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Builders of Budapest

Construction workers on the Millennium Underground (1894–6), photographed by György Klösz

“Those who Built Budapest” is the title of an absorbing one-room exhibition currently on show at the Budapest History Museum (in the ex-Royal Palace on Castle Hill) and prolonged until September. The title of the show deliberately doesn’t use the word “architect”. The lens through which the city is viewed is emphatically that of the masons, carpenters, joiners, metalworkers and other artisans who collaborated to create the extraordinary Historicist cityscape that came into being during Hungary’s golden age: between the Compromise with Austria in 1867 (the foundation of Austria-Hungary) and the outbreak of World War One.

 

The artisans were trained explicitly via the precepts of the past. This exhibition looks at the models they were exposed to, the way their aesthetic taste was formed, the frames of reference they were given and the precedents they were taught to follow, all under the auspices of the Metropolitan Industrial Drawing School, which grew out of the old Buda and Pest drawing schools (founded in 1778 and 1788 respectively). The methodology was explicitly imitative. Students were taught to create by being trained to make precise copies, in drawing and sculpture, of exemplars from antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

 

If anyone has stopped to wonder why late 19th-century Budapest architecture was almost exclusively “neo” (Neoclassical, neo-Romanesque, neo-Gothic etc), here is the answer. It was not until the turn of the 20th century that architects began to think outside these boxes and strive to create a new idiom, the Secession or Art Nouveau.

 

The material available to the students came in two main forms: pattern books, which were essentially albums of prints of historic examples; and plaster casts. The Drawing School had almost 2,000 of the latter, organised in different categories: elements from Classical Greece and Rome, for example; plant and animal designs; anatomical models. A few of them are on display here. There is a scale model of an ancient Greek theatre, casts of temple entablatures and an (exquisite) reproduction of one of the Corinthian capitals from the 4th-century BC Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens.

 

The material that illustrates this exhibition comes from the Schola Graphidis collection of the Hungarian University of Fine Arts-High School of Visual Arts. The pattern books on show contain prints of architectural ground plans and façades of the buildings of Rome; of decorative paintwork in France; of architectonic elements from Classical antiquity.

 

But the most fascinating exhibits in this show are the works of the students themselves, ranging in date from the 1860s to c. 1920. There is apprentice stonemason Ferenc Dobrovits’s 1884 study of a façade, for example (it could almost be by Bramante); apprentice joiner János Szuchy’s 1899 study of varieties of brick bond (lovelier in its way than Carl Andre’s celebrated and controversial Equivalent VIII!); Mihály Kiss’s delicate watercolour study of different types of arch (1910) and Gyula Csík’s dramatic pen-and-ink wash drawing of a Tuscan Doric column capital and base (1870s). These and many others are works of Ruskinian beauty.

Study of brick bonds by an apprentice joiner

The show is rounded off by a short series of photographs by György Klösz documenting the construction of the cut-and-cover Millennium Underground in 1894–6, Budapest’s M1 metro line or Földalatti, which runs beneath Andrássy út to City Park and beyond. There is a shot taken outside the Opera House showing a cluster of construction workers, men, women and children, equipped with simple spades, not a hard hat or hi-viz jacket in sight. Also fascinating is the photograph of the underground station entrances on today's Vörósmarty tér. They have disappeared now, but Klösz’s photo shows them standing like twin jewel caskets, purely Italian in spirit, reminiscent of Pietro Lombardo’s 15th-century church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Venice.

 

Lovers of Budapest belle-époque architecture should definitely see this show. After seeing it, it is impossible not to scrutinise every late 19th-century building in the city, looking for tangible application in bricks and mortar of all the artisans’ training. The rigour and discipline of that training was something quite extraordinary.

Crowded Times

“Crowded Times” is the title of an exhibition of posters currently running at the Hungarian National Museum (until 25th August). The works chosen all come from the museum’s extensive collection and span the period from 1896, the year of the Magyar Millennium (when Hungary celebrated 1000 years of existence), to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The exhibition's scope, in other words, is the birth and burgeoning of the consumer age, the heyday of the hoardings, when goods became mass-produced and more widely available, when services were allocated to all by a welfare state, and when information promoting each was disseminated by posters and placards, run off the printing presses in identical batches and plastered up on street corners or at bus stops, beamed from cinema and TV screens, invading the lives of everyone and creating a shared vocabulary of brand names, slogans and catch phrases. The poster becomes at once the mouthpiece of big business, the tannoy of the nanny state and a herald of the good life.

