by Roderick Conway Morris

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Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence
The palace of Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary, in a volume dating from around 1490.

Celebrating a Bond Between Hungary and the Medicis

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE, Italy 6 November 2013


Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary from 1458 to 1490, formed an unusually close relationship with Lorenzo de' Medici, the head of the Medici clan from 1469 until his death in 1492.

This special bond, which made Hungary one of the first states north of the Alps to embrace Italian Renaissance art and thought, is the subject of an enlightening exhibition, 'Matthias Corvinus: Art and Humanism at the Court of the Hungarian King,' at the Dominican monastery of San Marco here.

The exhibition, displayed in the library, which was once one of Florence's most important intellectual meeting places, shows how both Lorenzo and Matthias made conscious use of expensive art to legitimize their positions.

The most imposing object is an intricate silk brocade throne hanging, densely embroidered in gilded silver thread with classical motifs including urns, eagles, cornucopias, garlands and Matthias's coat of arms. Designed by Antonio del Pollaiolo, this costly fabric - restored for this exhibition - not only records the sophistication of Florence's workshops, but also the vast sums that Matthias was prepared to spend on Florentine products to enhance his magnificence at home.

The show goes on to explore the various areas of cultural life in Hungary that were influenced by the constant comings and goings between Florence and Matthias's peripatetic court.

Excavations of archaeological remains, some of them on show here, have confirmed contemporary descriptions of the king's efforts to transform his palace in Buda into a Renaissance residence through architectural additions, classical decorative elements in marble and bronze and the display of ancient Roman finds. These projects were paralleled in Florence itself, in the remodeling of the medieval Palazzo Vecchio in the city's central square.

Matthias's marriage in 1476 to Beatrice of Aragon, the daughter of King Ferdinand of Naples, brought another wave of Italian artists and intellectuals to Hungary. Many of them were Florentines, including Francesco Bandini, a close associate of the famous Florentine humanist Marsilio Ficino, and the architect Chimenti Camicia. Some fine examples of classically inspired sculpture survive from this time, among them a beautiful portrait bust of Beatrice at the age of about 18 by Francesco Laurana, an exceptional loan from the Frick Collection in New York.

Matthias's most ambitious and expensive humanist project of all was the amassing of a library of illuminated works to rival, even to surpass, any in Italy - many dazzling examples of which are on show here. Almost all of these were manufactured in Florence, giving long-term employment to scores of scribes and illuminators. When the king died suddenly in 1490, work abruptly ceased on these commissions, as witnessed here by an only partly illuminated volume of the never-to-be-completed, three-volume 'Matthias Corvinus Bible.' Some of the codices on show, left unfinished in Florence, were completed at Medici expense and ended up in their libraries.

Matthias Corvinus: Art and Humanism at the Court of the Hungarian King. Museo di San Marco, Florence. Through Jan. 6.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024