Daniel Borovi, Katalin Barbara Szász:

The fresco of virtues in Esztergom

The fresco representing the Cardinal Virtues in the castle of Esztergom is the only survived work of art of monumental painting of the Hungarian renaissance, which was made under the immediate influence of the Italian quattrocento. Esztergom Hungarian town which is 50 km far from the capital and its royal court has been the religious centre of Hungary since the year 1000 and until the middle of the 13th century was the royal residence as well.
The building of the medieval palace, where the archbishop of Esztergom had lived since the 13th century and which was situated next to the medieval St. Adalbert Cathedral was modelled and enlarged in Renaissance style by archbishop Johannes Vitéz, after his election in 1465. Although the palace was seriously damaged in the course of the Turkish occupation during the 16th and 17th century, contemporary description completed with the archaeological finds makes possible to us to imagine the former magnificence of the archbishop's residence. The most reliable account was given by the famous Italian humanist, Antonio Bonfini, historian to king Matthias Corvinus, who, after his patron's death in 1490, moved to Esztergom, to the court of Ippolito d`Este, archbishop of that time, in company of the widowed queen Beatrice of Aragon.
"He had a big dining hall built the walls of which were decorated with the portraits of Hungarian kings and Scythian ancestors. In front of the dining-hall on the Danube side he had a marvelous red marble loggia built with a double balcony. The dining-hall opened into the vaulted chapel of Sibyls decorated with their images. He also set up cold and hot bathing boxes. On the Danube side there was a double garden surrounded by a colonnade with terrace. Between the two gardens archbishop Vitéz had a round tower erected with dining and living-rooms decorated with colored stained glass windows. Where Johannes Vitéz mainly lived he had a fine view of the Danube opening out before his eyes over the garden. It was a suitable place for meditation and philosophising." (Antonio Bonfini/1427-1503/, in Rerum UngaricarumDecades, ca. 1495).
The painted decoration of the renaissance palace has almost totally destroyed. Only fragments were found, most of them on the first floor of the medieval castle tower including the representations of the four Cardinal Virtues with the remains of the allegories of planets and zodiac signs in rather bad condition.
The iconographical programme of the room was reconstructed convincingly by Antal Lepold in 1938. According to him, the walls were decorated with seven Virtues including the theological and cardinal ones as well, the seven literal arts, the signs of the zodiac and the triumph of seven planets in compliance with the latest theoretical texts, such as principally with Filarete`s Trattato dell `Architettura written between 1460 and 1465 by Francesco Sforza, duke of Milan. Filarete`s treatise was well known in the humanist circle of the king who had it translated from Italian to Latin for his royal Corvina librarv in Buda. "Filarete suggests that in an ideal palace the walls of the hall should be decorated with paintings of Virtues, famous men, ancient gods, heroes and sibyls. The vault should resemble the planets, fixed stars and all the heavenly signs." According to the contemporary descriptions, similar painted decoration could be seen in the royal palace of Buda, made during the reign of king Mathias and also king Wladislaw II. The correspondence of virtues and planets can be also found in Dante's Divine Comedy, so their presence in the decoration of the same room isn't surprising.
Jolan Balogh, a specialist in Renaissance art, has dated them in the 14903s and associated them with "Magister Albertus pictor" from Florence who was in Hungary between 1494-95. Presumably he belonged to the circle of Filippino Lippi. It is difficult to say more because none of the artist's works are known.
Balogh's opinion was conceded by the Hungarian art historians, also during the great exhibition of Hungarian Renaissance "Matthias Corvinus and the Renaissance in Ungarn" in 1982 in Schallaburg, Austria, although another art historian, Maria Prokopp has publicated her different opinion containing other convincing aspects for the dating and attribution based on stylistic connection between Fortitude in Esztergom and Filippo Lippi's Salome at Prato in her study of 1975. Prokopp claimed that the archbishop Johannes Vitez, seemed the person to have ordered these frescoes for his studiolo in the second half of 1460's.
The most important archbishop in the 15th century was Johannes Vitéz (1408-72). He studied in Vienna and as a learned young priest, fluent in Latin and Greek, became a notary in the Buda court of Sigismund of Luxemburg, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (1410-37) and King of Hungary (1387-1437). Vitez gradually rose in the royal court until he became chancellor in 1453.
The humanist character of Johannes Vitez is worthy of special attention. First of all, he was a patriot who shouldered the heavy problems of Hungary. His speech in the Wiener-Neustadt Congress of 1455 called forth admiration even from his political opponents such as the famous humanist Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, subsequently Pope Pius II. They became close friends. The richness of his library was described with admiration by Vespasiano da Bisticci, the Famous Florentine bookseller. In 1465 Vitez became archbishop of :Esztergom, the primate of Hungary. Subsequently, there was large scale building activity at Esztergom where Vitez undertook to establish a Hungarian university based on the model of Bologna. The university, Academia Istropolitana, was inaugurated on 20th June 1467 at Posonia.
The palace of Vitez was completely destroyed in the course of the Turkish wars during the 16th and 17th centuries. Nevertheless, the latest archeological excavations have opened up the foundations and several walls with windows openings belonging to the famous triclinium (17*40 m). Several consoles for the upper loggia on the Danube side were also found. Only some coloured plaster fragments on the broad stone wall show that the walls were once covered with frescoes. On the first floor of the 13th century castle tower, one meter above the 15th century floor level are four painted arches forming an open colonnade with female figures bearing attributes and scrolls with Latin inscriptions written in the classical style. The four fictive arcades are supported by massive pillars of red marble with engaged columns consisting of white or golden shafts with Tuscan bases and capitals. These columns support a wide, richly profiled architrave, also simulating red marble. Its frieze is decorated with Renaissance scrolling foliations. The yellow, green and white colours of the severely damaged decorations show that originally the murals imitated gilded bronze. The frieze decoration continues on the neighbouring western wall. The other murals were destroyed by cannon fire in 1595.