Posters, obviously, are designed to deliver loud, clear messages and this instantly enjoyable exhibition gets away with relatively few wall texts. The material is organised in three sections: consumer goods and services; leisure and entertainment; politics. The very first posters are pieces of domestic propaganda, celebrating national achievement and boasting of productivity. The posters from the Communist years do much the same (with the difference that in c. 1900, Budapest was second only to Minneapolis in the output of its mills, whereas half a century later the heroic worker is shown wielding a hammer that looks technologically Neanderthal). The posters in the first section include numerous advertisements for shops and products: some of the brands are still familiar (Dreher beer), others were done to death by nationalisation after WWII or privatisation after 1989. There are “Buy Hungarian” campaigns—often making a virtue of necessity, as in the case of the aluminium ads, extolling a material that was domestically produced in an age when imports were low. In almost every case, the division between advertising and propaganda is finely blurred. The posters are trying to tempt us (“Buy powdered egg—it never goes off!”) but also trying to control our behaviour and our thoughts (“Clear up trash to control flies!” “Down with the monarchy!”).

 

Some of the most amusing posters are those in the section on public health campaigns. A muscle-bound youth takes a bracing shower because cleanliness is the route to health (1939; illustrated above). A young man caught in the glare of the red light is sternly warned that “Penicillin can cure the clap—but watch out! You’re still at risk of syphilis!” (1949).

The poster is a democratic art form. In a way it is the contemporary era’s equivalent of the church altarpiece, a backdrop that is free for all to see and that we can’t help having to look at. Subtly, inevitably, it informs our attitudes and creates a collective conscious. Let’s not fool ourselves that ours is a non-religious age. A priestly class still governs us with their shibboleths and the promise is still elysian rewards if we do as we are told and misery if we don’t:

“Who may not be a Trade Union Member? He who exhibits anti-democratic behaviour, who lives an immoral life, who exhorts his co-workers to underproduce…” (Hungarian propaganda poster of 1948);

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners…” (St Paul's first Letter to the Corinthians).

We might scoff at these visions of the ideal and at the preaching, but after an elapse of time, on seeing those familiar images again, they provide a fund of bittersweet nostalgia. Visitors to this exhibition react with touching delight at the sight of so many once-familiar things, like being reunited with long-lost friends. I felt much the same when I saw the ad for the revolving cylinder washing machine made by Hajdu. I had one in my very first Budapest flat.

"Washday is child's play!"

In fact, what comes across very strongly across this entire, absorbing show, is how little in human nature and human behaviour has changed. Advertisers still target harassed housewives (convenience foods, miracle white goods), children (sweets and fizzy drinks) and the vain and aspirational (glamorous clothes that will turn heads, home furnishings that will impress the neighbours). Governments—despite overtourism—still try to mass-sell their capital cities using all the same old baited lines. The Fishermen’s Bastion and cruises up the Danube are as strong selling points for Budapest today as they were four or five decades ago.

 

The final room has a video loop of mass demonstrations, rallies and vigils, projected on a screen split into three separate strips to give a jerky image that perfectly imitates the scrapbook, snapshot nature of human memory. Ranged along one wall is a chronological series of political posters, beginning with Mihály Bíró’s powerful anti-war image of 1912. There is pro-Communist propaganda, pro-Horthy propaganda and an anti-Soviet poster which interestingly has no known artist, no printing house and no date.

 

Many of these posters are also superlative works of art. The curator has very properly credited every poster to its artist (where known) and at the end of the show there are brief biographies of some of them. Géza Faragó (1877–1928), who studied in Paris and worked for a couple of years with Mucha; Mihály Bíró (1886–1948), artist of the labour movement; Tibor Pólya, Imre Földes and others.

 

We may never see their like again. The conclusion of the exhibition is that the great age of the poster is over, not only because digital technology addresses us in different ways but because it has fragmented us, hiving us off into our own little circumscribed Snapchat groups and Facebook echo chambers. And yet... On leaving the museum and plunging into the Metro, I came face to face with a visual admonishment: “Never drink drive!” It was made in 2018 with the support of the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile). Identical in spirit to “Alcohol is dead—don’t let it come back to life!”, a message (featured in this show) from 1919.

"Never drink drive."

If you're in Budapest this summer, make time for this exhibition. It's a fascinating exposition of behavioural psychology (as well as being good fun).

Good news from Florence

Antique bronze head of a horse, once owned by Lorenzo the Magnificent.

