The Library of Matthias Corvinus, The Raven King

The Raven King by Marcus TannerHow is it that I never knew one of the greatest libraries amassed in Europe during the Renaissance–second only to the collection of the Medicis and the Pope,  belonged to an all but forgotten Hungarian king, Matthais Hunyadi, also known as Matthias Corvinus, the Raven King? The man whom Italy looked to keep the Ottoman Turks at bay, whose capital could only be reached from Italy by three months of hard traveling over a bandit-infested mountain wilderness, and who yet drew Italian scholars, poets and intellectuals to his court, (along with certain political prisoners and royalty in exile, such as Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler, and sometimes as Dracula). A man who was universally regarded as the ideal philosopher-king.

The King’s Trophy and Sanctuary

Then there was the library, the King’s trophy and sanctuary. Here, Naldo  Naldi wrote, sunbeams poured through high, stained glass windows, casting curious patterns on the vaulted ceilings. Beneath tall lancet windows, light fell on to the King’s couch, a ‘bed with golden coverings on which the royal hero is often wont to snatch some peaceful rest for his limbs.’ Here the King reclined, scrutinising a recently purchased illuminated manuscript, or chairing a debate between rival clerics or philosophers… (p.2)

In reverence of the Goddess of Wisdom

In the library, light also fell on to jewel-encrusted veils, set in place to shield the most expensive and cherished items of the collection from the bleaching sunlight. These books did not lie stacked upon one another in heavy chests like the majority of volumes. They stood upright on snakeskin tripods, waiting for the hand of the King, Queen, or the librarians, to part the curtain and reveal the liquid colors beneath.

According to Naldi, the curious bookrests attracted particular interest ‘because the spotted skin of a snake covered those tripods and a shining gold-colored cloth covered them, adorned with so many heavy gems and sparkling precious stones that you would think Matthias had accumulated whatever the kings of Persia are thought to have possessed.’ The Florentine likened the care lavished on these exotic tripods to Matthias’s reverence for the goddess of wisdom, for it was the tripods that ‘receive the greatest authors’ and wisdom itself that ‘opens the books that ought to be read, which the ancient ones composed, and which taught what wisdom was.’ (p.2)

Matthias CorvinusThe literary tastes of an alpha-male

The surviving 216 volumes, containing more than 600 works, show that Matthias had the literary tastes of a classic ‘alpha male’.  It has often been noted that he had a marked preference for secular as opposed to religious works. Indeed, once one subtracts liturgical aids such as bibles, gospels, psalters, missals and brevaries, which in any case belonged in the separate palace chapel library, there are not many books like Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, now kept in Melk Abbey, Austria, which can be categorised as devotional works. Even within the broad category of secular works from the library it is easy to spot Mattias’s particular enthusiasms: war stories, lives of great rules, and books about inventions, geography, medicine, natural wonders and the stars. (p.7)

–From The Raven King: Matthias Corvinus and the Fate of his Lost Library, by Marcus Tanner (Yale University Press, 2008)

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