing.

 

These gold pieces were first revealed to the world in the early 18th century, when Peter the Great sent out exploration parties to Siberia in search of natural resources and trade routes. The pieces that were unearthed, from grave mounds, were all sent back to St Petersburg and drawings of all of them were made to serve as a record. It is from the Hermitage Museum that most of the pieces in the current exhibition have come.

 

A section of the finds in this exhibition were also preserved by ice. Water percolating into the tomb barrows, and afterwards freezing, has remained there ever since as a layer of permafrost. As the arid conditions in Egypt, so the freezing conditions in the Altai have preserved materials otherwise rare to find: human skin, leather, wood and textiles. There are pieces of clothing, horse apparel and tomb hangings made of wool, leather, squirrel fur, sable and felt. The women, presumably the high-born ones, had diamonds on the soles of their shoes, almost literally: a beautiful moccasin with a geometric decoration of pyrite lozenges on the sole is extraordinarily well preserved. The tomb remains of a Pazyryk chief from the Altai Mountains shows that these Scythians extensively tattooed their arms, legs and shoulders. It also shows how savage their battles could be. This man—not young, about 60 years old; and not short, about 176cm tall—died of axe blows to the head. Scythian warfare did not only take the form of mounted archery; they also fought hand to hand in close and bloody combat.

 

Which brings us to the question of what they looked like. This man was scalped, so the top of his head is missing. But as far as we can tell, the Pazyryk Scythians shaved their heads leaving only a tuft of hair at the crown. This applied equally to the women, who twisted this tuft into a tall topknot, threading it through a narrow, very tall conical headdress to form a sort of fountain pony tail. There is some debate as to whether the men wore facial hair. The gold belt plaque showing the dead warrior and his groom portrays both men with walrus moustaches. The Kul Olba cup (4th century), from the Black Sea (modern Ukraine), shows figures with flowing beards. There cannot have been a single type, or a single style. Fashions must have come and gone, as they do today, and different Scythian groups probably had different habits. The Pazyryk chieftain seems to have been clean shaven, but in death he was equipped with a false beard. Scholars speculate that it might have had a ritual function. False beards as divine appurtenances are not an anthropological oddity; they are known from ancient Egypt, for example.

 

The Scythians did not write anything down, which is frustrating, because we never hear them speaking for themselves. Instead, we hear from Herodotus, who encountered the Scythians of the Black Sea and wrote about their customs and behaviour. Some finds appear to bear out his accounts. He mentions their custom of inhaling the vapour of toasted hemp seeds at the funerals of their chiefs, and “howling with pleasure” as they did so. And sure enough, a hemp-smoking kit has been unearthed. Contact with Greece from the 8th century BC had an influence not only on their art but on their diet, as the traditional fermented mare’s milk was replaced with wine (a Greek kylix is one of the grave goods on display here), which they apparently drank undiluted, gaining a reputation for alcoholic excess. The famous Pazyryk rug, the world’s oldest known carpet, was found in a Scythian tomb, but in its design shows clear Persian influence. It would be fascinating to know who made it: a Scythian influenced by Persian forms? Or a Persian working to Scythian taste? The Scythians, at least in origin, were a nomadic people, and their goods are mostly portable. A round wooden table with lathe-turned legs reminds us of this: it is a collapsible table, which can be folded up and easily carried away. They took their art with them, and assimilated other styles and ideas as they went. But to what extent did they depend on settled peoples for manufacture?

7th-century gold plaque in the form of a stag, Hungarian National Museum.

The supremacy of the Scythians was waning by 200 BC, as other nomads moved in to replace them, or, as is probable in some cases, as they themselves settled down. They flashed brilliantly across the screen for a mere few hundred years. There is probably much of their culture left to find. And they are not entirely forgotten. In Hungary, for instance, the “Scythian gold stag” has mythical significance. There are two examples in the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

 

This is a very enjoyable exhibition, tantalisingly suggestive. It answers fewer questions than it asks, which is always the best way, leaving you thinking long after you have left the museum.

