A Glance at the Life and Times of Miklos Banffy

Budapest and Transylvania
26th September to 3rd October 2015

Miklos Banffy at his desk

Miklos Banffy at his desk

“In a brown velvet jacket and wide trousers he walked a little self conscious from one desk to the other… ‘I am drawing here, am writing there, at the third one I read’… I have forgotten what he did at the fourth… ’Somehow it seems more comfortable this way – he apologised and also I am very disorderly…”

In this charming description of his working habits, Miklos Banffy is disarmingly modest. This self deprecation is made all the more poignant by our visits to a few of his haunts – revealing something of this gifted, multilingual and many facetted man. Our journey was half in Budapest and then in Cluj and, at a slower pace in a few Hungarian Transylvanian villages in the traditional Saxon area. We behaved as if we were taking part in the Budapest Season before the war in a hectic race from place to place. From Cluj to Sibiu the pace was more measured.

Nearly seven decades after his death in Budapest in 1950, Miklos Banffy, one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century is only now being recognised by the English-speaking world. Jaap Scholten, in his Comrade Baron, describes what happened to so many of Banffy’s generation of Hungarian Transylvanians under Communism. Banffy’s own fate was no better. He died penniless, unsung and unread except by Hungarians. Jaap spoke to us over dinner on our first evening in the comfort of the Art’otel beneath the castle of Buda, on the bank of the Danube.

National Museum Budapest

National Museum Budapest

Day two began with a tour through the capital, bringing home the majesty of the Danube and the spirit of the 19th century movers and shakers in Buda and in Pest. At this time, Transylvania was still linked to the Kingdom of Hungary but ruled from Vienna. A visit to the truly National Museum, conceived by Ferenc Szechenyi, houses wonderful Renaissance furnishings from Slovakia and Transylvania including the great tomb monument of Michael Apafy (d. 1635), from Malancrav, which was relevant as this Baroque monument was carved by an artist from Spis and was commissioned for Malancrav, in Saxon Transylvania, where our journey would end.

Michael Apafy's tomb in the national museum

Michael Apafy’s tomb in the national museum

The National Museum also houses the wonderous Coronation cope of 1031, repaired by Empress Sisi and her daughter. It is too fragile to be shown with the sacred regalia, including the Crown of St. Stephen, symbol of Hungarian Sovereignty, now in the Houses of Parliament. Alongside this is the chest designed for Charles IV and Empress Zita, designed by Miklos Banffy in 1916, once containing the Coronation gift of 100,000 gold crowns.

Here too are the wedding clothes of Louis Jagiello and his Habsburg wife, Mary (1522), whose defeat and death at the battle of Mohacs in 1526 caused the partition of the Kingdom between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans, creating the buffer state of Transylvania extant to the end of the 17th century, ruled by elected Princes and inhabited by a myriad of peoples. The Diet of this extraordinary country comprised the Hungarians, the Saxons and Szecklers who elected their own priests and judges, independent of Pope and King, unusual in a feudal age.

Inside the Parliament building

Inside the Parliament building

Against this background, the glitz of the Houses of Parliament (based on the British model) was completed at the beginning of the last century and restored after the siege of Buda in 1944/5. It was in these chambers that Balint/Banffy argued for cooperatives and better conditions for his Transylvanians including Romanians. Banffy, himself was member of Parliament from 1901-4 and from 1910 to 1918 had dual citizenship.

A delicious lunch at Pierrot near the castle, and then into the Coronation church, startling in its rich polychromed interior. Banffy was given the task to set the scene for the 1916 Coronation. “Fidgeting old Schulek knew no more than adorn it with those curlicues in bad taste.” Zsuzsa Szebeni explained ‘this bad taste’ was covered, by Banffy, in burgundy-coloured hangings so as to create a stage for the spectacle of Coronation. “My first task was to hide the restless motley inside of the church.” This was to be the last coronation of the Habsburgs.

Interior of the Coronation Church

Interior of the Coronation Church

Against the background of rich colour and pageant “the king advanced to the edge of the sanctuary were Tisza just stood. The royal cope on his shoulders. Before him the church crammed with people dressed in velvet, furs, silks, jewels and my men were summoned… there were maybe fifty of them with crutches, wooden legs, I did not dress them at all. Let them come as they were, let them come like straight from the trenches, in grey uniforms, brushed clean but dingy…” Banffy knew the effect of this reminder of war, the last day of December 1916, would have on those who were responsible for sending these men to the front. “I was a set and costume designer. How could I have desisted of such a dramatic effect?” Banffy was a soldier in 1914.

