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The Seuso Treasure: a new display

Readers of these blogposts might have noticed our interest in the Seuso Treasure. We freely admit it. After all, these fourteen pieces make up what is arguably the finest trove of late imperial Roman silver in existence. And now, in a keenly-awaited move, it has become one of the permanent galleries at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest with an impressive and spacious new display.

 

Since 2014, when the first seven pieces of the hoard were repatriated by the Hungarian government, we have written plenty about the silver and its convoluted history. To read about that, see here (also linked at the bottom of this article). This post will talk exclusively about the new display, which opened last week.

 

What is immediately striking is the solemnity. The visit begins in a long corridor, flanked by artefacts and information panels that give context and set the scene. The experience is a little like entering a processional dromos or sacred way, leading to an ancient temple or tholos tomb. At the end of the corridor is the inner sanctum, where the silver itself is displayed in a space made mysterious by plangent music. The air is thick with the silence. Custodians are keen to remind visitors not to take photographs. It is almost as if we were being inducted into an Eleusinian mystery, with the injunction never to divulge what we saw and heard when we return to the less rarefied atmosphere of our ordinary lives. Certainly not share it on Instagram!

 

Whereas the previous display of the silver was cramped, with the pieces crowded together, almost as if mimicking the tight packing in the copper cauldron in which they were found, the new exhibition arranges the items far apart. Those which clearly belong together (the Hippolytus situlae, for example) are displayed side by side. The others are their own islands.

 

And now they are joined by the famous Kőszárhegy Stand (illustrated below), an adjustable four-legged contraption, a sort of luxury camping table, made of silver of the most extreme purity, purer than sterling. It was discovered near the village of Kőszárhegy, close to the putative find-spot of the Seuso Treasure itself, in 1878, during the chopping down and digging out of a plum tree. It was in a fragmentary state: two legs were unearthed together with most of two of the crosspieces. Restorers originally assumed that it had been a tripod, and integrated it accordingly. It was only when it proved impossible to prevent persistent cracking that the Museum team realised that it needed a fourth leg to make it stable and correct the tension. Two of the legs and X-shaped crossbars that you see today are original. The other two are restorations. The challenge is to detect which are which.

The Kőszárhegy Silver Stand, in the Hungarian National Museum's booklet on the Treasure.

The stand is an extraordinary piece, well over a metre high and capable of being adjusted to hold the largest of the Seuso platters. It is thought that it could have been pressed into service in a number of ways: to hold plates laden with good things at an outdoor feast, for example; or as a washstand bearing a silver basin and water pitchers. Its marine-themed iconography would support this view. Each leg terminates in a cupid figure riding a dolphin. Halfway up each leg is a sharp-beaked aquatic gryphon. The finials are decorated with silver tritons, clutching conch shells in huge-fingered hands, with water nymphs seated on their backs, naked but for a chain around their necks and a billowing veil above their heads. One of them holds an apple, the attribute of Aphrodite. As the information panel tells us, the Roman or Romanised Celtic domina who washed her face at this stand would have been flatteringly reminded as she did so of her own uncanny resemblance to Paris’s chosen goddess.

 

But the wealthy elite of Roman Pannonia were not goddesses or gods. As the central scene on the famous Pelso plate shows, they were a fun-loving bunch of mortals. They enjoyed picnicking in the open air beside Lake Balaton, scoffing freshly-caught fish and washing it down with beakers of wine. They loved their dogs and gave humorous nicknames to their horses. They threw banquets to show off their silver to each other, and display their erudition when it came to Graeco-Roman mythology. The characters that Seuso—whoever he may have been—chose to depict on his tableware, as reflections of his own attributes, were the great warrior Achilles, the great huntsman Meleager and the great reveller Dionysus. The women of his household are associated with Aphrodite, the Three Graces and Phaedra the temptress. These were people in love with life and merrymaking. So why the solemn atmosphere and the doleful music? Where are the dancing girls and the Apician stuffed dormice? The title of this display is “The Splendour of Roman Pannonia”: a good one; Seuso could certainly do bling. What he and his family left behind is ineffably precious. As well as revere it, we should also enjoy it, throw ourselves a little into the mood of carefree frivolity that these gorgeous pieces evoke.

 

The story of the Treasure on blueguides.com

Website of the Hungarian National Museum

Life in Color

"Florette's Hands", 1961. © Ministère de la Culture France/Association des Amis de Jacques-Henri Lartigue, France

This summer’s most charming show in Budapest is an exhibition at the Capa Center of colour photographs by Jacques-Henri Lartigue (1894–1986).