It is well known that the famous Medici and Lorraine collections are housed in various museums in Florence, not just in the Uffizi and Pitti galleries (recently re-united under one director). The scientific collections are in the Museo Galileo, the musical instruments in the Galleria dell’Accademia, the Renaissance sculpture in the Bargello, the wax models in the Museo della Specola, etc., and the archeological material in the Museo Archeologico. But it is also a fact that all these ‘satellite’ museums are usually overlooked by visitors to the city, since it is the paintings that everyone seems to want to see (or at least that is what they are told by the tourist agencies).

 

It is therefore rare to encounter more than a handful of visitors in the Archaeological Museum (except when school parties are taken there). In fact throughout the many decades since the Arno Flood of 1966, when the entire ‘Museo Topografico’ of Etruscan finds from Tuscany was destroyed, it has had a rather neglected feel. But the exciting news is that with its new Director Mario Iozzo, under the umbrella of the ‘Polo Museale Toscana’, which since 2015 has been in the capable hands of Dr Stefano Casciu, the Museum has suddenly been spruced up and work is underway to open more exhibition space so that the works in the deposits can at last be seen.

 

Throughout the museum the display has begun to be renovated, with new stands for the pottery (and in some cases slowly moving circular bases so that you can stand still to see all the painted sides of certain vases). The garden, visible from many of the windows, is now beautifully kept with the fountain working again (but sadly still only open on Saturday mornings). The corridor with the Medici collection of precious antique gems and cameos is not yet regularly on view.

 

While work is going on, however (until March 2019), visitors can see a delightful exhibition, “The Art of Giving”, in the first hall. It documents recent donations including a huge collection of beautiful ceramics from burial sites and sanctuaries on the Ionian coast of southern Italy (the area known in antiquity as Magna Graecia). Many of the vases have scenes where the protagonists are exchanging gifts, making the title of the exhibition doubly meaningful. There is also a ceramic cup dating from the 6th century BC which has been recomposed using the missing piece which had found its way to the Akademisches Kunstmuseum in Bonn (in exchange, a fragment of another vase was given to the Bonn Museum so that it, too, could be reunited with the fragments they own). There are also some Roman marbles on view which have recently entered the collection (the sarcophagus with pairs of griffins between incense-burners is especially interesting).

 

In the permanent collection, the first room on the first floor is now used to exhibit the sensational Mater Matuta, an Etruscan masterpiece (c. 450 BC) showing a seated female god with a child on her lap. This is one of the treasures of the museum but has not been on show for decades. The famous bronze Chimera also has a room to itself, shared with a very beautiful bronze head of a youth found in Fiesole.

 

The Minerva, on the floor above, is now displayed without her right arm since it has been proved to have been an addition made by Francesco Carradori in 1784-5 in a mistaken restoration (the ‘modern’ arm is displayed close by, together with a cast of the statue as restored in the 18th century). The wonderful Arringatore is currently on exhibition in Karlsruhe but will be back here on 17th June. The bronze Horse’s Head (which belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent and was restored in 2015) and the Roman portrait bronzes are all on show (in the past these were often in rooms kept locked). The famous François Vase, a huge Attic krater, has been given a room of its own with multi-media touch screens explaining all the details. The famous incident when a frustrated custodian seized his stool and smashed it is recorded by the presence of the stool itself (the vase was thankfully able to be restored, piece by piece). And for the first time, two more pieces of exquisite Attic pottery are displayed nearby, suggesting that they might have been part of the original hoard of artefacts found in the same tomb, placed there to accompany the deceased on his way to the underworld.

 

Further innovations are the scale model of the Chimaera at the entrance which can be felt by the visually impaired and stroked by young visitors, and a showcase before the ticket office displaying just three exquisite examples of the museum’s holdings to whet visitors’ appetites. One comes away with the feeling that at last the Museum is being well looked after and that there will be many exciting new developments there in the near future.

In this Florentine season of what has been termed ‘overtourism’, a visit to this Museum is highly recommended not only for the treasures it contains, but also for its peaceful atmosphere.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence

The Heartwarming Middle Ages

Yellow-glaze stove tile of a mounted knight, from Diósgyőr (c. 1370. Herman Ottó Múzeum, Miskolc).

“The Heartwarming Middle Ages” (Szívmelegítő Középkor) is the title of an appealing small exhibition running at the Budapest History Museum’s Buda Castle site until September.

 

The forerunner of the ceramic stove is thought to have originated in Alpine Switzerland sometime in the early Middle Ages, when simple clay pots were built into house chimneys to increase the surface area that could be made to give out warmth. In Óbuda, Budapest’s District III, excavations at Roman Aquincum have revealed rows of hollow bricks placed between interior walls to circulate warm air from the hypocaust beneath. This sophisticated early radiation technology had been forgotten after the collapse of the Roman Empire and—until the Swiss hit upon the clay pots idea—people heated their living spaces with smoky open fires, creating a constant risk of conflagration (not to mention a carcinogenic atmosphere). The Swiss innovation was almost as great a leap forward as the invention of the internal combustion engine in much later times.

