Artemisia Gentileschi

This month, a new exhibition devoted to the art of the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi was to have opened at the National Gallery in London. Blue Guides was to have visited the exhibition and posted a review of it. That will now have to wait.

Artemisia Gentileschi features in many Blue Guides, notably the volumes covering Rome, Florence and Southern Italy. She was particularly fond of biblical and religious scenes with a tough female protagonist (Samson and Delilah, Salome with the Head of the Baptist, Judith and Holofernes). London’s National Gallery recently acquired a self-portrait of the artist in the guise of St Catherine of Alexandria, the saint who was broken on the ‘Catherine wheel’. The entry on Gentileschi in Blue Guide Florence says the following:

Gentileschi, Artemisia (1593–1652). Talented and independent, Gentileschi trained under her father, Orazio Gentileschi, an artist who owed much to Caravaggio. She worked in Rome but moved to Florence to carry out commissions for Cosimo II de’ Medici. Dramatic Caraveggesque chiaroscuro certainly suited Artemisia’s choice of subject matter. She had a particular affinity for the story of Judith and Holofernes (her most famous treatment of the subject is in the Uffizi). Legend relates this to the fact that Artemisia was raped as a young woman and that her assailant was never brought to justice.


“Judith and Holofernes”. Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

According to the National Gallery, this story was no legend. Artemisia was indeed raped and her assailant, though found guilty, was never fully punished. Her attacker, Agostino Tassi, enjoyed a career in Rome producing painted decorations for a number of palazzi and as assistant to Claude Lorrain. Blue Guide Rome, in its Glossary of Artists, merely mentions him as a “painter known for his landscapes. In Rome he worked alongside a number of other artists.” Perhaps, after this London exhibition, we might feel tempted to say more.

Apart from the Judith and Holofernes in the Uffizi, there is another version of the same scene, in the Capodimonte museum in Naples. It is that version that is pictured above. And you can read more about the National Gallery’s planned exhibition on Gentileschi here.

Florence: Forged in Fire

There are just a few days left to catch this exhibition in Palazzo Pitti (Forged in Fire. Bronze sculpture in Florence under the last Medici; on until 12th January 2020), which illustrates the bronze sculpture made for the Medici court in the 17th and 18th centuries, some of the most important work in this medium in Europe at the time. For long this period in Florence (beginning with the reign of Cosimo II) was equated with decadence and it has only been since the 1960s that scholars have begun to re-evaluate the role of the Medici grand-dukes in promoting excellence in art and their activity as collectors, and the exhibition has been an occasion to study in depth the sculptors at work in this Baroque period. Accompanied by a superb scholarly catalogue, complete with full biographies of each artist, it underlines the standing of artists such as Giovanni Battista Foggini, Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi and Giuseppe Piamontini, all three of whom produced large, sometimes life-size bronzes as well as the much more familiar small bronzes (masters of which including Antonio and Giovanni Francesco Susini and Pietro Tacca are well represented in the exhibition). The curators have even been able to retrieve eleven of the twelve celebrated bronze groups of religious subjects made between 1722 and 1725, by many of the artists present in the exhibition, for Anna Maria Luisa, the Electress Palatine, and which she kept in her rooms in Palazzo Pitti (these later found their way to museums as far afield as Madrid, Detroit, Berlin, Birmingham and St Petersburg). Soldani-Benzi’s patron was the Prince of Liechtenstein and works from the ‘Princely Collections, Vaduz-Vienna’ are also present in the exhibition—seen in Florence for the first time. The sculptures on show are mostly in patinated bronze, which sometimes takes on a greenish shiny tone, or reddish tint, rather than the more familiar ink black of Renaissance bronzes.

Apart from the numerous sculptures, a collection of drawings by Soldani-Benzi (only acquired by the Uffizi in 2017) is exhibited opposite a pair of very fine green porphyry vases with gilt bronze decoration by the same artist (and preserved in Palazzo Pitti).

The works by the lesser-known Piamontini include very impressive large-scale bronzes (lent from a Ministry in Rome) closely inspired by ancient marbles, some of which could be described as reproductions of Classical works in a different medium.