 

Lartigue, the son of an amateur photographer, received his first camera at the age of nine, a present from his father. He went on to take photographs all his life, encouraged by his father, who gave him support and equipment and, when he was 18, a Pathé cinecamera.

 

Lartigue neverthelesss chose a career as a painter and—at least to begin with, partly thanks to his vivacious and well-connected first wife Bibi—enjoyed a successful career in painting and set-design, hobnobbing with artists, writers, journalists, people from the world of film and the theatre, and all kinds of bohemians and hangers-on—not to mention a wealth of minor and major celebrities, as the shot of Cocteau and Picasso at a bullfight in 1955 makes clear.

 

Lartigue’s colour photography is so refreshing because it reflects little of this life-in-the-fast-lane image. What we see are candid shots of his friends and family, wives and lovers, the view from his bedroom window, holiday snaps, everyday scenes: the sort of thing people might put up on Facebook today, in other words, though snapped with a much acuter eye than most, as the shot above, of his third wife Florette’s painted nails holding open an Italian magazine with an advert for nail polish (1961), amply demonstrates. There is an an honesty and a joy in everything captured by Lartigue’s lens. The 20th century that he presents is an era of imperceptibly-occurring but irreversible change, an end of innocence—and at the same time an age of unaffected beauty and instinctive glamour. Unlike the century that the history books reveal, the photographs in this show present an age of fun and laughter.

 

Lartigue’s colour photographs were exhibited for the first time in 1954. The real break, though, came in 1962, when Charles Rado (a Hungarian, incidentally), founder of the Rapho photographic agency, showed a body of Lartigue’s work to John Sarkowski, head of photography at MoMA. A solo exhibition and a feature in Life magazine followed. Lartigue’s fame was assured.

 

The earliest photographs in this show are family lineups from 1912–14 in Pau, Chamonix and elsewhere in France. We also see soft-focus shots of Bibi, with pink roses and red lipstick, and then again at a corner table with a wide sea view in the Cap-Eden-Roc hotel in Antibes. It is impossible to give highlights. Different shots will appeal to different people. Mine were a grim-faced nun lugging an invalid in a dog-cart to Lourdes (1957), laundry flapping wildly outside slum dwellings in Rome (1960), a solitary cyclist on the Appian Way, an elderly Breton widow in traditional black cylindrical headdress sitting incongruously under a red beach umbrella with a bottle of commercial orangeade and a garishly plastic, duck-shaped swimming ring (1970). Striking too is the view of the snowbound Mégève viewed through a gigantic ice-beaded spider’s web and a Palladian villa at Dolo on the Brenta Canal between Venice and Padua, looking, in 1958, utterly derelict and desolate. Today, spruced up, that same villa offers B&B.

 

Between 1979 and his death in 1986, Lartigue bequeathed his entire photographic oeuvre to the French government. How fortunate that this body of private, intensely personal work did not find its way into a rubbish skip! As the shot of “Florence Pauly, my paintings”, taken in Havana in 1957, shows (though unfortunately, for copyright reasons, we can't show the image here), Lartigue deserves more from posterity than to be remembered purely as a painter of floral bouquets.

“Life in Color”, an exhibition of the colour photographs of Jacques-Henri Lartigue, runs at the Capa Center in Budapest until 1st September.

02.07.2019
12:55

Hungary Food Companion

The brand new Blue Guide Hungary Food Companion is now out. A handy lexicon of Magyar food vocabulary, with a miscellany of culinary information (and a few traditional recipes) thrown into the pot alongside.

 

Hungary typically has blisteringly hot summers but curiously no real summer cuisine. A cold fruit soup made from strawberry, apricot or sour cherry, followed by stuffed marrow or stuffed paprika, is about as light as it gets in the traditional repertoire. Summer is also the season for “főzelék”. As the interwar court chef Sándor Újváry noted, “It is needless to list the types of főzelék that belong to the domestic culinary repertoire and which are prepared on a daily basis in so many kitchens: they are all universally known…and the perfect preparation of these well-known types of főzelék requires little effort and few ingredients.”

 

Sounds good. But what is a főzelék? The name roughly means a boil-up, which is essentially accurate: a főzelék is a dish of boiled vegetable, sometimes puréed and sometimes not, mixed with a roux and eaten with a spoon. Almost any vegetable can be used, from the humble potato (krumpli) to the more highly prized asparagus (spárga). On menus, you will commonly find cabbage (káposzta) főzelék, spinach (spenót) főzelék, pumpkin (tök) főzelék, green pea (zöldborsó) főzelék. In the market this morning we found yellow string beans (vajbab). So yellow string bean főzelék it was to be.

