The mention of King Matthias creates a chain reaction in the faces of many Budapestians – surprise, pensiveness, then mildness accompanied by a little smile. That motivates me to collect pieces for a royal mosaic – 550 years after the reign of Matthias began. Considering all the attention this anniversary receives, 2008 must be suitable timing.
The Renaissance is obviously going to be a vital part of my mosaic, in that 2008 is appointed the Year of Renaissance with the King’s anniversary as a clarifying subtitle. In this 1.8 million city, I must somehow limit my search, yet cover both Buda and Pest, merged to Budapest in 1873, physically still kept apart by the Danube.
A nickname puts me on the track – Culture Avenue – much of the way identical to Andrassy Avenue, where art and history abound. It’s located on the Pest side, the flat and newer part of the capital. At the other end, Culture Avenue continues across the river to ascend the green hills of old Buda. Whether introduced by city planners or by chance, this nickname could challenge your concept of culture, unless it already embraces regimes of terror.
King Matthias was deeply concerned with the Renaissance’s rebirth of art and beauty and its humanism. He was himself an educated humanist, while his wife Beatrice – the daughter of the King of Naples – came right out of the Italian Renaissance, which they together paved the way for into Hungary. The efforts of the King were highly recognized – reforms of education and justice, an extensive library, mastered several foreign languages, a talented soldier securing the borders. Perhaps the most capable king of all, whose reign is looked upon as a golden age.
That leads me to Heroes’ Square on the Pest side, well away from the river. The heroes are found atop two colonnades shaped as sections of a circle. Those heroes are part of Hungarian history, the beginning of which is marked with the sky-high Millennium monument from 1896, flanked by two art museums and a spacious City Park. Here in 2008, the Museum of Fine Arts acts as a magnet with “The Splendour of the Medicis – Life and Art in Renaissance Florence“, a tribute of great beauty to King Matthias, under high security.
Should you add Budapest to your RTW trip?
Down Culture Avenue
The exhibits from Florence present the lifestyle, values and customs of the elite. Those were interpreted and adopted by the King and by his wife, whose background qualified her to guide and advise her husband. She surely contributed to the growth and prosperity that seemed to accompany the King. He is still a motivator, now inspiring me to proceed down Culture Avenue – as Andrassy ends in Heroes’ Square. The traffic lanes are at this end clad in green, and so are the mansions completed in the first decades of the Austria-Hungary dual monarchy beginning 1867.
Discreet station names and narrow steps in yellow frames of iron, suggest Andrassy has an underground secret – it’s one of the oldest metros in Europe, probably one reason for Andrassy’s World Heritage status. That is hardly the case with number 60 – House of Terror. In good weather, “Terror” is written on its facade by the sun. Although repelling, it draws you near with rows of small pictures, on pavement level, depicting young men who were imprisoned, tortured and killed in this building, owned by terror regimes that King Matthias was spared – the fascist Arrow Cross Party, Hungarian Nazis and the communist Political Police.
A counterbalance is found in number 22, the State Opera House which has nothing to hide, but lots to show – a repertoire of some fifty operas, hundreds of statues and paintings, Renaissance architecture, part of which is an auditorium for 1289 visitors. The nearby Basilica, or Budapest Cathedral, can hold five times as many, but was luckily empty on that particular day in 1868 when the dome collapsed and crashed 96m down. A Budapest panorama can these days be enjoyed from the safety of its observation deck.
The attraction of monuments, architecture and treasures of art can be measured, whereas the Danube is in a class by itself – almost royal according to a Budapest nickname: Queen of the Danube. Its dark water calms you down, it separates and puts two beauties in perspective, tells history, brings old songs to your mind and offers you trips to Vienna. Sightseeing boats are ready to take you up and down. The coziest and cheapest approach to the River and the Queen is tram number 2 on the Pest side.
Heading for Buda, you have nine bridges to choose among – the old and picturesque Chain Bridge is a favorite, dropping you at a cable car. Using your own legs, however, will be most rewarding with a new view of Pest and the river all the time. The Parliament catches the eye due to size, Neoclassical appearance and by being a democratic contrast to Buda Castle. The general atmosphere suggests I’m moving closer to King Matthias now.
A Smell of Soap
Buda is synonymous with its castle area, covering a stretch of 1.5 km, yet boasting the largest building in Hungary: the Royal Palace, the present version is the third since the 13th century, today the home of Budapest Historical Museum, the National Gallery and the National Library, all participating in the ongoing celebrations, supervised by King Matthias himself on top of a hunting scene monument, kept strong and fresh by the spring it’s built on.
People approach the Historical Museum to enjoy “Tradition and Renewal in the Hungarian Royal Court 1458 – 1490“, the reign of Matthias Corvinus, which he began at an age of only 15. Belonging to the Nobility, he was not an heir but elected to the throne. Beatrice was his second wife, the best known medieval queen – ambitious, but unable to provide the King with an heir, nevertheless she strongly opposed his plans to make an illegitimate son, Janos, his successor.
A marble relief of the royal couple is very formal, whereas portraits of the King alone reveal a wise kindness served with a discreet smile under a powerful nose. He was a humanist in a time when humanists were assigned governmental and diplomatic duties. Considering previous rulers, it’s not surprising that King Matthias acts as an object of nostalgia – he was human, cared for his son, had conflicts with his wife, constant warfare and royal extravagance caused him financial problems, and last but not least: a time factor of 550 years has somehow compromised historical data.
Both King Matthias’ weddings took place in the Matthias Church, a newly restored jewel. A visit there tickles the imagination of locals and tourists, who continue to the Fisherman’s Bastion, a funny construction of steps and balconies offering panorama views. We rejoice in the nostalgic surroundings, mix what we see with stories we have heard, put in a missing link here and there – we are simply creating soap opera! It might have pleased Good King Matthias to know he has become royal soap – with a delay of 550 years.