Marosvásárhely, March 2009
I step through a large door into the Teleki-téka. Count Sámuel Teleki (1739-1822) founded this library and donated it to the town of Marosvásárhely. A white, U-shaped building, it has an arched gallery on the first floor reminiscent of a cloister. I climb a flight of stone steps and knock on a door. Beyond lies a long room with tables covered in papers and books. There are three women and one man. The man seems disturbed by my arrival. A young woman with black curly hair hurries towards me when I tell her I’ve come for the Teleki-téka. She has a giant key in her hand, as if for a mediaeval town gate. She’s a specialist in the mediaeval Transylvanian nobility.
In the 1950s several of Count Sámuel Teleki’s direct descendants lived somewhere in this building. I suppose it ought to be seen as evidence of the charitableness of the communist system that they were permitted a bolt hole. The space was so small that one of the Telekis slept on top of a cupboard.
I ask the woman whether she’s heard of Gemma Teleki. Perhaps she knows where she lived? Certainly. She turns round and points to a side door, which opens onto a dark, dead-end corridor about five metres long and a metre and a half wide. It’s the kind of space in which you would store cardboard boxes that might come in handy one day, empty bottles for the deposit, or a bicycle with a flat tyre. Here Gemma Teleki lived with two other Telekis. People who knew her well have told me that Gemma was an exceptional person, very intelligent, perhaps too intelligent for her own good.
My guide opens a tall door. After crossing a hallway we find ourselves in a large room. She turns on the lights. Since 1802, the year the library opened, nothing here has changed, except that there is electricity now. An inner sanctum. The windows have shutters. The bookcases are painted white and their doors have chicken wire instead of glass. The space is two storeys high; the upper-level walkway is lined with bookcases on all four walls. At the far end of the room hangs a large portrait of Sámuel Teleki as chancellor of Transylvania, an ermine robe over his shoulders and a sceptre in his hand. He is flanked by portraits of the two other noblemen who founded large libraries in Transylvania: Sámuel Brukenthal and Ignatius Batthyány.
On the wall is a map of Europe showing the twenty-five cities from which Teleki assembled his collection. They include Amsterdam, Leiden, Utrecht and Rotterdam, as well as Zurich, Padua, Rome, Leipzig, Ulm, Budapest and Pécs. He had contacts in all those cities, dealers and buyers searching on his behalf. Over his lifetime Teleki compiled a collection of 40,000 books. After his death in 1822, wagonloads of books kept arriving in Marosvásárhely.
Ninety-one-year-old Erzsébet T. has told me that many Transylvanian nobles attended universities in the Netherlands. One of her ancestors studied at Utrecht and some of his letters have survived. From Transylvania and Hungary they usually travelled by boat along the Polish and German rivers to the Baltic, and from there they walked to the Netherlands.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, around three thousand Transylvanians and Hungarians studied in the Netherlands, including 1,233 in Franeker, 740 in Utrecht and 655 in Leiden. Among them were sons of the powerful Transylvanian families. Erzsébet says that the son of an aristocrat was usually accompanied by two capable but penniless students from the village or surrounding district. The aristocrat’s family would pay the two villagers’ tuition fees and living expenses. In 1692 Mihály Bethlen went to Franeker, as did Pál Teleki in 1696. Wolfgangus Bánffy (known in Hungary as Farkas Bánffy) arrived in Leiden in 1747 to study theology and Joseph Teleki followed in 1760. Until the late eighteenth century, Protestants were not allowed to attend universities in the Habsburg Empire. If they studied there nevertheless, they would not be awarded a degree.
A few years ago I gave a series of lectures at the Dutch faculty of the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. At the first lecture I asked my students why they had decided to study Dutch. One of them, who was from Transylvania, said she’d chosen the course because she’d inherited her Transylvanian grandfather’s Dutch library.
The aristocracy was essential to the dissemination of culture in Transylvania, and indeed in Hungary, founding academies, opera houses, theatres, libraries, spas, museums and arboreta. Sámuel Teleki was the prototype of this kind of patron. He studied at Utrecht, Leiden, Basel and Paris, and for the rest of his life he was influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment. He developed an overwhelming desire to found a large library in Transylvania. The collection is still almost entirely intact, with fifty-two incunabula as well as rare works that include prints by Rubens, Dürer, Cranach and Holbein, and tomes featuring signed engravings by Giovanni Battista and Francesco Piranesi. He attempted to build up a broad collection in which both the humanities – theology, philosophy, jurisprudence – and the natural sciences were represented. The works range across time from Aristotle to Rousseau, including books by Luther and Calvin (as with most of Transylvania’s aristocrats, nine out of ten Telekis were Protestants), and by Thomasius, Kepler and Newton.