In 1687 Foggini, after a spell in Rome, was appointed court sculptor to the grand-dukes and was also responsible for producing furniture and other fine objects, some in pietre dure. His versatility as a sculptor is well illustrated in this exhibition and he emerges as the central artist of his time in Florence. For more details of the exhibition, see here.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

An Artist of the World

Portrait of the artist’s wife. 1918. Private collection.

A rare treat for lovers of portraiture: a small show entirely dedicated to the work of Philip de László (1869–1937) is currently running at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest.

On the face of it, this should not seem altogether surprising. Hungarian gallery exhibits works by Hungarian artist. Not a headline-stealer, you might think. But the extraordinary thing about de László is, that this is the first exhibition devoted to his work to be mounted in his native city for almost a hundred years.

De László was the last—and for many, the finest—portraitist in the Grand Manner. His biography is a true example of life mimicking fairy-tale. Born into a humble family in inner-city Budapest, he rose to become the most sought-after portrait painter of his generation. He married an Anglo-Irish girl, Lucy Guinness, and settled permanently in England in 1907. During the course of an exceptionally successful career he painted more than 4,000 likenesses: heads of state (many of them crowned), lords temporal and spiritual, celebrated hostesses, heroes of the battlefield—and was much honoured in recognition, receiving the MVO from Edward VII and a grant of arms from Franz Joseph (to name but two of the 22 distinctions heaped upon him).

The sixteen works on display in this small show, all from de László’s mature period, represent a tiny fraction of his total output. His pace was feverish and scarcely slackened, except when he was interned as a person of ‘hostile origin’ during WWI. The portraits, both from public collections and on loan from private ones, are well chosen, a mix of the famous, the not-so-famous and the fascinating to google. Among them are Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (when Duchess of York), Cardinal Mariano Rampolla (whose path to the papacy was blocked by Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary) and General Artúr Görgei, anti-hero of the Hungarian War of Independence of 1849. But the success of a portrait need not depend on the fame of the sitter (only think of Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier). By no means all of de László’s subjects were household names, but with an artist of his skill, that is irrelevant. De László was brilliant at capturing a likeness. His portraits flatter but never falsify. The face is everything, and it is made to speak volumes. ‘Wonderfully clever,’ was Margot Asquith’s verdict on her portrait of 1901, ‘and much more interesting than I am’. This is possibly because there is so much left unsaid. Unlike, for example, Pompeo Batoni, the popular Italian portraitist of some hundred years previously, who threw suggestive contextual paraphernalia into his backgrounds (hunting dogs and fragments of Grecian urn, to anchor his subjects in their ‘milords-on-the-Grand Tour’ personas), de László rarely uses extraneous props. The result is an impression of irresistible glamour. De László may have had extraordinary powers of psychological penetration but he also got to the essence of his sitters by the simple expedient of chatting to them. Many became lifelong friends. One gets the impression that sitting for him was fun. Unlike Sargent, who ultimately disliked a lot of the people who made his reputation, Eeyore-ishly admitting that ‘Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend,’ de László’s experience and approach was entirely the opposite. He liked people. He was a showman, garrulous and energetic. A lovely touch in this exhibition is a little cine film snippet that shows him darting about his studio with quick, robin-like movements.

There is also a sense of the thrill of the chase. One of the aims of the De Laszlo Archive Trust is to complete the Catalogue Raisonné of all de László’s works, the whereabouts of many of which are still unknown. But when a lost painting does float to the surface, the excitement is palpable. At the opening night of this exhibition, four generations of one family were present in the room: the sitter and her children staring out from one of the portraits and the grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter among the assembled guests. The group portrait in question had only just come to light, in eastern Hungary. Hiding in plain sight. But de László is not well known in his native country. Partly because he left it and made his name outside. Partly because the monarchs and prelates of the age he depicted were hopelessly bad cadre under Communism. Not all of their reputations have recovered (Admiral Horthy, Mussolini, Kaiser Wilhelm II) but as de László himself insisted—in a remark which has become famous and serves as the title of this exhibition—he painted people, not politics. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the portraits of his family. The portrait of Lucy (their relationship was not without its trials but remained devoted) is an exceptionally accomplished work, using the device of the mirror to play with ideas of reality and illusion, the paradox of the viewer viewed. Perhaps this little jewel box of an exhibition does something similar in the variety of ways it displays its artist to us. De László is manifoldly manifest. These are his portraits, of course. One of them is even a self-portrait. And then there is the cine-clip. But he is present in three dimensions too, in the form of a small sculpture by Paul Troubetkzkoy. A lovely example of the limner limned.

