A Great Renaissance Library

UNESCO Courier, October 1990 | Go to article overview

A Great Renaissance Library


A great Renaissance library

THIS year marks the 500th anniversary of the death of King Matthias I of Hungary (1443-1490), often known by his byname Corvinus which was derived from the raven (Latin corvus) that featured on his escutcheon. A Renaissance ruler who was renowned among his contemporaries as a "friend of the Muses", Matthias was elected king in 1458 and went on to make his court a magnificent centre of humanism to which artists and scholars of European-wide reputation were attracted.

Linguist, scientist and patron of the arts and learning, he founded at his capital of Buda a great library, the Corvina, which he built up with the help of an army of agents who purchased books for him throughout Europe, scribes who copied them, translators who rendered them from Greek and Italian into Latin, and artists who illuminated them.

Other great collectors of that time--the Medicis, the Sforzas, the Neapolitan kings, the Prince of Urbino, the kings of France, and King Wenceslas of Bohemia and Germany--owned manuscripts of dazzling beauty, but in terms of numbers of books and wealth of contents Matthias's collection was considered second only to the Vatican Library.

One contemporary visitor to Buda noted: "I inspected all the books. But should I say books? Rather they were treasures, all of them. It seemed to me that I was not in a library but, as they say, in the lap of Jupiter. Legions of Greek and Hebrew volumes could be seen...and there were more old and new Latin books than anywhere else on earth."

The culture of the book and the library was a new phenomenon in the intellectual life of fifteenth-century Europe. The book became the supreme treasure of the intellect, the vehicle and preserver of the literary and scientific heritage of classical Antiquity. As efforts were made to copy as much of this heritage as possible, and collect everything relating to it that had survived, libraries became the workplace of scholars and centres of intellectual activities and debate.

Although printed books, or incunabula, were starting to circulate through Europe by the second half of Matthias's reign, they were far out-numbered in his library by handwritten books or codices. Such manuscripts were the result of painstaking work by scribes who had not only to be proficient in Latin, the language of medieval literature and science, but also had to decipher a host of abbreviations which authors used to save time and space.

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