In the half-century of security that Hunyadi had won for Hungary his son Matthias Corvinus led the nation to its historic culmination. Matthias was only sixteen at his accession, and not entirely royal in form; his legs were too short for his trunk, so that he seemed tall only when on a horse; however, he had the chest and arms, the strength and courage, of a gladiator. Not long after his coronation he challenged to single combat a German knight of massive frame and power, who in a tournament at Buda had felled all competitors; and Matthias threatened to have him executed if he failed to fight with all his vigor and skill. The Hungarian historians assure us that the young King, aided by the horns of this dilemma, decisively vanquished the giant.19 Matthias matured into a good soldier and general, defeated the Turks wherever he encountered them, absorbed Moravia and Silesia, failed to conquer Bohemia. He fought four wars against the Emperor Frederick III, took Vienna, and annexed Austria (1485); the first Austro-Hungarian Empire was Hungarian.
His victories made the monarchy transiently supreme over the nobility; here, as in Western Europe, centralization of government was the order of the day. At Buda, and in the King’s palace at Visegrad, his court equaled any royal grandeur of the age; great noblemen became his servitors; his ambassadors were noted for the splendor of their dress, equipage, and retinue. Matthias’ diplomacy was cunning and unscrupulous, amiable and generous; he bought with gold what would have cost twice as much by arms. Meanwhile he found time and zest to restore every department of the government, and to labor in person as a careful administrator and impartial judge. Roaming in disguise among the people, the soldiery, and the courts, he inspected at first hand the behavior of his officials, and corrected incompetence and injustice without favoritism or fear. He did what he could to protect the weak from the strong, the peasants from their rapacious lords. While the Church continued to claim the country as papal property, Matthias appointed and disciplined prelates, and enjoyed the furore when he made a seven-year-old Italian lad the primate of Hungary. The merchants of Ferrara, with rival humor, sent the new archbishop an assortment of toys.20
In 1476 Matthias married Beatrice of Aragon, and welcomed to Hungary the gay Neapolitan spirit and refined Italian tastes of the granddaughter of Alfonso the Magnanimous. Intercourse between Hungary and Naples had been encouraged by the Angevin kinship of their kings, and many men at the Buda court had been educated in Italy. Matthias himself resembled the Italian Renaissance “despots” in his cultural proclivities as well as his Machiavellian statecraft. Lorenzo de’ Medici sent him two bronze reliefs by Verrocchio, and Lodovico il Moro commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint a Madonna for the Hungarian King, assuring the artist that “he is able to value a great picture as few men can.”21 Filippino Lippi turned out another Madonna for Corvinus, and his pupils adorned with frescoes the royal palace at Esztergom. An Italian sculptor made a pretty bust of Beatrice;22 probably the famous Milanese goldsmith Caradosso designed the masterly Calvary of Esztergom; Benedetto da Maiano carved decorations for the palace at Buda; and divers Italians built the Renaissance-style tabernacle in the parish church of the Inner City of the capital.23
Nobles and prelates joined the King in supporting artists and scholars; even the mining towns of the interior had rich men who sublimated wealth into art. Handsome buildings, civic as well as ecclesiastical, rose not only at Buda but at Visegrad, Tata, Esztergom, Nagyvárad, and Vác. Hundreds of sculptors and painters ornamented these edifices. Giovanni Dalmata made notable statues of Hunyadi János and other Hungarian heroes. At Kassa a veritable school of artists formed. There, for the high altar of the church of St. Elizabeth, “Master Stephen” and others carved (1474–77) an immense and complex reredos, whose central figures are quite Italian in their refinement and grace. In the parish church of Beszterczebánya another group carved in stone a great relief, Christ in the Garden of Olives, astonishing in its careful details and dramatic effect. A similar vigor of expression and artistry appears in the Hungarian paintings that survive from this age, as in the Mary Visiting Elizabeth, by “Master M.S.,” now in the Budapest Museum.24Almost all the art of this Hungarian heyday was destroyed or lost in the Ottoman invasions of the sixteenth century. Some of the statues are in Istanbul, to which they were carried by the victorious Turks.
Matthias’ interests were literary rather than artistic. Humanists, foreign or native, were welcomed at his court, and received lucrative sinecures in the government. Antonio Bonfini wrote a history of the reign in a Latin modeled on Livy. Janós Vitez, Archbishop of Gran, collected a library of ancient classics, and provided funds to send young scholars to study Greek in Italy. One of these, János Pannonius, spent seven years at Ferrara, won admission to Lorenzo’s circle at Florence, and, back in Hungary, astonished the court with his Latin verses and Greek discourses. “When Pannonius spoke Greek,” wrote Bonfini, “you would think he must have been born in Athens.” 25 Probably in Italy alone could one find, in the last quarter of the fifteenth century, such a galaxy of artists and scholars as received sustenance at Matthias’ court. The Sodalitas Litteraria Danubia, founded at Buda in 1497, is among the oldest literary societies in the world.26
Like his Medici contemporaries, Corvinus collected art and books. His palace became a museum of statuary and objets d’art. Tradition has it that he spent 30,000 florins ($750,000?) yearly on books, which in many cases were costly illuminated manuscripts. Yet he did not, like Federigo da Montefeltro, reject printed works; a press was established at Buda in 1473, three years before printing reached England. The Bibliotheca Corvina, which held 10,000 volumes when Matthias died, was the finest fifteenth-century library outside of Italy. It was housed in his Buda palace in two spacious halls, with windows of stained glass looking on the Danube; the shelves were richly carved, and the books, mostly bound in vellum, were curtained with velvet tapestries.27 Matthias seems to have read some of the books; at least he used Livy to induce sleep; and he wrote to a humanist: “O scholars, how happy you are! You strive not after blood-stained glory, nor monarchs’ crowns, but for the laurels of poetry and virtue. You are even able to compel us to forget the tumult of war.”28
The centralized power that Matthias had organized only briefly survived his death (1490). The resurgent magnates dominated Ladislas II, and embezzled revenues that should have paid the troops. The army mutinied, the soldiers went home. Freed from taxation, the nobles wasted their income and energies in riotous living, while Islam pressed against the borders and a bitterly exploited peasantry seethed with revolt. In 1514 the Hungarian Diet declared a crusade against the Turks, and called for volunteers. Peasants in great number flocked to the cross, seeing little to choose between life and death. Finding themselves armed, the thought spread among them, Why wait to kill distant Turks, when hated nobles were so near? A soldier of fortune, György Dózsa, led them in a wildjacquerie; they overran all Hungary, burning castles and massacring all nobles—men, women, children—who fell into their hands. The nobles called in aid from all directions, armed and paid mercenaries, overwhelmed the disorganized peasants, and punished their leaders with frightful torments. For two weeks Dózsa and his aides were kept without food; then he was tied to a red-hot iron throne, a red-hot crown was placed upon his head, a red-hot scepter forced into his hand; and his starved companions were allowed to tear the roasted flesh from his body while he was still conscious. From barbarism to civilization requires a century; from civilization to barbarism needs but a day.
The peasants were not slaughtered, for they were indispensable; but the Tripartite Code (1514) decreed that “the recent rebellion... has for all time to come put the stain of faithlessness upon the peasants, and they have thereby forfeited their liberty, and have become subject to their landlords in unconditional and perpetual servitude.... Every species of property belongs to the landlords, and the peasant has no right to invoke justice and the law against a noble.” 29
Twelve years later Hungary fell to the Turks.