I am an Artist of the World runs at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest until 5th January.

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.

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

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.

News from Florence

Bernardo Daddi’s ‘Maestà’ in Orsanmichele, of which one of the paintings newly acquired by the Accademia is a copy.

For anyone taking advantage of the relevant calm in Florence this month (when the queue outside the Accademia, the city’s most famous gallery, is usually minimal—though it is still always worth booking your visit online) there is a fascinating little exhibition now running (until 5 May)..

What brings these eight paintings and single piece of sculpture together is the fact that they have all been added to the Gallery’s holdings during the tenure of the new director, Cecilie Hollberg, in other words, over the last three years.

The early paintings are all gold-ground and each has a story to tell about its provenance and connection to other works in the Gallery’s collection. Some were in storage elsewhere in Florence, others were exported illegally and have been recovered by the police, others have been purchased. They are beautifully exhibited in a little room and there is something almost touching about them, given that they have been retrieved from oblivion, carefully dusted off and restored, and put in their historical context. None of them is of the first importance but all of them add something to the glorious history of art in Florence.

The obscurity of some pieces is underlined by the attribution of two of the works, one to the ‘Master of 1416’ and the other to the ‘Master of 1419’. The former is a copy of Bernardo Daddi’s famous Maestà in Orsanmichele, painted some 60 years earlier, showing that the Florentines of the early 15th century still considered it one of the most beautiful works in the city. The latter unidentified ‘Master’ is named after a work now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Cleveland, Ohio. The painting by him here, The Most Holy Trinity (La Santissima Trinità), shows God the Father enthroned holding an image of Christ on the Cross, with the dove of the Holy Spirit flying down towards it. The Gallery possesses another (more important) painting of the same subject, the central panel of a triptych by Nardo di Cione. The composition is very similar, but in Nardo’s work God the Father is sitting on a beautiful red-black-and-gold cloth and the Dove perches in the centre of Christ’s halo.

The Madonna of Heavenly Humility (she is seated on clouds rather than on the ground, hence the neat title) is attributed to a Master named after the Bracciolini Chapel in the church of San Francesco in Pistoia. The Child is rather oversize, but this work was considered important enough to be confiscated by the state (after it was illegally exported from Italy to Switzerland in 2003) in order to preserve it in its Tuscan context.

There are also two doors of a tabernacle known once to have been in the Corsini Palace (which still contains the most important private collection in Florence, albeit closed to the public). They are by the prolific painter Mariotto di Nardo (son of Nardo di Cione) and are of exceptional interest for their decoration in gilded pastiglia, which forms leafy frames all around a scene of the Annunciation and figures of four saints. In another work by Mariotto in the exhibition, the Coronation of the Virgin with Angels, the painter has characteristically included lots more angels in the background depicted in gold.

The newly acquired piece of sculpture is a portrait bust of Giovanni Battista Niccolini, signed in 1827 by Lorenzo Bartolini, the most important sculptor of his time. The sitter, Niccolini, was a playwright, born in Pisa in 1782 and who died in Florence in 1862. The bust will be displayed beside the original plaster cast Bartolini made for it, which together with numerous other works from his studio was already owned by the Gallery. The bust was purchased by the newly-established Friends of the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, who are giving welcome support to its activities.

After the magnificent exhibition on the 14th-century fabric industry, held here early in 2018 (reviewed here), it seems that the museum’s policy (since it certainly has no need to increase its visitor numbers), at least for the time being, will be to hold small, choice exhibitions such as this one, which do not demand huge expenditure (the cost of the entrance ticket will not be increased during these shows).