 

Here they are in their raw state:

And this is the recipe we followed to turn them into főzelék.

 

1. Wash and chop the beans, into sections roughly 2–3cm long. Cook them until tender in lightly salted water (we had some leftover chicken stock, so we used that instead).

 

2. Prepare the roux. With a wire whisk, combine flour and sour cream and powdered paprika. We used three heaped teaspoons of flour, one heaped teaspoon of paprika and two tablespoons of sour cream.

 

3. Drain the beans, retaining the water. Then gradually add the water to the roux, mixing all the while.

 

4. Put the mixture on a low heat, stirring until it thickens. Add the beans. Salt to taste if necessary. Serve.

 

This is what it looked like.

Simple but delicious.

Baroque-era spinach patties

Anna Bornemisza (c. 1630–88) was the daughter of an army captain, a noblewoman in her own right and, by marriage (in 1653, to Mihály Apafi), Princess of Transylvania. The story of her husband’s family, and the turbulent times they had to deal with, is covered in Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: the Greater Târnava Valley. Anna was clever and highly educated. In fact, some historians accuse her husband of having no interest in or understanding of politics and of leaving key decisions to his nimble-witted spouse. Whatever the truth, Anna was also a devoted wife and mother of 14 children (only one son survived to adulthood). She wrote detailed household accounts, which have survived, as well as a famous cookery book (in 1680). Whether or not the cookbook was intended for the instruction of others or whether it was more notes for herself of successful recipes, I do not know. Perhaps the latter, because the recipes are far from detailed, and even by the standards of the times give almost no practical help. Her recipe for ‘Spinach Cake’, for example, reads as follows:

 

Take spinach. Wilt it in water and squeeze out the liquid. Add parmesan cheese and grated bread. Add mace, pepper, egg yolk and buttermilk. Cook and mix together. Make a cake from it and when it is cooked, serve hot.

 

It is difficult to make something when you have no idea what it is meant to look like or how it is supposed to taste. How to decide on quantities? We made ‘spinach cake’ for two. By ‘spinach cake’, we assumed a kind of patty, and we added the ingredients proportionally, in order to give it a stiffish consistency. That meant, for half a kilo of spinach, two egg yolks and about three tablespoons of breadcrumbs, with enough buttermilk to make it all stick together without turning to concrete and plenty of grated parmesan (interesting that the recipe specifies parmesan: what does that say about 17th-century trading relations between Tranyslvania and Northern Italy?). We didn’t use mace. It seemed more practical to opt for grated nutmeg, to avoid ending up with hard, gritty bits in the patty. It's also worth noting that the recipe does not call for salt. And it does not need it. The parmesan fulfils that role.

 

It is very quick to make. Result? It doesn’t look very elegant or appetising but it tastes delicious. If we had had a set of chef’s forming rings, we could have shaped it better. But we didn’t.

09.05.2019
11:07

Perfect paprika chicken

István Czifray was the nom de plume of István Czövek, master chef at the court of the Palatine Joseph, Habsburg governor of Hungary in the early 19th century. Czifray’s book of recipes and household tips (including instructions for making perfumes and pomades) first appeared in 1816. Soon to be entitled Magyar Nemzeti Szakácskönyve (Hungarian National Cookbook), it went into numerous editions, the last coming out in 1888. It is an important landmark in the annals of Hungarian culinary history. Czifray includes a recipe for the signature Hungarian dish of paprika chicken (paprikás csirke). Since we had recently eaten this dish at Kárpátia, and old-fashioned restaurant in central Budapest whose opulent interior decoration is a sort of pastiche of the Hungarian Parliament and the Matthias Church, and where tourists’ eardrums are cheerfully assaulted by the squealing of a gypsy band, we were curious to see how Czifray’s recipe measured up.

 

The Kárpátia version of the dish looked like this:

Ours wouldn’t look quite like that. We weren’t planning to make galuska (that’s a subject for another post). The key thing to get right was the sauce.

 

Here is Czifray’s recipe:

 

“Pluck and draw a pair of young chickens. Wash them and cut into equal-sized pieces. Lightly salt these. Finely chop an onion and in a copper skillet fry in butter until translucent. Add the chicken pieces and half a dessert spoon of paprika powder. Cover and steam until tender, shaking periodically. Sprinkle with a little flour, add a scant quantity of meat broth and a few spoonfuls of sour cream. Leave to cook on a low heat, carefully skimming off the foam that forms on the surface. Then serve.”

