Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Welcome and Introduction

Welcome, and thank you for taking an interest in the Art of Renaissance and Ottoman Hungary. My goals for this blog are many-fold. First and foremost, I aim to provide a scholarly resource on the rich and understudied fifteenth and sixteenth century art produced and consumed along the most volatile frontier zone on the European continent: the border between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Secondly I want to keep my brain from atrophying while I take a temporary leave of absence from academia. Thirdly, I would like to develop a network researchers who focus on similar problems. The posts on this blog will cover a wide range of objects, built structures, workshops, individual artists and patrons, etc.

At the outset, it must be acknowledged that the study of fifteenth and sixteenth century artistic production in the Carpathian Basin has many limitations. The general inability of historians to situate this region and its complex history both spatially and temporally within accepted narratives of world history has led to its absence from nearly all surveys and general studies.  Thus, a limited number of specialists are charged with the task of overcoming obstacles presented by the fragmentary nature of the surviving works and monuments, lost and muddled archival materials, socio-political and linguistic barriers, and a dearth of reliable literature. These problems are exacerbated by the complete absence of study in the Anglo-American tradition, which shows at best, only a passive interest in expanding the field and broadening the canon.

1) What terms do we use to discuss the geographic region within which the political boundaries were so fluid and nationalistic narratives and counter-narratives of the nineteenth century lead to an endless string of place-names and contradictions? Here on this blog, I use the contemporary term Ungarn, or Hungary, which was used by many sources to describe the lands along the Danube river that were under the control of the Kingdom of Hungary in the fifteenth century and were divided in the sixteenth century into three regions ruled by different entities but still referred to collectively as Hungary. My use of Hungary as the proper noun is, in essence, a shorthand for “the Kingdom of Hungary and all of the lands under its control at the height of its power.” I will attempt to be sensitive to other geographic place-names throughout the blog, though in order to curb confusion, I will keep them to the footnotes.

2) When does Medieval end? Renaissance begin? And what do we do with the Ottoman period? Traditionally, these are three separate fields of inquiry, with some overlap between Medieval and Renaissance while the Ottoman Period is left unstudied or in the hands of a small number of highly specialized scholars. My goal here is to combine the three, because there is no dividing line between them. I use Renaissance and Ottoman in the title of this blog because they are eye catching terms, meant to draw you in and hopefully keep you here. But, in truth, the two are inextricably intertwined, and are also very much a part of the Medieval world as well. This is important because the Carpathian Basin is a critically understudied region within which “Western” and “Eastern” investigations remain mutually exclusive. Outside of the local investigations, the Carpathian Basin often falls off the proverbial and literal map. In general, scholars working with the artistic interchange between the Ottoman Empire and Europe often skip over the 12,000 miles of coast and countless miles of trade and pilgrimage routes between Venice and Istanbul. 

historical contexts.
The Magyars, a group of quasi-nomadic tribes of archers and horsemen, arrived in the Carpathian Basin in the ninth century. After unsuccessful attempts at raiding further into the continent, they settled and converted to Christianity, absorbing some small local populations.  In the following centuries, they developed from a culture that straddled two worlds, the Byzantine East and the Latin West, into a Latin Christian kingdom  closely allied with Rome.  By the early fifteenth century, the Kingdom of Hungary played an active role in continental politics and boasted the largest territories under one crown in all of Europe.

The Renaissance in the Kingdom of Hungary reached its apogee under the King Matthias Corvinus in the 1480s.  As patron of a large group of humanists and a scholar of Latin in his own right, Corvinus commissioned and received works of art from some of the most important artists of the fifteenth century.  The intellectual and artistic exchange between cities on the Italian peninsula and the Hungarian capitol, Buda,[1] is well documented and dates back to before the thirteenth century.  This interaction continued throughout the fifteenth century and led to what scholars have called the earliest revival of classical antiquity north of the Alps. 

While Hungary was enjoying its golden age in the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Empire grew rapidly in the East, conquering much of the Balkans. East Central Europe quickly became the next frontier to be traversed and added to the collection of provinces under the far-reaching Ottoman Turkish bureaucracy on the Sultan’s quest for the Golden Apple, Vienna.   At first, the Kingdom of Hungary responded quickly with backing from other major European powers, including the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.  The premature death of the most celebrated King in Hungarian history, Matthias Corvinus, has often been cited as the turning point in the decline of Hungarian ability to resist the Eastern invaders.  While his death undoubtedly sped up the process, recent scholarship has pointed out that the slow deterioration of the resistance began during his lifetime, when the papacy and others withdrew their financial and military support.  The Hungarian king himself, preoccupied with acquiring more land to the North in a bid to become Holy Roman Emperor, pulled a majority of his forces from the Ottoman battlefields by the 1470s.  These wars continued after his death, and coupled with the internal division and disputes over ascension to the throne, significantly weakened the kingdom.  All the while, the Ottomans drew closer and closer to the southern edge of the Kingdom, and by the 1520s, the clash between the two was imminent.

In the summer of 1526, the newly elected King, Louis II of Hungary, led his troops against the Ottoman army, outnumbering the Hungarians two to one, headed by Sultan Suleiman at the battle of Mohács.  The battle, a decisive Ottoman victory, left the Hungarian King dead, along with a vast majority of his army.  After the defeat, the Ottomans ransacked the country in 1526 and again in 1529, pillaging cities like Buda.  Instead of imposing their rule however, they retreated and the internal political turmoil continued with the election of two separate Kings, John Szapolyai I (r. 1526-1540) and Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor (r. 1526-1564). It was only after the death of John Szapolyai in 1540, that Suleiman consolidated Ottoman power in Hungary, permanently settling troops in the cities and using it as a springboard from which to launch campaigns against the Habsburgs in Vienna.  The transfers of power in cities throughout the country were complicated by the fact that large numbers of the local Hungarian population preferred Ottoman rule to the Habsburgs, and it can be difficult to determine who was fighting for whom. For the next 150 years, the borders shifted occasionally between Ottoman “East” and Habsburg “West,” but the southern and central parts of the former Kingdom of Hungary remained in Ottoman hands, or as Ottoman tributaries, until the Habsburgs led a pan-European campaign against the declining Ottoman Empire at the end of the seventeenth century. 

[1] The modern city of Budapest was divided into three separate cities (Buda, Pest, and Óbuda) until their unification in the nineteenth century.