I was interested to note that in the gallery with Michelangelo’s Slaves and his St Matthew (which leads up to the tribune with the colossal David), the label on the Pietà from Palestrina has at last been changed and its attribution to Michelangelo given as ‘very doubtful’ and still an ‘open subject’ (in fact the latest edition of the Blue Guide Florence chose to ignore it). At the same time, though, a fascinating suggestion has been made on the notice: that this could be a tribute to Michelangelo by the great Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. One of the tasks of the Blue Guides is to ensure the information provided is up-to-date.

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

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.

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

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…’

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. The exhibited case of grisly surgical instruments and 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 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.

The Corvina Library

Missal of Domonkos Kálmáncsehi (1481). Made in Buda. Now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City.

“Matthias is dead—now books will be cheap in Europe!” Thus Lorenzo the Magnificent is said to have exclaimed on hearing of the passing of the King of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus, in 1490. Matthias , who became king aged 15 in 1458, can fairly be said to have led the way in exporting Renaissance art and humanism outside Italy. His erudition linked him closely with Lorenzo in Florence; in fact, the two exchanged letters about their progress in forming their libraries. That of Matthias, the Bibliotheca Corviniana, was the first of its kind north of the Alps. Based on Italian models such as the library of Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino or of Ferdinand of Aragon in Naples, it came to contain around 2,000 precious volumes, mainly works by ancient authors and Church fathers, mostly in Latin, some in Greek. Only the Vatican Library could surpass it in scope and extent: Matthias is known to have lavished a fortune on the project, either acquiring existing manuscripts and incunabula or having exquisitely illuminated copies made. By paying so well, Matthias turned books into valuable commodities, and Lorenzo the Magnificent (who was putting together a library of volumes very similar in size and decoration to those of the Buda collection), may well have felt the pinch.

A superb small exhibition on Matthias’ library, with many items sourced from collections within Hungary as well as plenty from further afield—since the Buda shelves were emptied after the Ottoman conquest of 1541—is now on show at the National Széchényi Library in Budapest: “The Corvina Library and the Buda Workshop” (runs until 9th Feb).

Matthias acquired his books from a number of sources. Many volumes were purchased from Italy; others he had copied and he set up a workshop for the purpose at Buda, under the direction of Italian illuminators. Matthias’ bride, Ferdinand of Aragon’s daughter Beatrice, also brought volumes with her from Naples: her coat of arms appears on a number of codices. From the 1480s Matthias began to give his collection matching leather and velvet bindings, with elaborately worked clasps.

Matthias appointed a librarian, Ugo Taddeo from Parma, to be in charge of acquiring existing volumes and commissioning copies. Our best contemporary source for what the Corvina Library may have been like is a four-part panegyric by the humanist poet Naldo Naldi. He tells of a vaulted room, tucked away in a secluded part of the palace, with coloured glass in the window apertures, incunabula and codices in inlaid shelves around the walls, their richly gilded bindings protected from dust by lozenge-patterned curtains. Between the windows stood a couch draped in cloth of gold, upon which the king would sprawl at his ease, supreme monarch among the Muses. Other seating was provided by three-legged stools upholstered in cloth of gold studded with precious stones (ouch!).

The artistic style adopted by the copyists in the Buda workshop was heterogeneous although broadly based on Italian models. Two of the leading hands were Francesco Rosselli from Florence and Francesco da Castello from Milan. The latter is known also to have been at work in Piacenza and for the Bishop of Lodi. The styles of these two men were generally regarded as the ones to follow but many of the illuminators at work in Buda were Flemish or German and the result is an interesting mix. The missal of a functionary at Matthias’ court, one Domonkos Kálmáncsehi, for example (1481, on loan from the Pierpont Morgan Library), contains only a single page illuminated by Francesco da Castello. The rest is by artists from Central Europe.

