08. 09. 2013. 09:35

Hungarian writers on Italy 1890-1950

Exhibition at the Petőfi Literary Museum

The exhibition focuses on the various ways the individual artists experienced Italy. It concentrates on the psychologically and motivically identical ’Italy-experience,’ without explicitly dealing with the backdrop of cultural, social or political history.

"Wherever one looks, Italy is a large cemetery-country which cannot live under the weight of her great dead." Béla Balázs: Letters of My Journey, 1911

"First and foremost, he wanted to see the sea. […] Therefore, heroically, he decided that come what may, he would journey to Italy, alone!" Dezső Kosztolányi: Kornél Esti, 1933


"Italy is beautiful indeed! When Man lost the Garden of Eden, he said to God: ‘Let us make another one together!’ So they created Italy." Mór Jókai: There Is Only One God, 1877

"When a writer wants to tell us a wonderful and impossible story, he chooses Italy as the location of the events." Frigyes Karinthy: Journey to Mercury, 1898


As early as in 1895, official cultural relations were opened between Italy and Hungary. Between the two World Wars, Italy was an especially beloved destination for Hungarian academics and artists as the ’Collegium Hungaricum’ was opened in Rome in 1927, hosting numerous Hungarian artists, architects, professors and theologians up to the 50s.

This exhibition shows the various traditions of understanding of the self that were mobilized by visits to Italy. Experiencing and losing idealized beauty; the substantive traces of world history; a desire for spiritual and intellectual greatness (and obviously, the life of the cities, yet this is the least visible) inspired gestures through which the artists eventually re-interpreted their own lives: imitation, devotion, the ecstatic recognition of their own memories and painful farewells. “All we do is chip off a brick or a pebble from the floor of the Latin spirit, then move on”, Dezső Kosztolányi wrote with in a self-reflective tone. “In this city, whatever is destroyed, built and misbuilt, is what our souls are made of”, poet Endre Ady said.


The exhibition focuses on the various ways the individual artists experienced Italy. It concentrates on the psychologically and motivically identical ’Italy-experience,’ without explicitly dealing with the backdrop of cultural, social or political history. It is left to the visitor to contextualize and look for explanations; the exhibition gives impressions rather than information. Thus, it becomes a work of art in itself, hovering between the cultic approach of souvenirs and a desire for cognition, both in its aesthetic and intellectual approach.

One of the main characters of the exhibition is Marinetti, the Futurist poet who flirted with Fascism; the other is the sensitive painter Lajos Gulácsy, who lost his sanity after the outbreak of the war. And the supporting cast includes figures like Antal Szerb, Sándor Márai, Mihály Babits and Géza Csáth – plus an unknown married couple whom we encounter time and again in the videos. Stories and approaches, whose uniqueness is merely intimated. The exhibition raises many topics – sensual impressions, the experience of the past, remembrance, the aesthetization of Catholicism, the cult of Dante, the history of reception, travelogues – but does not separate the various realizations. The identical objects of motifs, fragments of ideas and various experiences – pieces of Italy – abut and merge. “Incipit vita nova... Let everyone look for their own death,” and we are out of the alleyways of Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight. A quotation by Csáth – an ill omen; side by side with a painting by Gulácsy (“Sunday in Como”), representing people with powdered, meekly obsessed faces. And the boundless projection canvas: the sea, with people making every effort to fool around in old summertime pictures.

The curators obviously made the decision to intimate the historical events that were the backdrop to the experiences as mere emotional impressions, even though those six decades were those that brought the majority of the changes in the 20th century. Our artists were hosted in the cities of their dreams in various cultural political contexts, escaping from various circumstances, regimes and ideologies.

It is the explicit subjectivity as well as the associative evocation of the background knowledge that make this exhibition unique. Besides, it is memorably spectacular, at times deeply witty. (The menu of the osteria, the well, the alleyways, the futuristic posters, the amateur videos, the baedekker style, etc.) It experiments with every medium and every possible experience that one can have in an exhibition room. Only a glass of wine is missing... The length and the number of quotations is perfect; it seems the curators have found a solution for the paradox of literary exhibitions: the quotations are one-sentence sensuous illustrations where a short description, an idea, an act give the reader a strong impulse without pulling him forcibly into the text’s own world. The exhibition keeps a distance from the text, and decides in favour of the reader in whose hands literature becomes a baedekker, and travelling becomes literature. (Boglárka Cziglényi, olaszissimo.blog.hu)



Organized as part of the 2013 Hungarian–Italian cultural season, this exhibition evokes the literary relics of a country that was a pivotal cultural centre for Hungarian intellectuals. Although previous such exhibitions zoomed in on major European cities – Paris, Berlin and Vienna – ’Mediterranean Episodes’ focuses on the whole of Italy with all its colours, from Fiume to Sicily.

The exhibition narrates the story of Italy as seen by Hungarian writers, through various works of art and literature, with flashes of some characteristic figures, locations and moods. The typical Italian scenes – as the piazza, the osteria or the alley – help visitors relive the emotions that nurtured the passionate italomania of Hungarian writers.

The first half of the 20th century was an age where Hungarians visited Italy for a multitude of reasons: from religious and cultural pilgrimage to honeymoon, studies and warfare to emigration. That was when Mihály Babits’s translation of the Divine Comedy was born and when Hungarian writers swarmed out to the Hungarian Academy in Rome. As for the fine arts, the attachment of noted art historian Lajos Fülep to Florence was well known, and painters like Lajos Gulácsy, Aladár Körösfői Kriesch and Vilmos Aba-Novák were also related to Italy in various ways.

The exhibition is intended to be a literary guidebook for lovers of Italy to take with themselves and savour on their trips.

Mediterranean Episodes. Hungarian writers on Italy 1890-1950
Exhibition open from 8 May 2013 to 31 October 2013

Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum | www.pim.hu |1053 Budapest, Károlyi u. 16.

Tags: Géza Csáth, Antal Szerb