The Károlyi Palace


I  The building

The mansion is one of Hungary’s most significant neo-Classical listed buildings. It was refashioned with almost every new owner, and what can be seen today is a result of major reconstruction undertaken between 1832 and 1847. What is possibly the most noble example of aristocratic taste during the Hungarian Reform Age greets visitors like a true jewel in the centre of Pest – together with the municipal park, which dates from the same era and is today known as the Károlyi Garden – in the same manner as when the leading figures of political and cultural life stepped over the threshold.

The two-storey building, in the centre of the main façade of which there is a stone parapet supporting a balcony with iron railing, with its pure forms, serene proportions and huge trees in its courtyard, represents a real oasis for all those eager for culture. From the three-aisle, carriage entrance with wooden-block flooring, you reach the imposing, three-part stairway with red marble steps. This connects with the Ceremonial Hall and the Ancestors’ Gallery, from where you can proceed to a series of halls with mirrors and original, white marble fireplaces, the neo-Renaissance former family chapel with wood panelling, as well as the library with its mahogany-lined galleries and intimate harmony.


II  Ferenc Barkóczy

In 1747, Ferenc Barkóczy (1710–1765), the bishop of Eger, who was also known as a great patron of the arts, purchased an 18-room, two-storey edifice designed by Martin Kalcher from the inheritors of Baron Gábor Patachich, the archbishop of Kalocsa. With the help of the master builder András Mayerhoffer, he had it reconstructed into a U-shaped, Baroque residence of uniform structure. Later, during the time when he was the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church it became the city’s most significant private mansion. Striking evidence for this is that in August 1751 when, in connection with a meeting of the Diet at Pozsony (today Bratislava), Maria Theresa and her husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, visited Hungary and Pest for the first time, they chose the mansion as their residence for several days.


III  Antal Károlyi and Jozefa Harruckern

In 1768, Count Antal Károlyi (1731–1791), the hereditary Lord Lieutenant of Szatmár County and the grandson of Sándor Károlyi, who had concluded the Peace of Szatmár, bought for 33,000 forints the mansion (which was next to a building owned by his father-in-law) from his relatives, the deceased primate’s siblings. Although the following year he initiated major reconstruction of the building, it was delayed by, inter alia, the unusually large Danube flood of 1775. Finally, it was enlarged in 1779-80 according to plans by master builder József Jung. As for the richly furnished, approximately 50-room building, incorporating simultaneously every benefit of a provincial manor house and an urban mansion, from 1787 the count only partly lived there since, as captain of the royal, noble guard, his duties called him to Vienna. Through his wife, Baroness Jozefa Harruckern (1740–1802), with estates in the counties of Csongrád and Békés he inherited an even larger amount of wealth.


IV  József Károlyi and Erzsébet Waldstein-Wartenberg

Antal Károlyi’s only child, Count József Károlyi (1768–1803), and his wife, Countess Erzsébet Waldstein-Wartenberg (1769–1813), occupied their apartments in the reconstructed building in 1789. The entire building was bathed in light at the balls held for their guest Palatine Joseph on the occasion of his inauguration as Palatine in 1796, and in 1800 on the name day of his first wife, the daughter of the Russian Tsar, Alexandra Pavlovna. The highly educated count’s widow, who was of German roots, brought up their children in a Hungarian spirit, in line with the will of her husband after he had died at a young age. She further extended the building and in 1808 the manège in the southern wing was completed.

In 1827, after the youngest had come of age, the couple’s three sons (István, Lajos and György) divided their father’s estate, which constituted the second largest fortune in the country. Although it wasn’t György who received the mansion, in 1831 he bought it from the younger of his two brothers.