 

Annabel Barber

Grammar and Grace

St Martin altarpiece (1490, unknown provenance), Hungarian National Gallery.

This October it will be 500 years since Luther made public his famous 95 theses in Wittenberg. The anniversary is being celebrated on the web, by a pilgrimage and festival, with events in and around Wittenberg itself, as well as in print. In Budapest, the Hungarian National Museum has devoted an exhibition to the subject of the Reformation in Hungary: Ige-idők (Grammar and Grace), which runs until November 5th.

 

The displays open with a huge black and white reproduction of a Last Judgement scene, as an illustration of the late medieval mindset. The world is presented as a place beset by sin and temptation. When the final trumpet sounds, the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished. Altarpieces of the northern European school reinforce the point--and make it clear that the only hope we have of navigating the journey successfully is by bargaining and mediation. God's Word is our guide, but it comes down to us in Latin, a language we do not speak, so His message has to be transcribed pictorially, through stories of Christ and the exemplary lives of the saints. We cannot communicate directly with God, so the saints intercede for us, helping us to achieve salvation. This will never be attained without the purifying fire of Purgatory; the tools for getting out quickly are faith and good works, but because these are notoriously unreliable currency, we are offered the chance to pay, through the purchase of indulgences.

 

This, in a nutshell, is the pre-Reformation Christian world. Mysterious, untransparent, trammelled by an unwieldy bureaucracy of saints, and, as an inevitable result, corrupt. The first room spends some time presenting Rome as the arch culprit. It is Rome that allows the system of indulgences. Rome also wilfully misleads her flock. This is illustrated by a woodcut of two feet. As a piece of evidence to support the curators’ point it is well chosen. The footprints are those that occur on a crude stone block preserved in the church of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura on the Via Appia in Rome. They purport to be the imprints left by Christ's feet as he appeared to St Peter, who was fleeing the city in an attempt to avoid martyrdom. It’s a charming story but the footprints are a blatant fake, precisely the sort of hoaxing that the 16th-century Reformers aimed to root out.

 

Background information is presented through a series of wall banners. The texts are long and I would have appreciated somewhere to sit down while reading them. The exhibited objects themselves (some of them never exhibited before) are captioned erratically, sometimes with a translation (but more often not, so visitors with no Hungarian will struggle). These are quibbles, but it makes the information difficult to digest.

Anonymous 15th-century woodcut. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

The English title of this exhibition, Grammar and Grace, has a good alliterative ring. But the Hungarian can also be translated as “The Age of the Word”; and it is really this that the exhibition is about, because it is through the Word (of God, transmitted to man in comprehensible form) that the Reformers sought to do their work. Whether salvation is achieved through faith or through works, or, as Luther had it, through grace alone (or only by grace), is a theological debate that the exhibition does not wrestle with. It concentrates on Protestantism's fixation with text and the way text replaced images.

 

Altarpieces cease to be the principal tool of communication and what we get instead are books. A number of early Bibles and prayer books are exhibited, for example the Greek and Latin translation of the New Testament by Erasmus (Basel, 1516), intended as a basis from which vernacular translations could be made, translations which would make the phalanx of intermediary saints redundant, as Holy Writ was rendered in the common language of men. Men speaking the common tongue quickly became the problem. In early 16th-century Hungary, ecclesiastical leadership was in crisis. Many prelates were also military commanders and most were wiped out at the Battle of Mohács, the great Ottoman victory of 1526. Into the void stepped itinerant preachers, spreading the ideas of Luther and Calvin.

 

A wall banner notes that none of the achievements of the Reformation could have been accomplished without zeal. The examples of early Bibles, though--however remarkable--cannot speak to us in the way the altarpieces do. Deprived of the personality of the preachers who used them, these tomes struggle to convey the quality of this zeal. Some of the preachers will have been ardent and inspirational, opening up whole new realms of spirituality for their hearers. Others will have been fanatics, banishing imagination, insisting on the literal.