 

As with many old recipes, it is hazy on precise quantities and gives no information about cooking time. This is something you either have to know from experience or guess.

 

We didn’t take whole chickens, we began with chicken legs, bought from the butcher that afternoon. Apart from that, we followed the initial instructions, chopping a bunch of spring onions and sautéeing them in a thick wad of butter in a heavy casserole pan (cast iron, we didn’t have copper). Half a dessert spoon of paprika powder sounded rather little, but anyway, we didn’t add much more (maybe a level dessert spoon). It was good-quality paprika, from Kalocsa.

 

Covering and steaming without the chicken pieces sticking to the pan is tricky. You might want to—as we did—add a little of the meat broth at this stage. We put in a large ladleful of chicken stock that we had made a couple of days previously.

 

“Cook until tender” is a difficult instruction. How long is that? To be sure that the chicken is cooked through, you want to cook it for at least 45 minutes in total. We reckoned half an hour at this stage, and then a further 20 minutes once the sour cream and flour have gone in.

 

Sprinkling with flour and then adding sour cream sounded like a recipe for lumpy sauce but oddly enough it worked fine. You really only need a scattering of flour. For “scant quantity” of broth, we read about 200ml. But if it starts drying out, add more. A good tasty stock won’t spoil the dish’s flavour. “A few spoonfuls” of sour cream we interpreted as three or four generously heaped dessert spoons.

 

We stirred all this in, left the chicken on the lowest flame for a further 20 minutes or so. We didn’t need to skim off any foam—none formed. But we did add a little more salt.

 

It looked like this (see below). And it was excellent. Even though the sauce didn't look as flawlessly smooth as Kárpátia’s, in fact it tasted better. The Kárpátia version lacked the spring onions, which really make all the difference.

30.04.2019
10:41

A spring recipe from 1891

In some ways Ágnes Zilahy (1848–1908) is the Mrs Beeton of Hungarian cookery. Her publications of recipes, along with tips on household management, made her a household name in her own lifetime and her Valódi Magyar Szakácskönyv (Real Hungarian Cookery), a book of explicitly Hungarian dishes (i.e. not derived from other cuisines), went into a second edition within seven months of its release in 1891.

 

The daughter of a well-to-do lawyer, Zilahy was suddenly flung on her own resources with her father and all eight siblings died, leaving her alone in the world at the age of 18. Her first husband squandered her fortune; her second marriage was also unhappy and ended in divorce. She eked out a living as a glove-maker until persuaded by Count Sándor Teleky, a hero of the Hungarian Uprising against the Habsburgs of 1848–9, to compile her recipes into a book. This she did and never looked back. We decided to test one of those recipes out.

 

It’s late April and the markets are beginning to fill up with fresh produce. We chose Zilahy’s recipe for stuffed marrow. She in fact titles the recipe Töltött ugorka, “stuffed cucumber”. But we couldn’t really imagine stuffing cucumbers. Marrow it had to be. Her instructions begin as follows: You need a green “ugorka” as long as a span, well-grown and thick but still young and tender.

So far so good. Next step:

Remove its skin and cut it in half lengthways. Allow one “ugorka” per person. Remove the seeds from the centre.

 

That part was easy. Now for the stuffing. Zilahy recommends leftover roast pork or beef, which should be finely minced, seasoned with salt and a teaspoon of crushed pepper and mixed with 120g of “rizskása”. Here comes the perennial problem with modern cookery: we don’t make enough use of leftovers, or, when we come to pick something from a recipe book, we don’t have any leftovers to work with and have to start from scratch.

 

Why is this a problem? Not only because of waste, but because of flavour. Leftover roast pork, whose flavours have had time to develop and coalesce, would be much tastier than the fresh minced pork we had bought from the butcher that same morning. To make the meat more savoury, we sautéed it in oil with diced onion, salt and pepper, some dried sage and crushed caraway seed.

 

Now for the “rizskása”. This “rice gruel” is difficult to translate. It is essentially a dish of boiled rice flavoured in some way. Zilahy’s cookbook has two separate recipes: for rizskása with onion and rizskása with mushrooms. We chose the former as we had no mushrooms. All it involves is boiling up rice in salted water and mixing with glazed chopped onions and parsley. One thing to note: here, as for most Hungarian cooking, it is best to use medium-grain rice. Long-grain rice is not glutinous enough and the ingredients won’t combine and adhere properly.

 

Back to Zilahy’s recipe:

 

Mix the meat and rice well together, then fill the hollowed out marrow halves with this stuffing. Place the stuffed marrows together in a large casserole, with the stuffed side facing upwards. Then fill the casserole with warm salted water and immediately add to the liquid six spoonfuls of strong vinegar, otherwise the marrows will fall apart when cooking.