Outside, in the square, the restricted site of the King’s oath of loyalty to all the corners of his Kingdom. He raised his sword each time indicating these upon his turning and rearing horse. There is an early film of the event.

The Visitation, Hungarian National Gallery

The Visitation, Hungarian National Gallery

In taxis, we raced to the theatre museum, which at once stressed the importance of the stage in Budapest. It is in a fine villa outside the centre of the city. We later returned to the castle were Dr. Istvan Barkoczi led us around the highlights of the great collections of Budapest. He has just pointed out to me that the huge room of medieval altarpieces were collected in the 1870s for national identity and the rediscovery of the Trecento.

Banffy's bust in the Opera House

Banffy’s bust in the Opera House

The international collection is fine and bought from the Esterhazys in 1870. The canvasses are housed temporarily in galleries in the castle. The Habsburg palace was destroyed in the last war. A war in which Banffy was himself destroyed, in attempting to halt. The post-war architecture belongs to one of the dreariest periods of European design. Apart from Old Masters the museum has good Hungarian 20th century art which is not generally on the tourist route.

The Danube

The Danube

The funicular returned us to the banks of the Danube. And then across to Pest for a splendid party to meet cognoscenti of Miklos Banffy and conversation ranged from restitution to Transylvanian forests and contemporary art before dinner at Gerloczy in very evocative surroundings…

The Park Club exterior

The Park Club exterior

Day three, in the small hotel conference room, Janos Matyasfalvi performed the most skilled presentation on the intricacies of Hungarian social life in Budapest covering the period of Banffy’s novels (1870s to 1914). We saw, first hand, the splendour of the Park Club where Abady attends the ball following the ‘King’s Cup’ in the presence of the Emperor and Empress. The Club was founded in 1893 to “popularize sports and to assure a pleasant and elite atmosphere for intellectual people excluding any kind of political activity”. Judging from the trilogy, this rule was ignored. Women were also members. All the furniture was imported from London. The Club was steam heated and had electric light. Alas, the garden and the artificial grotto have gone, as have the tennis courts, bowling greens and archery field.

Interior of the Casino

Interior of the Casino

The Casinos were created as meeting places, not necessarily just for playing for high stakes that were the ruin of Laszlo Gyeroffy. There were three. That for the Aristocracy, the Nemzeli, was destroyed in the last war. The Orszagos for the Landed Gentry, does exist in part as does that for the Jewish community, Liborvrosi.

One of Banffy's stage set designs

One of Banffy’s stage set designs






Opera house boxes

Opera house boxes

After lunch at the Callas restaurant we visited Budapest Opera House, one of the most lavish in Europe. Here Banffy was stage set designer. There is another lovely description of Banffy by Illes Endre. “At his drawing desk huge bunches of what seemed flowers stood in transylvanian painted pottery. Strange flowers with black stems, their petals brown or black unknown blooms, only from very close did they become familiar: they were brushes.”

Banffy's designs for Blue Beard

Banffy’s designs for Bela Bartok’s ‘Blue Beard’s Castle’

A private visit to the Raday Library followed to look at Banffy’s designs for costume and stage. This is the archive of the Protestant Church and the smell of archive filled the small room where we sat as the boxes containing his sketches were unpacked. With the designs in our memories we taxied to the exhibition at the Magyarsag House curated by Zsuzsa Szebeni. Being a Monday we had the building to ourselves.

Fot Palace

Fot Palace

In the evening we had been invited to Fot, the great neo-classical country house of the Karolyis. The left-wing politics of Mihaly Karolyi, a cousin of Banffy, is mentioned in Phoenix Land. Countess Karolyi, who lives in an apartment in Fot, (still state owned and a childrens’ home), can recall her mother telling her who all the characters really were in the trilogy but she can no longer remember who was who. Fot has taken in refugees in the recent crisis. Some are young men in their teens and are daunting.