V  György Károlyi and  Karolina Zichy

 György Károlyi (1802–1877), a leading figure of the Reform Age who is unjustly rarely mentioned, was a friend of István Széchenyi and Baron Miklós Wesselényi from youth, and an initiator and patron of numerous innovations which greatly influenced social and cultural life. In 1832 he set in motion radical reconstruction of the building, which resulted in a neo-Classical exterior and an interior in the style of the Louis XVI. A celebratory ‘house warming’ was held in 1841, but with the follow-up works the reconstruction was actually completed only in 1847. Initially the building was undertaken by József Hofrichter according to plans of Anton Pius Riegel, then from 1834 the work was supervised by Mihály Pollack, in line with interior and exterior designs by Heinrich Koch, the noted Viennese architect. The flood of 1838 disrupted the construction and the count – like his grandfather – allowed the dance hall and a series of halls on the street side to be used as temporary accommodation for Pest citizens who had been made homeless.

László Bártfay (1797–1858), the count’s secretary who, when not dealing with legal and financial matters, kept an eye on the building work, following the flood also lived here, up to the time of his death. His name is linked to one of the most important literary salons of the Reform Age, which attracted participants such as  Ferenc Kazinczy, Károly Kisfaludy, Ferenc Kölcsey, Ferenc Deák, Pál Szemere, Mihály Vörösmarty, József Bajza and Ferenc Toldy.

In 1836 Count György married Countess Karolina Zichy (1818–1903), one of the period’s richest, most influential and celebrated beauties. Of their six children, four (Gyula, Viktor, Gábor and István) were born in the mansion.

In January 1849, during the War of Independence, Josip Jelačić, the governor of Croatia, chose the mansion for his general headquarters. In July he was replaced by Baron Julius von Haynau, who, implementing the emperor’s wishes, directed the reprisals from here. Count György’s brother-in-law, Count Lajos Batthyány, Hungary’s first independent prime minister, who had been arrested in the building on 8 January, was executed on 6 October.

In the 1860s, the building was renovated under the supervision of Miklós Ybl, who by then had become architect to the Károlyi family. Earlier, he had participated as a trainee in the transformation of the mansion’s appearance.


VI   Gyula Károlyi and Geraldine Pálffy

György’s oldest son, Imperial and Royal Chamberlain Gyula Károlyi (1837–1890), was in effect a privy counsellor. He was also the first president of the Hungarian Red Cross Association. During his time, apart from alterations to the women’s corner parlours and the chapel, there were no major changes to the mansion. During the ball seasons of the “happy times of peace”, the count’s guests included Albert, Prince of Wales – the future British king Edward VII – and emperor Franz Joseph. After his early death, the mansion was occupied by his second wife, Countess Geraldine Pálffy (1859–1928), with her four young children, as well as his mother, Karolina Zichy, who had returned home after many years spent in exile abroad.


VII  Mihály Károlyi and Katinka Andrássy

When Count Gyula died, his son by his marriage to Georgina Károlyi,  Mihály Károlyi (1875–1955), inherited the entailed mansion. In 1912 Count Mihály, who had been orphaned at an early age, decided to demolish the building. Nevertheless, after his marriage in 1914 to Countess Katinka Andrássy (1892–1985), he decided to modernise it, and work took place in 1917. Due to the political events following the end of the First World War and the role played by the count in those (as prime minister and later president), in July 1919 the family (with one son and two daughters) emigrated. The trial of Károlyi, in absentia, which began in 1920 and which unfairly involved the fate of the property ended after eight years of vicissitudes. The result was that the building, a part of the entailed property, passed into state ownership.  


VIII  Public collection

In 1933 the Municipal Picture Gallery opened in the building. Much larger exhibition spaces could be created as a result of reconstruction of the south façade section between 1935 and 1937, undertaken on the basis of plans drawn up by architect Gyula Wälder. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed successful events, with truly popular classical music concerts being held in the courtyard of the building. The  Petőfi Museum of Literature moved into the building in 1957. The museum gained possession of the entire building following reconstruction between 1997 and 2000, which took into consideration the latest art historical research.


The Károlyi coat-of-arms

The Károlyi family’s coat-of-arms, depicting lions holding a shield below a crown adorned with nine jewels, is the mansion building’s only ornamentation. The high-cost work of Viennese academic sculptor Josef Klieber was probably placed on the stepped gable in the 1830s. The coat of arms was subsequently pulled down, but following reconstruction an authentic copy can today be seen in its place.