 

We did all this, the only difference being that instead of warm salted water we used warm chicken stock, again afraid that our this-morning’s meat would not be flavourful enough and needed some external help.

 

When the marrows are cooked, add a lightly browned roux made from an egg-sized amount of fat and a large wooden spoonful of flour. When the roux is hot and beginning to brown, add a cup of cold water to it, to stop it from going lumpy. Quickly pour this over the marrow and cook together for a few minutes.

 

Zilahy gives no indication of how hot the oven should be (or indeed if the marrows should be cooked in the oven or on the hob), nor how long the cooking will take, nor whether the casserole should be covered or not. We chose to bake them uncovered and—because we hadn’t followed her advice of removing the skins—the process took an hour at 200ºC. But ours is a very old oven. In a more efficient fan oven, it should take less. Not covering the pan meant that the meat stuffing went pleasantly crunchy on top.

Zilahy recommends serving this dish with sour cream (tejföl) and beef topside (sült felsál). We didn’t think we needed yet more meat with it. But the sour cream was wonderful.

Gellért 100

Poster advertising the new wave pool.

The title of this engaging small exhibition, on show at the Museum of Trade and Tourism (MKVM) in Budapest, celebrates the centenary of the famous Gellért hotel and baths. Housed in magnificently tiled and decorated late-Art Nouveau halls, the baths are one of the most popular destinations on every tourist’s itinerary. But they still cater to a local clientèle too: as you line up for your ticket, you will see a special queue for people with doctors’ notes, coming here not purely for recreation but to take the cure. In this, the Gellért remains true to its roots.

 

The curative thermal waters on this site have been known for a long time. In the Middle Ages, St Elizabeth of Hungary used them to bathe lepers. The Ottomans prized the waters too: there was an open-air mud bath here, which, after the Turks were expelled, became a place where horses were treated for distemper and, by the 19th century, a resort of ill-repute. A new spa building was built in 1832 (in fact it is still there, under Gellért Square, though seldom open to the public) but it was not until the construction of the Liberty Bridge (originally Franz Joseph Bridge) over the Danube in 1896 that the area really began to take off. The bridge attracted the developers and the area was cleared. On show in the exhibition is a charming photograph of an improvised summer dance floor, pressed into a secondary role as a cowshed. This, along with numerous cottages, taverns and summer villas, all fell to the wrecking ball.

 

A tender to design the new baths complex was won by two architects, Artúr Sebestyén and Ármin Hegedus. Their designs were completed in 1909, on a floor plan by a third architect, Izidor Sterk. Construction, delayed by WWI, was completed in 1918. Vintage posters on display make it clear that the business of marketing Budapest as a ‘Spa City’ has been in full swing since the early 1920s. In 1927 a wave machine was installed in the outdoor pool (the original mechanism is still in operation) and in 1933 the palm court and mini-golf course gave way to an indoor pool and whirlpool.

 

The baths were always intended to be used for recreation as well as therapy and their decoration was lavish and opulent. The huge vaulted halls were designed to recall the massive, overarching spaces of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. Visiting the baths today, one is still reminded of an Alma-Tadema painting.

Romantic re-creation of the Baths of Caracalla by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912). The Gellért Baths in their heyday were harking back to something similar.

Budapest suffered greatly in both world wars and the Gellért shared the same fate. In 1919, Romanian army chiefs took over the hotel during their occupation of the city. When Admiral Horthy rode into Budapest later that same year, he used the hotel as his headquarters. In WWII the hotel was used as the German military HQ, which made it a target for Allied raids. By the end of the war, the hotel was a burned-out shell and the ladies’ section of the baths was completely wrecked (though fully restored, it is much less ornate than the former men’s thermal section—and today the baths are fully unisex).

 

Plans to rebuild the hotel to modern, more Rationalist designs (drawings of these are on show) came to nothing and the exterior was restored more or less as it had been. It partly reopened in 1946. In 1948 came nationalisation, since when the hotel and baths ceased to operate as a single unit. Today the hotel is owned and run by the Danubius group while the Budapest municipality is in charge of the baths.

The hotel foyer when the hotel first opened. ©MKVM

In its heyday the hotel rooms had all had hot and cold running water and in the suites, the bathrooms offered three types of water: municipal mains water, thermal water and carbonated water. The mineral content was found to corrode the pipes, however, and the practice was discontinued. Between the wars the hotel restaurant was run by the celebrated Gundel. On show are ice buckets, guest books, monogrammed crockery and menu cards, including that for a gala luncheon in 1933 at which Mussolini was the guest of honour. He ate eggs in aspic, chicken with salad and roast potatoes, and a chestnut cream slice.