 

Text comes not only in the form of devotional books, which after all were rare and expensive (the early, 16th-century Bibles were mainly for the use of the preacher; copies for individual study took another century to arrive). Instead, altarpieces were redeployed as vehicles for the Word. Suddenly they are awash with writing. The exhibition has found a brilliant example: a 1519 Crucifixion altarpiece from Sibiu (Hermannstadt/Nagyszeben) in Transylvania, which was painted over in 1545 by the first Protestant minister. The entire lower section, which would have shown mourners at the foot of the Cross, has been overlaid with texts from St Matthew’s gospel and the book of Isaiah. Mary Magdalene's hands can still just be seen in the central strip, clutching the Cross.

Crucifixion altarpiece of 1519, overpainted with text in 1545.

Translation, however, had its drawbacks. Just as the Internet is today, so the invention of printing in the Reformation era was a disruptive technology. Suddenly, vernacular Bibles were everywhere, being used by individual preachers with their own individual interpretations of God's message. It was difficult to enforce an official line. In Reformation Hungary there were no burnings at the stake; instead different denominations co-existed. This seems to have been especially true because of the power vacuum created by the Ottomans, with their semi-tolerant approach and their appetite for tribute money. The town of Debrecen, for example, paid tribute in exchange for being left alone: it existed as a Christian republic, a ‘new Jerusalem’ on the Geneva model, referring to itself as Christianopolis (it remained self-governed in this way until the mid-1750s). That was the stronghold of Calvin. Both the Calvinist (Református) and Lutheran (Evangélikus) churches took root in historic Hungary. But the two reformers were very different temperamentally. The difference is nowhere better illustrated than by the pavement slabs in nearby Kálvin tér, close to the National Museum building. Here, underfoot, the flagstones are inscribed with quotations from Protestant theologians. “God in his mercy denies to his own what of his wrath he permits to unbelievers,” says Calvin stoically. Luther is more mischievous and less austere: “If I  believed that God had no sense of humour, I would not want to go to Heaven.” The fathers of the Reformation did not sing from the same hymn sheet (Calvin didn't sing, for a start).

 

Today we worry about fake news. During the Reformation people worried about free interpretations of scripture. In another 15th-century Sibiu altarpiece (here shown in an early 20th-century copy), Protestantised in 1650, Christ is shown behind bars at the bottom. St Jerome’s Vulgate Bible springs to mind (Lamentations 4:20), where his Latin translation makes mention of "Christ the Lord" a captive of our sins, something the original does not exactly say. If St Jerome could do it, what might a provincial pastor do? Inevitably there had to be a clampdown.

 

As surely as Catholicism ever did, Protestantism begins to use the tools of propaganda. The result is a kind of sententious, moralising religiosity, as exemplified by the Dutch-inspired 18th-century Vanitas still life by an unknown Hungarian painter. All the stock elements are there, to indicate the transience of this worldly existence: the skull, the snuffed candle, the soap bubbles, the dog-eared book, the fading flowers. Fickle fortune is indicated by the dice. False riches by the coins. The only thing that can save us is Christ and the Spirit, symbolised by the goldfinch.

Inevitably, as it becomes established, Protestantism also enters the realm of politics. In Hungary’s case this was particularly true in Transylvania, but after Joseph II’s Edict of Tolerance (1781), it becomes true in general. Protestants also make significant contributions to science (understandably) and the arts. The vernacular Bible in Hungary was influential in shaping language and thus thought. But the Reformation as a lathe on which identity is shaped also brings with it identity politics. If a Reformation brings choice, then one has to self-identify. No longer can we talk of one people under the imperial aegis of a pope or a Habsburg monarch, but separate nations of denomination, each with its own belief systems. Public expressions of religion have elements in common with modern virtue-signalling. In the end, much comes down to personal preference and inclination. It is difficult not to return to the first room, as the one where the objects speak most freely to each beholder. There is a lovely panel showing St Martin (illustrated at the top of this article). The bishop saint, with a huge gold halo, stands before an altar raising the Host aloft as angels drape his naked arms (naked because he has charitably given half his cloak to a beggar). In the background, in a doorway, stands a man, observing the scene just as we do, but from the opposite side. It is a lovely and subtle work of art, linking God and Man. What better way to communicate mystery and transcendence?