 

The exhibition begins with a selection of images evoking the winter chill of northern climes. Among them is an etching by Dürer (c. 1498, from the Prints and Drawings collection of the Hungarian Museum of Fine Arts) entitled The Philosopher’s Dream, showing a savant fast asleep beside a tile stove, dreaming of a visitation by a naked Venus. The stove he sleeps beside looks much like the tile-clad stoves that are still a familiar feature of Central European interiors.

 

Much as the first automobiles preserved the bodywork of the horse-drawn carriage, the first stoves were clad in tiles that retained the concave shape of the original earthen pots. Later, tile shapes became more elaborate and inventive. The exhibition traces this development. Ceramic is not perishable and in Buda—where so much has been destroyed—the tile survivals are some of the finest and most poignant reminders of the glory that once presided here. The material exhibited in this show comes from the rich collection of the Budapest History Museum as well as from further afield, in Hungary as well as Slovakia and Transylvania. The earliest tile finds are from the 12th century, although the technology probably predates this by some 300 years. It was a democratic technology: fired earth is not a luxury material and its application made warmth available to princes, prelates and peasants alike.

Siren stove tile and the Starbucks logo.

We know that underfloor heating returned to Hungary: the palace of Charles I (r. 1310–42) in Visegrád had it, while the upper floor was heated by a stove clad in cup-shaped tiles. Charles’ successor, Louis I (r. 1342–82) had stoves clad in flat, decorated tiles. By the mid-15th century foreign (probably Austrian) craftsmen were supplying the Hungarian court with high-quality, sophisticatedly decorated ceramic ware. Motifs include floral designs, bunches of grapes, knights in armour, biblical and other Christian motifs, heraldic devices, and royal personages. Fine examples on show include a Lamb of the Resurrection in green lead glaze from Banská Bystrica and a yellow-lead glazed crest of King Sigismund (d. 1437) with fine mantling and two badges of the Order of the Dragon (which Sigismund founded to combat Ottoman expansion; Vlad Dracul, father of the Impaler, is said to have taken his name from the Order). The image of a siren saucily parting her fishy tail is also popular. The exhibition has three of these, all from the collection of the Budapest History Museum (protoype of the Starbucks logo). There is also a splendid polychrome tile depicting King Matthias Corvinus (r. 1458–90) seated in majesty. King Matthias, under whom Buda enjoyed a great flowering, seems to have been adept at using his own image as a brand.

Polychrome tile with King Matthias Corvinus (c. 1480. Budapest History Museum).

By means of its decoration, the stove became at once a means of heating a room and also a vehicle for imparting information about the householder’s lineage, prestige and religious faith, as well as entertainment (stories of chivalry, popular legends and fables), much like a painting or a tapestry. The final part of the exhibition shows how the royal lead in stove manufacture was quickly imitated down the social scale. Soon bishops and barons and well-to-do burghers wanted cosy, smoke-free living spaces, and to achieve them they copied both the technique and the tile designs. Like coins, medals or seals, made from moulds and dies, stove tiles could be mass-produced, allowing identical images to proliferate. As the exhibition points out, ceramic manufacture was far in advance of the printing press in its ability to standardise the conceptual vocabulary of the populace. The last tiles in the show are secular in their subject matter: we see an irate wife belabouring her husband, a young man with a tankard of beer, and a pair of lovers in flagrante.

Green-glaze stove tile showing a pair of lovers (c. 1500. Stredlovenské Museum, Banská Bystrica).

The final room is provided with a video screen showing a crackling fire. You have to work hard to imagine its warmth, though. To protect the fragile glazes, temperatures throughout the exhibition are kept low. Bring a light sweater!

Waves of Art Nouveau

World Art Nouveau Day this year is celebrated on 10th June. In part to mark the occasion but also to honour the centenary of the death of Otto Wagner and the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marcell Komor, FUGA: Budapest Center of Architecture, in conjunction with the Hungarian Museum of Applied Arts and its partners, has mounted a small exhibition entitled Waves of Art Nouveau, dedicated to this ever-popular style of architecture in cities of the Danube region from Vienna to Constanţa. The material consists of a series of wall panels grouped thematically, with information and illustrations chosen by the participating cities (twelve of them in total).