Traces can still be seen on the western wall (the eastern wall was completely destroyed). In the north-western corner, beneath the painted architrave, is a fragmentary half column - a common feature architecture. The illusionistic arcades were set on a wide, foreshortened red marble pavement and terminated in a profiled architrave of fictive red marble. Beneath this is a painted dado (1 meter high) imitating the wall's marble revetment. The horizontal and vertical red stripes frame six large, white rectangles, which enhance the monumentality of the arcade. The four arcades are seen slightly from below, especially the pairs on the other side. The hall's dimensions in the medieval tower were expanded by these fictive arcades, which originally covered all four walls. The four allegorical figures are set back from the surface, although they almost fill each compartment. Behind the arcades is a red marble balustrade, which reaches knee level. The perspective representation is awkward: in many respects, our painter kept to the well-worn method of the previous century, which combined bottom and top views.
A similar collation of the figures can be seen in Palazzo Colleoni of Bergamo where the seven Virtues are sitting in colonnade opened to a garden.
The representation of virtues usually appears on the monuments of popes and prelates as evidence of their virtuous lives. In the chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal in the church of San Miniato al Monte in Florence the vault is decorated with the images of the four Cardinal Virtues. The series of pictures made by Pietro and Antonio Pollaiuolo and Sandro Botticelli was commissioned for the Hall of Mercanzia of Palazzo Vecchio in 1469. The personified Virtues all seven of them are to be found on the inlaid door that leads to the gard staircase landing on the piano nobile of the Urbino Palace. The Cardinal Virtues are the political ones that rulers traditionally liked to be associated with.
Let us now look at the Cardinal Virtues. The first is Prudentia, a young girl turning slightly to the right and gazing at the mirror held in her left hand with a serpent coiling up the handle. The sealed book in her right hand refers to science. She wears a long, sleeveless red dress laced in front of the waist by a narrow belt. A yellow veil in loose folds surrounds her figure. Her golden hair falls about her shoulders and on her right side a man's profile appears within hers, recalling images of Janus, whose double face was the attribute of Prudence in all images mentioned above, but only Robbia represent a double-faced figure. None of these figures holds a book in her right hand, so they hold the mirror and the scale separately in their two hands.
The movement of Temperance is dynamically linked to Prudence on the left and the figure of Fortitude on the right. Temperance holds bowls in her hands.
She raises her right arm high and carefully pours water into the-jug in her left. Her face, in three-quarter profile, watches intensely. Her right foot turns towards the next figure. This dynamic twist is emphasized by the loose folds of the white veil over the long sleeved red dress, falling diagonally from her left shoulder to the right hip, winding around her stepping right foot. The long, crisply waving hair, smoothed back with a narrow ribbon, alludes to temperance not in an arbitrary or strict sense, but rather to the active, happy life. The traditional attributes which appear in all the imagines mentioned above refer to the watering down the wine.
In her right hand, Fortitude has gilded war hammer and with her left hand she holds up an enormous falling marble column with ease. She turns towards it with her whole body. The beautiful young face looks at the columns with its perfectly made, gilded Tuscan capital. Her clothing is richer than her companion's. A loose red sleeve rolled up to the elbow reveals a long white pleated shirt. The sleeveless long white gown with its curving neck-line and loose folds is gathered up by a narrow belt. The figure is surrounded with a light, yellow veil, one end of which is held up by her left arm and the other is slung diagonally over her shoulder, winding around the right foot. The long golden hair falling about her shoulders is adorned by a chaplet above the high forehead. Mace, armour can be seen in the representations mentioned above, too.
The fourth virtue, Justice, unliked the others sits with dignity on a backless throne. She holds the sword defending Justice in her right hand and the scales in her left. Her frontally posed figure is surrounded with a loose red cloak. Her long-sleeved white gown has a curving neck-line. The long, golden wavy hair falling about her shoulders is also decorated with a chaplet above the forehead. In front of the throne, a foreshortened man lies prostrate, but leans on his right elbow. As he raises his head and left hand, he seems about to say something in self-defense, but the strong figure of Justice tramples him under her feet. The scroll in his right had inscribed with "Amissa"(?). This defeated man lying beneath Justice's feet symbolizes evil and heresy - a common medieval image. Sword and scales as the attributes of ancient judging goddesses such as Nemeseis and Themis were known also during the Middle Ages. The order of the virtues in the Esztergom fresco is not in compliance with the scholastic theories of St. Thomas of Aquino: Justice follows Prudence. The order of the virtues follows Platon's and Augustinus' thought: "Justitia non est nisi sit prudens, fortis et temperans." - Justive is union of Prudence, Fortitude and Justice. The three active virtues stepping towards the right look in the direction of the solemnly enthroned figure of Justice. This figure is the focal point of the northern wall. To the right of it there is a doorway opening into the chapel, thereby reminding those approaching the chapel of Christ, Supreme Judge, of the Last Day. The theme indicates that the person who commissioned the frescoes must have been a prelate, the primate-archbishop of Hungary, who, following Italian models, stressed the union of theological doctrines and humanist ideals in the spirit of Neoplatonism in the Renaissance.