|Daniel Borovi, Katalin Barbara Szász:
The fresco of virtues
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
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.