Stained glass windows Targu Mures

Stained glass windows Targu Mures

Day four and Godollo was the perfect last visit in Hungary. As an important centre of the Arts and Crafts, the products would come alive in the stained glass of the Palace of Culture in Targu Mures. It was in Godollo that was Empress Sisi was happiest with her English and Irish grooms and hunting with Bay Middleton. Here, too, is the arts and crafts painting of Sisi mending the Coronation Cope with her daughter. The great house is as a shrine to the Empress but continues the history of the war years, the last gallery ending with a fine de Lazslo painting of the war time leader, Horthy. He and Banffy had known each other before 1914.

It is strange how difficult it is to get from Budapest to Cluj, after all, part of the Kingdom of Hungary until 1920. Banffy would no doubt have taken the train or driven the five hours through the Banat, given time to acclimatise through the Great Plain to the woods of Erdely, the Hungarian for Transylvania. Wizzair, the only airline flying the route, is Hungarian owned with one flight a week. We were on it.

Bontida Castle

Bontida Castle

Bontida, the ‘Versailles of Transylvania’, is the airport side of Cluj/Kolozsvar. However the parallel with Versailles is not apt. Bontida has more the patchwork quality of an English country house. In retribution for Banffy’s attempts to get Romania to join with the Allies in 1943, the Germans destroyed this great house and, according to Hugh Thomas, the Allies bombed the furnishings and artwork awaiting removal by the Nazis. The Soviets followed in quick succession to act against this great parliamentarian and man of letters, destroying yet more. The Romanians achieved the rest. The amount of venom shown to Banffy by his enemies tells much of the qualities of the man.

Banffy describes Abady’s Denestoya/Bontida. “Here Count Denes Abady built a horseshoe-shaped forecourt on the right of which he erected stables for 32 horses while on the left there was a covered riding school. Balint Abady’s maternal grandfather had added a Gothic Revival veranda to the western side of the mediaeval walls from which he could enjoy the truly majestic view…”

David Baxter, the director of the Heritage Conservation Training Centre, spoke of the future plans, well underway with a 50-year lease now arranged with the Banffy family who had restitution in 2008. Under this remarkable scheme the house is being pieced together.

Banffy's town house in Cluj

Banffy’s town house in Cluj

Day five finds us in the centre of Cluj. In the main square, facing the cathedral, is the delicate neo-classical façade of Miklos Banffy’s town house by Blaumann. It is now the Art Gallery. Again, amongst the life of the city and university town, we can imagine ourselves in the busy winter season with its balls and parties and casino.

Detail designed by Karoly Kos

Detail designed by Karoly Kos

The Enthnographical museum is excellent and a reminder of the importance to early 20th century nationalism portrayed in forms taken from peasant crafts translated by MacIntosh, Mucha and Kos. Kos worked with Banffy. The Calvinist church of 1913, one year before the World War, was designed by Karoly Kos. His ‘Transylvania’, was published by the Transylvanian Artists’ Guild launched in 1924. The chairman was Miklos Banffy and thanks to his connections at the Romanian Court the new government did not obstruct the publishing of books in Hungarian.

Banffy's final resting place, Cluj

Banffy’s final resting place, Cluj

At the top of the hill, within the city cemetery, stands the Banffy mausoleum. Banffy died in Budapest but is buried finally alongside his grandfather and father. Nearby is the Reform church of the Transylvanian Calvinist aristocracy, now fully restored with rows of 19th century armorials of the Transylvanian nobility who feature in the Trilogy and indeed played a part, beneficial or not, in the future of Hungary and Romania.

Rhedey's family armorial, Cluj

Rhedey’s family armorial, Cluj

The grave of Michael Apafy (d. 1690) last Prince of Transylvania is here, designed by Karoly Kos in 1942. Our Queen’s ancestors the Rhedeys appear too. At the west door stands a bronze of St. George, a copy of that made in Cluj in 1373 for Prague Castle, a feat of casting for its time.