Another work thought to be by Francesco da Castello is the codex of Johannes Cassianus, concerning the rules of coenobite monks. Made in Buda (and on loan from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France), it has given its name to the “Cassianus” group of codices, all illuminated in roughly the same style, the border designs of acanthus fronds and grottesche appearing against red and blue backgrounds. The Cassianus codex was completed in the reign of Vladislas II, who succeeded Matthias after his death in 1490. Interestingly one of the volumes that presumably came to Buda with Queen Beatrice, a manuscript copy of Quintus Curtius Rufus’ Alexander the Great made in Naples in the 1470s, has a handwritten note on the flyleaf, perhaps written by Beatrice herself: “In the year of our Lord 1491, on the Sunday after Epiphany, I arrived here at Eger and on the third day also arrived the glorious King Vladislas who had been crowned in 1490 on the Sunday after the Exaltation of the Cross.” Beatrice managed to cling onto her position as Queen of Hungary by marrying Vladislas later that same year. But she gave him no children and so he rid himself of her by having Pope Alexander VI (the notorious Rodrigo Borgia) declare the union null and void. She returned to Naples—but whether she took any of her books back with her, I cannot say. Other books that remained unfinished at Matthias’ death have survived because they never came to Buda. There were over a hundred of these; many of them being worked on in Florence by artists directly employed by King Matthias. An example is the exquisite Bible, with illuminations by Attavante and the brothers Gherardo and Monte di Giovanni, which is today preserved in the Biblioteca Laurenziana.

Matthias’ library survived his death intact by only half a century. In 1541 the Ottomans took Buda and most of its treasures were scattered and pillaged. Near the end of this exhibition are two volumes that were returned to Hungary in the 19th century by sultans Abdülaziz and Abdülhamid. One of them, Caesar’s Gallic Wars (made in Florence in 1460–70), has had its original binding replaced by an Ottoman one with crescent moons. Another, St Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (made in Rome in the 1460s), preserves its 15th-century crimson velvet cover, with a gilt silver clasp decorated with the enamelled coat of arms of Matthias’ successor Vladislas, supported by twin dolphins.

This is a magnificent show; a rare glimpse into a world of luxury and learning. If you are in Budapest this winter, make sure to add it to your list.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber, author of Blue Guide Budapest.

Lorenzo Lotto: Portraits

“Assumption of the Virgin”, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

“Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits” is the title of an exhibition currently running at the National Gallery in London. It has come from the Prado in Madrid, in slightly slimmed-down form. Not all of the works on show in the Prado can be seen in London (the catalogue is teasingly tantalising in this regard) but there are still a great many treats in store. This is a splendid show, for anyone who already loves Lorenzo Lotto just as much as for those who have yet to be introduced to him.

Lotto was born in Venice in 1480. He was greatly influenced by the school of art of his native city but his working life was an itinerant one, spent in Treviso, Bergamo, Venice and the Marche, where he died. He was a deeply religious painter and has left behind him many altarpieces (the devotion often leavened with an infectious sense of fun) but his bread and butter also came (when it came—and in Lotto’s case it was always intermittent) from portraiture, likenesses of members of the increasingly affluent and aspirational middle class of administrators, clerics, artisans and merchants.

The painting which begins this article, the Assumption of the Virgin from the Brera in Milan, is not part of the current show. The reason for including it here is because it epitomises the art of Lotto. He was of all the Renaissance masters the one with the greatest sense of humour. Here we see the Virgin, borne aloft on her statutory latex cloud, with the Apostles agog and incredulous beneath her. But Lotto makes us laugh with the witty details. One of the Twelve has taken out his pince nez, the better to view the spectacle. Another, Doubting Thomas, is in danger of missing the whole show. We see him off to the right, sprinting down the mountainside, drapery afloat. We can almost hear him crying, “Wait for me!”

If this is the Lotto you love, this exhibition will show you another side of him. There are not many jokes here, probably because his sitters didn’t want to be made fun of—nor did the artist dare to poke fun, in case he did not get paid. A good many of the works displayed here were painted in exchange for bed and board. Lotto never had much money.