 

Also on show are posters, pamphlets, souvenir keyrings and other knick-knacks, a restored neo-Baroque bedroom and some marvellous archive photographs, showing the hotel both as it was in the glamorous years before the Second World War, and as it became after the 1956 Revolution, when all the old furniture and fittings were thrown on the scrap heap and the interiors were remodelled in a brave new minimalist spirit.

The gallery of the hotel foyer after its remodelling, in 1961. Photo: Fortepan

Everything is excellently captioned and the wall texts are perfectly brief and informative. If you are in Budapest this winter—and especially if you plan to visit the Gellért Baths and/or are staying in the hotel, come and see this show.

 

"Gellért 100" runs at the MKVM in Budapest until 3rd March. Review by Annabel Barber, author of Blue Guide Budapest (which contains full coverage of both the MKVM and the Gellért Baths).

Unsung Hero

‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ Shakespeare’s famous line from Twelfth Night might well ring in your ears as you go round this exhibition at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest: Unsung Hero, an examination of the achievements and legacy of Arthur Görgei (1818–1916), military commander in Hungary’s 1848–9 War of Independence against Austria.

 

Görgei is an unknown figure outside Hungary. This is an important show not only because it introduces him to the wider world, but because of the way it confronts us with questions about the cruel and capricious nature of human hero-worship. We need heroes and we need villains, but we are curiously bad at deciding which is which. And then we treat our villains well and our heroes badly.

 

Görgei was not born great. Nor can it be said that he achieved greatness (though it briefly looked as if he might). Instead, he had greatness thrust upon him—but not until he had endured over four decades of bitter opprobrium, branded a traitor and vilified by the people he had served. How could this be?

 

Hungary is no stranger to the divisive figure, the character torn in two by opposing political camps. One generation will strew garlands on his grave, the next will lose their jobs if they dare to speak his name. This exhibition embodies such dichotomy in its use of repeated archways. The material is presented in sections, physically divided one from the other by a series of specially constructed arches which not only lead you forward, but also divide. The first one stands between two huge wall texts, both of them quotes from Lajos Kossuth, Governor President of revolutionary Hungary in 1849. In one, he hails Görgei as a loyal servant of liberty and predicts a glorious future for him. In the other he execrates the same Görgei as his country’s ‘cowardly and treacherous executioner’.

 

When one of Hungary’s greatest heroes (Kossuth) is so conflicted, what is the ordinary man on the street to think? The exhibition begins with some opinions of Görgei, solicited with no prior warning, from high-school students. Most of them turn out to be cautiously positive. A controversial figure. A great soldier. No one says he was a traitor. One (confusing him with someone else entirely) says, ‘There’s a portrait of him. Good-looking guy.’ (Wrong! Go to the back of the class!) Still, it raises an important point. What was Görgei like as a person?

 

He was born into modest circumstances, son of a Protestant family of good pedigree that had come down in the world through a mésalliance with a shopkeeper’s daughter. In a letter to his father, written when he was 14, the young Arthur expresses his ambition to be a soldier, a career which will allow him to serve his country and cater at the same time to his love of maths and physics. This idea of service was to remain a constant throughout his life.

 

We pass through another arch to find Görgei in military training school, his scientific ambitions temporarily abandoned. Lithographs, contemporary weapons and reconstructions of uniforms trace those years. Included is a uniform of the Palatine regiment of imperial hussars (the 12th), which Görgei joined in 1842 because the frogging on the jackets was of silver braid rather than the costlier gold. Another clue to the character of this austerely prudent Lutheran. In 1848 he was writing in Márczius Tizenötödike, periodical of the young radicals, pleading for more affordable uniforms for young officers, so that talented men of humble birth could progress according to their merits.