The aristocrats of Hungary and Transylvania were traditionally patrons to new poets and writers. In the seventeenth century the diaries and memoirs of the nobles themselves were the region’s most important literary expression. They alone had the time and opportunity to read and write. Virtually everyone else worked on the land.
János Kemény (prince of Transylvania from 1660 to 1662) was seized by the Tartars and taken to the Crimea. During his imprisonment there he compiled the first memoir ever written in Hungarian, and in it he says a great deal about Transylvania. The tradition of writing memoirs continues to this day. Ilona’s grandfather wrote an account of his life entitled Hier bin ich geboren (This is where I was born). The grandfather of one of the Transylvanians I spoke to had made three handwritten copies of his life story under communism, like a monk. He describes all the property confiscated from the family, with drawings of roads, railway lines, villages and family estates. Based on those drawings, his grandson was able to specify exactly which properties in Romania the state was legally bound to return to him.
For centuries foreign authors had a huge impact on Hungarian literature and philosophy, in part because Hungarian nobles living in exile produced so much literature, such as Ferenc Rákóczi II, whose autobiographical work was influenced by Fénelon and Rabelais. The aristocracy often took its lead from the French Enlightenment. Francophile Transylvanian Count László Haller translated Fénelon’s Télémaque and Hungarian Count Fekete corresponded with Voltaire.
Interest in French Enlightenment thought was even greater in Transylvania, where for centuries there had been a bond with France as an ally and financier in uprisings against the Habsburgs. The ideas of the French Revolution were adapted to local conditions. ‘Liberty’ meant the nobles’ own freedom as defined by the constitution, ‘equality’ meant the equality of all nobles, and ‘fraternity’ meant being prepared to cooperate with nobles of a different religious persuasion. They had no intention of extending notions of fraternity and equality to include the non-aristocratic. Liberté, fraternité, égalité – but strictly for their own circle.
It was usual for the aristocrats of Transylvania and Hungary to attend Western European universities. They went on trips to France, England and the Netherlands, and since they were subjected to fewer controls at international borders they smuggled Western literature back with them into the Habsburg Empire. Samuel Teleki’s wife, Zsuzsanna Bethlen, built up an extensive book collection of her own. Miklós Bánffy at Bonchida and László Toldalaghi in Koronka were the last owners of large private libraries in Transylvania.
Between the wars Baron János Kemény was the publisher of the literary magazine Erdélyi Helikon, with Miklós Bánffy as its editor-in-chief. Kemény made his castle in Marosvécs available for an annual gathering of Transylvanian writers. The beautiful Baroness Carola Bornemissza was a muse to them all, and indeed to the Zsigmond Kemény Association in Marosvásárhely, named after a writer, thinker and relative of János Kemény. Carola cooked for the writers and noted down her Transylvanian dishes in an exercise book (published as a cookery book in 1998). She was immortalized by both János Kemény and Miklós Bánffy in their written works. Bánffy had a barely concealed relationship with her for decades – before, during and after her marriage to Elemér Bornemissza.
In front of the bookcases in the Teleki-téka are low display cases with special editions from the collection. I walk past with my hands clasped at my back and look serious, as if I know all about them. At each glass case I lean forward for a moment. The oldest exhibit in the library is Galeottus Martius’ Liber de homine, printed in Bologna in about 1475. Samuel Teleki’s bookplate is on show too, with the family coat of arms stamped in gold and his motto deus providebit. One display case contains several volumes of Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, brought from Amsterdam in 1689 by typographer Nicolaus Kis (known in Hungary as Miklós Tótfalusi Kis).
After I’ve been round, my guide tells me they also have rare prints from Plantijn in Antwerp and Elsevier in Leiden. On my way out I cast another glance at the dark arched corridor where three Teleki descendants lived in the 1950s like mice in a bottle.
Comrade Baron. A Journey through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy
by Jaap Scholten
Corvina Kiadó, 2013
404 pages, HUF 3990
The book is available at Bestsellers (District V, Október 6 u. 11) and at Massolit (District VII, Nagy Diófa u. 30).