 

Some of the early altarpieces in this exhibition now seem modern in a way that many of the later, once-revolutionary artefacts do not. Bibles, prayer books and orders of service, once translated, are in need of constant revision, as language, society and its values change. A little columbarium vitrine in the penultimate room contains quotes from modern authors. The one from Péter Esterházy sums it up: “The spectrum of language is not only spatial but temporal. Words have their time, or, to put it another way, time lies couched within words. Our time, the time of those who use the words, our history, our very selves.” A reformation which puts mysteries into words sets itself on a path of perpetual re-reform as the words date and lose their revelatory power.

 

That does not mean we should not reform. But how should reformations be conducted? How can we prevent them either from degenerating into riot or from fossilising into the very sclerotic structures they sought to sweep away? This exhibition poses all these questions. It is extremely thought-provoking. How far have we actually come in the half-millennium since Luther railed against Tetzel?

The Seuso Saga

Together again under a single roof. In July 2017, the Hungarian government revealed that it had acquired the remaining seven pieces of the famous Seuso (or Sevso) Treasure. All fourteen known pieces of the hoard are now in Hungary, bringing to an end years of intricate negotiations. In 2014 the first seven items were secured from a private family foundation, along with the copper cauldron in which the hoard was found. Now the remaining pieces have been obtained from a second private trust for a total of 28 million euros, paid not as a purchase price but as compensation for many years of custodianship: the silver is regarded as Hungarian patrimony which, after many twistings and twinings, has duly returned home. For the story of the silver, its discovery and subsequent murky, star-crossed career, see here.

 

The silver has brought little luck to its owners thus far. One hopes that this may change. At the end of August 2017 the fourteen pieces embark on a national progress through Hungary before returning to Budapest to be placed on public display in the Hungarian National Museum.

 

The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere that has enveloped the silver, along with sensational talk of a ‘Seuso curse’ have tended to deflect attention away from the beauty and craftsmanship of the articles themselves. This is a pity. The seven pieces belonging to the second Hungarian acquisition are, like the first seven, a mix of restrained engraved and moulded elegance (the ‘Western’ style) and exuberant, bubbling repoussé (the ‘Eastern’ style). They are as follows:

 

1: The ‘Animal Ewer’, decorated with engraved wild animals and slaves with whips (aimed at forcing animals to engage in bloody combat in the empire’s ampitheatres).

Detail from the Animal Ewer.

2: The ‘Dionysiac Amphora’, a globular vessel for wine, with handles in the shape of panthers (the god’s totem animal), its body embossed with a frenzied procession of satyrs and maenads and Dionysus himself, astride an enormous goat.

Dionysys and Pan: detail of the Dionysiac Amphora.

3, 4 and 5: The three silver-gilt vessels decorated with the story of Hippolytus and his stepmother Phaedra. One is a ewer, the other two are situlae, or water buckets. They were probably made as a set. The most charming scene is that of Hippolytus preparing to go hunting. The youth is shown heroically naked except for sandals and a cloak, with his dogs at his side, having received the love letter from his stepmother which he has cast to the ground.

Hippolytus with the rejected love letter falling to the ground between his feet.

6: The ‘Meleager Plate’, almost 70cm in diameter, with a central relief of the Calydonian Boar Hunt.

Central field of the Meleager Plate, showing the victor with the defeated boar slumped by his side.