Plastic scale model of Ödön Lechner's Hungarian Museum of Applied Arts

The show begins with Otto Wagner and his pupils and followers (notably Max Fabiani). After that comes the great Hungarian Secessionist architect Ödön Lechner. Lechner’s style is entirely unlike Wagner’s. Wagner was preoccupied with modernity and the question of how to refashion the architecture and urban planning of an imperial capital in a way that would reflect profound shifts in society. Lechner, on the other hand, was preoccupied with the distant past—even the subliminal—plumbing the depths of the Hungarian folk subconscious to create an entirely original and quintessentially Magyar idiom, part-European and part-Oriental. Lechner and his followers, particularly Marcell Komor and Dezső Jakab, are well represented in this exhibition, with buildings in Budapest; Oradea and Târgu Mureș (Romania); and Subotica (Serbia), where the synagogue is very Lechneresque in feel, with a green-and-yellow-tiled lampshade dome and a façade articulated with symmetrical detailing in exposed brickwork.

The buildings featured in this exhibition illustrate the different ways in which architects of this period explored the relationship between structure and decoration. Sometimes the decorative elements entirely follow the physical lineaments of the building, picking out and enhancing cornices, bays and apertures. This is well seen in the work of the Serbian architect Branko Tanazević, who creates a sort of Art Nouveau version of the Renaissance in his former Telephone Exchange building in Belgrade. At other times the decoration masks the structure, obscuring it and playing hide and seek with it, as in Ivan Vurnik’s extraordinary, almost trompe l’oeilCooperative Bank building in Ljubljana (1923) or Vladimir Baranyai’s Bauda House in Zagreb (1905), where the balcony consoles are disguised as balls of laurel leaves. Occasionally the decoration is entirely gratuitous, most famously perhaps on Otto Wagner’s celebrated Majolica House in Vienna (1898–9), where the pattern on the ceramic cladding mocks a gigantic rambling rose. In some buildings, the decoration almost becomes the structure, as for example Daniel Renard’s memorable Casino in Constanţa (1910), whose huge windows are fashioned like displayed peacock’s tails. Renard studied in Paris, and though his work is filed in the same architectural compartment as that of Lechner or Komor, his aesthetic could not be more different.

It is always a pleasure to discover something new. For visitors familiar with French, Belgian and Austrian Art Nouveau the sheer delight here will be the number of exuberant, eye-catching and daringly original buildings in cities all across Central and Eastern Europe by architects whose names are entirely—and surely unjustly—unfamiliar.

Before you leave, spare a few moments to look at the FUGA building itself. It is a work of 1905 by the architectural partnership of Gyula Ullmann and Géza Kármán, architects who were also exponents of Art Nouveau but in a manner more closely allied to that of the Vienna Secession. Prime examples of their work can also be seen in Budapest’s Szabadság tér (three adjoining buildings now occupied by the US Embassy). The FUGA building preserves an imposing façade emblazoned with its original name, Hermes Udvar (Hermes Court). It was built for a firm specialising in safe deposits, a fact still advertised above the front door.

Waves of Art Nouveau. On show until June 18th at FUGA: Budapest Center of Architecture, at Petőfi Sándor u. 5. Open daily except Tues from 1pm. Free entry. There is a small café and an excellent bookshop.

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Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome
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International Gothic at the Uffizi
Celebrating Santa Rosalia, patron of Palermo
Delhi Ghost Trail
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The Roman Villa at Balácapuszta (Baláca, Nemesvámos,...
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Rereading Ruskin
Sicily’s emblem: the Trinacria
Luca Signorelli on exhibition in Umbria
The Tribuna of the Uffizi reopens
The Venice equivalent of the anonymous Tweet?
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Sicilian Holiday Reading
Attila the Hun and the Foundation of Venice
Death in Venice cocktail a hit
The Gentry: Stories of the English
381 years ago this June
Brooklyn Bridge: a New York landmark
A Venetian Update
Sixth-century church to reopen
Roman Aquileia
Springtime in Friuli
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Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome
A celebration of Lucca
Romantic music in a Baroque setting
Blue Guide India Delhi Launch
Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
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The Roman Forum
Whispering City: Rome and its Histories
The 15th-century Health Museum at Edirne
City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire
Books about Istanbul
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Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor
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The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto
Holy Bones, Holy Dust
RECOMMENDED PLACES TO STAY AND EAT ON CRETE
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us
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Blue Guide Northern Italy
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A day trip to Ostia Antica from Rome - highly recommended
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A day trip from Venice up the Brenta Canal
A day trip to Murano from Venice
Pietrasanta, Pisa: in search of Stagi
Reading list for Venice
Reading list for Florence and Tuscany
The Best Credit / Debit Card for Travel
Ruskin on Venice
Reading list for Rome
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