 

For ‘private and political reasons’ Görgei left the army in 1845. (NB: this exhibition is an audio-visual and kinaesthetic experience. You need to look at all the touch screens and open all the compartments otherwise you might miss something. The information about him leaving the army is tucked away in a drawer.) Beyond the next arch, we meet a Görgei who has backtracked to rediscover his scientific self. He remains in Prague, not as a soldier but as a student of chemistry, conducting research into fatty acids in coconuts. By all accounts he had a brilliant career ahead of him. But then, suddenly, he is offered the chance to return home, to manage the family estates of an aunt. To fit himself for this role he precipitately marries Adèle Aubouin, French governess in the household of his chemistry professor. There is no suggestion of a romance or even of tender feeling. Her memoirs are articulate on the subject: ‘His entire bearing was one of extreme modesty; and though the impression he created was a distinguished one, it was not immediately so. It was only after prolonged conversation, when one heard how intelligently he spoke—though his bright blue eyes, behind his glasses, were warm yet steely and his discourse filled with sardonic wit and sometimes surprisingly caustic remarks—it was only then that one became aware that this was a man of rare disctinction. During the whole course of our short acquaintance, he never paid his addresses to me…’

Arthur Görgei. Portrait from a daguerreotype. Hungarian National Archives.

Görgei returned to Hungary with his bride in the spring of 1848 but he did not remain on his aunt’s estates. Revolution was in the air and he joined the Hungarian army. In one of his old military textbooks he has penned a note on the title page: ‘ "Arthur Görgey, Lietuenant" was my signature from the summer of 1837. Now it is "Görgei Arthur".’ Görgei made this patriotic change in 1848, placing the surname before the first name in the Hungarian manner and substituting the aristocratic final ‘y’ with an egalitarian ‘i’. His progression up the ranks was astonishingly rapid. By the end of October Lajos Kossuth, in charge of the National Defence Committee, had made him a general and given him command of the Upper Danube army. It was a stellar rise in just five months. Görgei attributed his military success to the ‘mental discipline’ he had acquired as a scientific researcher.

 

Nowadays we might accuse Görgei of being a buttoned-up type, the kind of man who can’t emote. But he was capable of stirring language when it came to exhorting men to fight. Most of his words are abstract nouns and his favourite punctuation symbol is the exclamation mark: ‘Constitutional freedom! Honour! Glory! Forward, my comrades!’

 

The next section takes us through the course of the battles. There is a huge model of the battlefields complete with tiny troops of men and horse, as well as some splendid watercolours of 1849 by Mór Than, who followed the army as a war artist while his brothers fought in the campaigns (he later went on to produce allegorical frescoes for the main stairway of the Hungarian National Museum building). One of the paintings, of the Battle of Isaszeg, shows Görgei in his glasses in the centre of the fray.

Görgei (in the centre on a white horse) at the Battle of Isaszeg (6th April 1849). Watercolour by Mór Than.

In early 1849 Görgei was put in general command of the Hungarian forces. In May he recaptured Buda Castle and in the same month was appointed Minister of War in the revolutionary government. As decisive victory continued to elude the Austrians, they called on Russian support and it was at this point that Kossuth began to question his relationship with the young soldier he had ‘raised from the dust’. In July, after disobeying Kossuth’s instructions, Görgei received a near-fatal head wound. A case of grisly surgical instruments and a lead bullet containing fragments of impacted human bone make us wince to imagine the agony he must have been in. A later statuette of him on horseback (by the sculptor Barnabás Holló), his head bound in a kerchief like a Garibaldian guerrilla, focuses on the romance of the episode. Kossuth had no time for either compassion or romance. He waspishly opined that Görgei’s wits had been turned by all the the schnaps he was drinking to dull the pain and in a letter of July 1849, written in his distinctive upwardly-sloping hand, he relieves Görgei of his army command.

 

By August it was all over. Kossuth resigned on the 11th and fled the country. Two days later, on August 13th, Görgei surrendered to the representative of the Russian Tsar. The Hungarian officers were executed. Only Görgei was pardoned, on the Tsar’s personal intervention. On show is a letter from the Austrian general Julius Jacob von Haynau informing him of this fact. His life was to be spared but he would live in internal exile near Klagenfurt.

 

The accusations of treachery began from this point. In September, from the safety of Vidin, on the Danube in what was then Ottoman territory (modern Bulgaria), Kossuth wrote the vitriolic letter from which the first quotation in this exhibition comes: ‘Our sorry, wretched homeland has fallen. Not to the strength of our foes but to perfidy and treason…’. It had its effect and Görgei was hounded by public opinion. In October, after the execution of his fellow officers, the poet Vörösmarty joined his own voice to the clamour, calling down God’s eternal wrath upon the miserable wretch who so cravenly betrayed his country. Görgei’s steely blue gaze remains unwavering, his response phlegmatic. ‘If I were to take my own life I would enable my detractors to claim that I was driven to suicide by my guilty conscience. Therefore I have to live.’

'Görgei's Dream'. Contemporary caricature showing the traitor hounded on all sides by guilty conscience.

