More errant than usual…

Remember how, a couple of months ago, I promised that regular blogging would resume soonish? Well, when I wrote that, I assumed that March would be a pretty busy month for me – and I was right about that. However, I also assumed that April would be more easy-going and I would have plenty of free time at hand to dedicate to blogging – and, as you will have realized from my prolonged silence, I couldn’t have been more wrong about that. As it turned out, April was even more stressful than March and didn’t leave any time for blogging at all…

Not all of the stress was bad, though. Some of the things that kept me busy were actually quite nice, for instance a three-day art historical field trip through parts of Austria and Hungary I took with a group of colleagues and students from both Vienna and Budapest. Among the places we visited was the abbey of Pannonhalma which is not only the oldest Benedictine monastery in Hungary (founded in 956 A.D.), but also features some of the oldest pieces of architecture in the Gothic style to be found in all of Central Europe. The abbey’s most notable part in this respect is of course the famous Porta Speciosa, completed by 1224:

Pannonhalma Abbey, Porta Speciosa, compl. by 1224

As I had been to Pannonhalma before, I was well aware that I would get to see some fascinating Gothic architecture, and I had every intention of writing a more in-depth blog-post about it. However, when I got there, I was much more intrigued by a quite different part of the monastery complex: From my last visit – about ten years ago – I had vague recollections that there was a boarding school attached to the abbey and that it consisted of a block of dull, grey, nondescript 20th century buildings:

Pannonhalma Abbey, School Building, 1939 (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

As I realized this time around, those school buildings aren’t nondescript at all! Rather they’re a fascinating and rare example of Italian Novecento architecture in Central Europe. Formed in Milan in the 1920s, the artistic movement known as the Novecento Italiano was decidedly anti-modernist and anti-avantgarde, pursuing a monumental, classically inspired style instead, promoting it as the true Italian art (in opposition to, say, the Futurists). It comes as no surprise then, that many of its representatives had sympathies for and, in some cases, close personal ties to Benito Mussolini and the Fascist movement.

Pannonhalma Abbey, School Building, 1939, Detail (the keywords apparently being “monumental” and “classical”)

Now what his all of this got to do with Hungary and Pannonhalma? I must admit, I don’t know enough of the finer details of Hungarian history to really provide you with an answer to that. What I do know, though, is that the school in Pannonhalma opened its gates in 1939 as an “Italian” high school with an emphasis on teaching its students Italian language and culture. Also, throughout the 1930s there were more or less close ties between Italy’s fascist government and Admiral Horty‘s authoritarian regime in Hungary. What’s more, Hungary had had close dynastic and cultural connections with Italy all throughout the late medieval/early modern period, especially under the reign of king Matthias Corvinus (1443-1490) who was the first ruler in all of Central Europe to fully embrace the ideas and ideals of the Italian Renaissance. With good reason, the reign of Matthias Corvinus has always been viewed as one of the, if not the most splendid period in the entire history of Hungary, and in 19th century nationalist discourse the Italian art and culture prevalent at his court was turned into something of a Hungarian national style.

Pannonhalma Abbey, School Building, 1939, Detail (note Spolia from Ancient Rome installed underneath the archway to underline the building’s “Italianità”)

Taken together, I believe these points give us quite a good idea why the Novecento-style – a self-proclaimed Italian national style with fascist leanings – would have seemed appropriate to whoever was responsible for the school buildings in Pannonhalma in the 1930s. And I must confess, I have no idea just who was in fact responsible for this particular choice or even who was/were the architect(s). Admittedly, I haven’t had much chance to read up on this matter, but it seems to me that very little has indeed been written on it (at least in any language other than Hungarian). I think that’s kind of a shame, really, because in my opinion this is actually an intriguing piece of architecture – which, of course, leaves me in a bit of a moral dilemma: Can I actually like a building’s aesthetic appearance, when I know that ultimately it falls into the category of fascist architecture and represents an ideology that I find abhorrent and appalling?

Pannonhalma Abbey, School Buildings, 1939, Detail (the symbols are all peaceful and Christian, but doesn’t the way they’re arranged and displayed just scream “Reichsparteitag”?)

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