Nevertheless, he loved a game and he loved a symbol. Some of the portraits include an elaborate rebus, playing on the sitter’s name. Lucina Brembati, for example, wealthy matron of Bergamo, is portrayed (c. 1528; on loan from the Accademia Carrara) with a crescent moon in the top left-hand corner, with the lettters ‘CI’ included within it. The Latin LUNA (moon), with the addition of CI, makes the name Lucina. Another Bergamo patron, painted in 1523 (on loan from the Hermitage), earnestly points to a red squirrel, rather bizarrely (but very sweetly) asleep beneath his cloak. It stands for constancy, a virtue that this new bridgeroom (portrayed with his very young and scared-looking wife) is going to do his level best to embody.

One of the heaviest symbolic portraits is the very first in the exhibition, the warts-and-all likeness of Bishop Bernardo de’ Rossi (1505; lent by the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples), a well-fed young thug with incipient rosacea, clutching a scroll which may allude to a successful lawsuit brought against opponents who had plotted his assassination. The portrait originally had a cover, likewise painted on a wooden board, an elaborate allegory of the progress of the soul. On the right we see a spent and drunken satyr, having given the best of himself to wine. On the left, an immature putto cluelessly dabbles with Art and Science, embodied by a pair of compasses and a recorder and pipes. Above them a tiny figure—De’ Rossi’s soul?—studded with four pairs of wings like a seraph, is determinedly making his way up a steep cliff towards a mackerel sky, as blushful as the bishop’s own complexion.

Let us not say, then, that the exhibition contains no jokes. There is a particularly good one in the portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527) from the Royal Collection in London. The wealthy Venetian antiquary poses with his treasures: a head of Hadrian, a Diana of Ephesus. Behind him stand two more: a Venus at her bath, foot daintily raised above a basin of water, into which a statuette of a drunken Hercules is casually urinating.

The “Assumption of the Virgin” in situ in Asolo cathedral.

Even in his altarpieces Lotto includes portraits. One of the delights of this show is the altarpiece of the Assumption from the cathedral of Asolo in the Veneto. In situ it is difficult to appreciate because it can only be viewed from a distance. Here in London, one can get right up to it and inspect the features of the Virgin as she ascends on her cloud. This is no saintly Mother of God. She has been given the mature, worldly features of the redoubtable Caterina Cornaro (1454–1510), Venetian noblewoman and sometime Queen of Cyprus, who retired to Asolo and gathered about her men of literature and learning. The font in Asolo cathedral bears her coat of arms.

As the exhibition catalogue admits, “Lotto was not the greatest portraitist in Renaissance Italy and Titian has a better claim to this privileged title in Venice; yet no other painter’s portraits—not even Titian’s—could probably stand up to such a major exhibition without seeming monotonous or creating a sense of déjà vu.”

It is true. In Venice, Lotto (1480–1556) was completely surpassed by Titian (1488–1576). In Bergamo by Moroni (1520–79). His draughtsmanship (particularly of the sitters’ hands) is often clumsy. But the life of the imagination and the sense of personality is never so vivid or so manifoldly felt as it is in the idiosyncratic works of poor Lorenzo Lotto.

Lorenzo Lotto: thought to be his self-portrait (in red) among the paupers begging for alms.

Poor Lorenzo. In 1542 he painted what might be his self-portrait, among the paupers begging for alms in the wonderful Charity of St Antoninus altarpiece from the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice (one of the wonderful things that the show achieves is to have found a rug that matches the pattern of the carpet in the painting). Four years later, in Loreto, Lotto made his will. “Art,” he admitted, “did not earn me what I spent.” He died in 1556, melancholy and discouraged, in penury. A painting containing another putative self-portrait survives in Loreto, a Christ and the Adulteress (c. 1550), where a bearded figure in the crowd puts his finger to his lips in a gesture that warns us to “Speak no evil.” It is tempting to believe that Lorenzo Lotto was just such a man: broad-minded, tolerant and merciful.

This exhibition is poignant in the way it reveals to us a genius unrecognised in his lifetime and the injustice that that entails. We still have not learned to spot talent until it is too late. This show reveals to us an artist who, in a way that so many artists do not, leaves traces of himself in all his works. Lorenzo Lotto speaks to us down the centuries. We long to tell him how much we would have appreciated his work—if only we’d been there.

Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits. At the National Gallery, London until 10th February 2019.