In exile, Görgei kept himself active. Charming watercolours by a daughter of a cloth manufacturer friend show him resolutely busy, hammering away in a carpentry workshop (perhaps following the example of an earlier Hungarian exile, Ferenc Rákóczi, who after his own failed rebellion occupied himself with woodwork beside the Sea of Marmara). Nevertheless, we should not be tempted to imagine Görgei as a lovable, wronged character. Always a fighter, he now showed himself happy to rush into print, firing off letters and articles. In 1852 he published his memoirs. Though available in London, New York and Turin, they were banned in Austria. And they were as merciless as might be expected from a man who seems to have seen parts of the world in such clear, close focus and the larger picture as a blur. Old comrades-in-arms loved it when Görgei excoriated their acquaintances. They were less pleased when he applied his scalpel to themselves. The caustic tongue and the stinging sarcasm that his wife had remarked on were key features of his approach. Not a way to make friends.

 

The Compromise agreement of 1867, which reconciled Hungary and Austria and ushered in the halcyon years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, brought amnesties and pardons, and at last Görgei was able to return to Hungary. He found what amounts to a series of odd jobs, never managing to settle at anything. Eventually he moved to Visegrád on the Danube Bend to manage the estate of his lawyer brother István, to whom he had always been close. (Rumours exist of a love triangle between Görgei, his brother and his brother’s wife, but the exhibition does no more than hint.)

 

In the 1880s, some of Görgei’s admirers began the task of attempting to clear his name. The efforts paid off, eventually. The exhibition ends with a small collection of personal artefacts and some charming photographs of Görgei as an old man, living in retirement and semi-obscurity, tending his garden.  But he has his public side. The final arch takes us to the years of lionisation. Elder-statesmanlike and bewhiskered, he appears in dignified poses in official busts and portraits. All the great artists of the day—Stróbl, De László—seem to have lined up to portray him. There is a mini garland of sculpted metal sent him on his 90th birthday by the poet Andor Kozma: ‘May unfading laurels wreathe thy martyr’s crown of thorn.’ A journalist gushes in 1909 that ‘in his declining years the golden crown of truth is beginning to gleam upon his brow.’ Prime Minister István Tisza’s message of condolence on his death speaks of a misguided nation heaping odium upon a great man.

 

We get no sense that Görgei was any more dazzled by being fêted than he had been crushed by exile. It is true that he seems to have enjoyed reminiscing to a receptive audience—but who would not? And he still maintained that he had served his country, even by taking the name of traitor. For if Hungary had lost not through defeat but by treachery (as Kossuth claimed), then she had the excuse she needed to go on believing in herself.

 

Under Communism, though, it was back to black. Görgei was a counter-revolutionary, a traitor and a defender of the imperial officer class. Seeing this, it is difficult not to feel gloomily philosophical. We will always want our messiahs. Will always want our heroes to be whiter than white. We will never be able to cope with shades of grey. When given the choice, we will always vote raucously for Barabbas to be freed.

 

Görgei was an upright and unswerving person. Decent, principled and resilient. If necessary, ruthless and even unkind. He had no idea how to ingratiate himself with people who might otherwise do him harm, nor indeed any notion that it would be appropriate to try. You leave the exhibition the way you came, back past Kossuth’s two contradicting quotes. It’s a brilliant touch, because by the time you leave, you feel that Kossuth was not schizophrenic after all. Görgei wasn’t a traitor. But he was, and remained, Fortune’s fool.

 

His vision was weak (literally). Paintings around the time of the War of Independence show his eyes gleaming like milk-white moons behind his spectacles. Perhaps the clue to everything can be found in a single exhibited item: his cavalry officer’s sword with a lens attached to the hilt. It is a very strong lens. Viewed through it, the texts on the opposite wall appear tiny. How do things like this shape a personality? A study published in 2015 by Yıldırım Beyazıt University in Ankara, Turkey, found lower scores on ‘cooperativeness, empathy, helpfulness and compassion’ in participants with ‘refractive error’.

 

Historical events are not things bound to happen by the conjunction of the stars. Nor are they driven by men’s premeditated decisions. They are determined by a combination of design and hazard (or chance). The mixture of personalities plays a huge role. The encounter between Görgei and Kossuth was disastrous. One is tempted to resort to chemical metaphors involving insoluble substances and precipitation. Görgei would have known all about that.

 

In the end, probably, we get the heroes we deserve. Like all good exhibitions, this one provides some unexpected answers. It also poses some tough questions. If you are in Budapest, make time for it. Unsung Hero (Az ismeretlen Görgei) runs at the Hungarian National Museum until 23rd June.

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