7: The ‘Achilles Plate’, measuring 72cm across, with beautifully rendered reliefs of the life of Achilles. At the bottom is his birth, showing his mother on a bed attended by her waiting women, one of whom is washing the child while another pours water from a ewer not unlike those belonging to the Sevso hoard. At the top is the contest between Poseidon and Athena for hegemony over Athens. Athena is shown receiving the prize on one side while Poseidon slinks away on the other. In the centre is the famous scene of Achilles revealing his true identity. His mother Thetis had clad him in women’s attire to save him from having to take part in the Trojan war. Testosterone will out, however: on hearing the blare of the war trumpet, the hero instinctively reaches for spear and shield.

Detail from the rim of the Achilles Plate: the birth of Achilles.
Detail from the rim of the Achilles Plate: Athena receives the crown and palm of victory while Poseidon retreats.
Achilles hears the trumpet blast and seizes his spear and shield, causing consternation among the women. His manly leg is shown bursting from his chiton.

Excavations of the believed findspot of the hoard, between Székesfehérvár and Lake Balaton in western Hungary, are to be conducted. Whether this will reveal anything remains to be seen: if, preparatory to flight, the owners of the silver secreted it in an out-of-the-way place, intending to return for it later, a dig may yield little. On the other hand, the area is rich in Roman remains. Much may remain to be discovered.

 

Annabel Barber

02.06.2016
17:16

Budapest, Freedom and the Olympics

Photo by Hadley Kincade

Rising steep and craggy over Budapest from the west bank of the Danube is Gellért Hill, the best vantage point in the city. If you want to test the panorama photo function on your smartphone, this is the place to come. The Habsburgs were well aware of its commanding position too: after the suppression of the 1848 Hungarian revolution they built a citadel here, from which gun shafts pointed across the river into Pest to remind a rebellious population who was in charge. The Hungarians called it the Budapest Bastille and universally loathed it. Today its influence is benign. It is beloved by locals and tourists alike for its fine views.

 

Others besides the Habsburgs have been mindful of the hill’s supreme location. “It is here,” wrote the Panoráma Guide to Budapest in 1969, “at the southeastern corner of the old citadel, that Zsigmond Kisfaludi Strobl’s beautiful 29-metre-high Liberation Monument was erected in 1947. In the centre stands a female figure, a symbol of freedom, holding aloft the palm of victory and peace. Her silhouette can be seen from almost every corner of the city. Over the course of time this graceful sculpture has blossomed into a symbol. Small-scale copies of it can be found in offices and public buildings throughout the land.”

 

It’s all still true except for the name. The statue is now the Freedom Statue, evoking Liberty instead of “Liberation”, because the liberation in question was that of Hungary by the Soviets, the Allied troops who beat back the Germans and freed the city from Nazi rule in 1945 but brought a different tyranny in its stead. The Russian marshal Kliment Vorosilov was placed in charge of consolidating Communist control of Hungary and it was he who chose the sculptor, Kisfaludi Strobl (1884–1975), an artist known for statue groups composed of grandiose, monumental figures. Twenty years previously he had produced a memorial to the fallen of World War One for the city of Nyíregyháza, its central figure a muscular youth beating down a many-headed dragon with his bare fists. Strobl used the motif again for the Soviet memorial, but relegated it to a supporting role, placing a heroic nude dealing a death blow to the Hydra to one side. It was a good decision to leave it at the side, because this kind of bombastic allegory rings so horribly hollow. The stock hero standing for whatever he is required to stand for, defeating a stock embodiment of evil which can be equally flexibly interpreted. Posterity has chosen to ignore the allegorical side sculptures. It has also removed the pair of Soviet soldiers who flanked the Freedom statue and picked off the grateful inscription to the Soviet fallen. The statue is now dedicated to the memory of all who have given their lives for the independence, freedom and prosperity of Hungary. The central figure of the slender young woman reaching for the sky from her victor’s podium has remained constant, though, and her silhouette is as iconic as ever.

 

Budapest is one of the candidate cities hoping to host the 2024 summer Olympics. The Freedom Statue is its logo.

Annabel Barber

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