Taegu Mures Palace of Culture

Taegu Mures Palace of Culture

Day six is the journey to Targu Mures, through some of the first of the foothills of the Carpathians, and past some fine ‘gypsy palaces’. There are remains of great houses along the route and the salt town of Turda is worth a visit. The centre of Targu Mures is marvellous. Private patronage and civic pride make it so. The Teleki library, founded and opened by Samuel Teleki in 1802, houses books on every important subject of the ‘Age of Reason’. Teleki collected and gave the entire library to the town. Here is a first edition of Banffy’s trilogy. At the bottom of the beautiful square is the fine Town Hall and the Palace of Culture, a completely Central European set up, with meeting places, tea rooms and concert hall. The architecture reflects a successful jumble of forms from the history of Transylvania. Whilst we were there, a Dvorak symphony was being rehearsed under the great chandelier made, at a guess, in Bohemia.

Lunch was in a grimly-restored country house, once belonging to the Hallers. We travelled through patches of their estates, across the Tarnava Mica and south through some lovely wooded hills, just beginning to show autumn colour, to the Tarnava Mare and Dumbraveni where the Apafis welcomed Armenian refugees in the mid 17th century. This was much to everyone’s benefit. The Armenians were appreciated and thanks to the Habsburgs from Charles VI, they paid no taxes, were subject to no military duties and much trade was brought into Apafy lands. The last Apafy died in Vienna in 1713. Maria Teresa started a powerful Counter Reformation and encouraged the building of vast Cathedrals in Transylvania to house the Catholic, the Catholic/Armenians or the Uniate – Catholic Orthodox – faiths. Dumbraveni’s great church was built by the Armenians of the Western rite in the 1770s.

Tower in Sighisoara

Tower in Sighisoara

1683 saw the Ottomans repelled from Vienna with an Hungarian force waiting in the wings to help the Turks. Just how much the Hungarians hated the Habsburgs was too well illustrated in 1848 and 1849. In Transylvania this civil war was fought over a tiny area. The Armenians of Dumbraveni supported Hungarian Independence and at the battle of Sighisoara, eight miles up the road, the Hungarian nationalist poet, Petofi, was killed as the Russians leapt to the aid of the Austrians. Meanwhile in Medias, again within walking distance down the valley, the Saxons and the Romanians supported the Habsburgs. Most of the Armenian population left Transylvania after the events of 1849.

Detail from winged altarpiece at Malancrav church - archangel Michael

Detail from winged altarpiece at Malancrav church – archangel Michael

Malancrav, too, is a perfect place from which to visit the fortified churches of Sighisoara, Biertan and Richis. Biertan is superb, partly as the result of standing in a rich wine growing valley which attracted, before the Reformation, well-educated priests and post Reformation, it became the seat of the Lutheran Bishop.

Day seven and departure from Sibiu. The Habsburgs set their stamp on this capital of the Saxon Siebenburgen. The Jesuit church stands in the main square adjacent to Samuel Bruckenthal’s great palace, built by the same architect as that of the Banffy town house in Cluj. Brukenthal, after representing Maria Teresa from 1777, was sidelined, being thought too close to his native Saxons. He left his fine collections to Transylvania. Sibiu now is the seat of the Lutheran Bishop and the church is fine. Not much trace of Banffy here although he would not have been surprised to see the great neo-baroque bank, which once belonged to the farmers, standing between Bruckenthal’s palace and the Jesuits. It is now the Tourist Office.

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5 Responses to A Glance at the Life and Times of Miklos Banffy

  1. camills says:

    absolutely stunning Lucy how fascinating it all is and makes me long to explore with you

  2. Graham Busby says:

    A superbly detailed account … that makes me want to get back to the area…

  3. I enjoyed the words of Miklos Banffy inter-cut with the story of your travels. It puts me in mind of Zoë Roberts’ inclusion of a conversation with Eric in her travel blog that I’ve commented on: https://bucketandshade.com/2016/03/18/a-conversation-with-eric-table-service/

  4. Great to read such a well documented travel journal. Banffy’s heritage is so important for us, Transylvanian’s. I am Hungarian leaving in Cluj in a bilingual family. I recently discovered Bannfy as novelist and I can say that I discovered an other Transylvania / Cluj thru his trilogy. His ideas are actual even in the nowdays political contexts of the region. Hope that it will be read by many Hungarians, Romanians…
    Thank you so much to let us know on your impressions!
    Agnes Alfoldy Gazdac
    curator, National History Museum of Transilvania
    manager, Harmonia Mundi cultural B&B

  5. JANE says:

    I arrived at the Trilogy via Patrick Leigh Fermor and Comrade Baron …… and there are sidepaths
    to go down yet.

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