Research on the nineteenth century, including the reevaluation of historicism, has become an area of intense interest throughout Europe over the past few decades. This bulky and richly illustrated volume on Hungarian architecture and decorative arts, published in Hungarian in 2013 and recently translated into English with minor changes, exemplifies this tendency. Presenting a comprehensive history of the nation's art has long been a focus of art historical writing in Hungary. A plan for an eight-part series—of which this book is a part—was initiated in the 1970s, and some of the volumes were published in the early 1980s, including one on the 1890–1919 period.1 Work on the volume focusing on the nineteenth century was begun, but when historicism became a subject of reevaluation during the 1980s, previously overlooked artifacts came to light and a vast new literature emerged. This latter point is well illustrated by the bibliography in Motherland and Progress: most of the works making up its nearly nine hundred entries were written during the past three decades.2 

The volumes in the series were conceived as handbooks, each presenting the history of a given era's art and architecture according to the current state of research. At the same time, new research is integrated with that of earlier generations of scholars. A total of sixteen authors participated in writing the latest volume, and two-thirds of its chapters were written by volume editor József Sisa, the leading scholar of nineteenth-century Hungarian architecture. Originally, the book was meant to discuss all the fine arts together, but faced with the outpouring of available materials, the volume's editors decided to treat the history of architecture separately. This decision also expresses the increasing appreciation of architecture by the wider public.

Hungarian developments here are related to and interpreted as part of broader developments in Europe during the nineteenth century, namely, the defining waves of social modernization and urbanization. The book argues that Hungarian society and culture were trying to catch up with Western Europe following decades at the beginning of the nineteenth century when they lagged behind. The new title for the English version, Motherland and Progress, aims to express this aspiration.3 The book situates a cross section of European developments in relation to Hungarian ones, addressing dominant trends and offering complementary discussion of regional variations and significant individual achievements.

Choosing a century as a time frame is conventional in historiography, but historical concepts and evaluative judgments also played a role in this choice of framework. A look at the preceding volume, which covers the period from 1890 to 1919, reveals a significant shift in the approach taken in the new book.4 The earlier volume describes the 1890s as a period that witnessed a crisis of historicism and the upsurge of new trends, while the current book sees this decade as the peak and fulfillment of the nineteenth century's historicizing tendencies. Motherland and Progress divides the century into three stylistic and conceptual periods: neoclassicism (1800–1840), romanticism (1840–70), and historicism (1870–1900). This periodization is partly based on international and Hungarian standards (the impact of the Germanophone literature and especially that of the works of Renate Wagner-Rieger are noteworthy here), but it also results from the content of records explored during the research. The periodization is primarily significant as a means of classification, which, in addition to the assessment of features of morphology and style, takes into account key historical and social changes. A fundamental goal of the project was to present the diverse monuments and artifacts of the period in their full complexity, without simplification.

The length of the individual chapters varies depending on the nature and importance of the historical era and the extent of the available records pertaining to it. For example, the chapter on historicism during the last third of the century is as long as the two previous chapters combined. However, across chapters the structure is similar. In each chapter, an introduction provides a general overview of the main historical and political conditions of the era and the framework of architectural activity. Important architects are introduced, and developments in architectural education, as well as in professional organizations and institutions, are addressed. After that, buildings are examined on a typological basis. The panorama is completed with discussion of developments in landscape design, decorative arts, and material culture; the role of new materials and new structural systems are considered, as are issues around architectural decoration.

Urban development receives special attention, above all that of Buda and Pest and, eventually, the united city of Budapest. Special organizations like the Beautification Committee (1808–57) and later the Municipal Council of Public Works (1870–1948) played a crucial role in regulating territorial development and building construction as well as in controlling the projects that were realized. The latter organization could have been given stronger emphasis, with discussion at the beginning of the historicism chapter instead of in the middle, or it might even have deserved an independent, portrait-like presentation.

As was the case with urban development elsewhere in the nineteenth century, the expansion of construction tasks and building types was significant in Hungary. The defining elements of the era were secular public and residential buildings. However, church and castle architecture still remained important arenas. In addition to imposing public buildings for administration and culture, various service institutions and infrastructural facilities are also discussed. One key feature of the period was the increased significance of the palace type, expressing the desire of the emerging civil, entrepreneurial, administrative classes to follow the lifestyle of the former elites. Palace-type buildings, which could be either public or private, included grand private residences and public tenement houses. In Central Europe and Hungary, the neo-Renaissance-style palace became widespread because it corresponded to the self-image and ambitions of the middle classes while having the added benefit of flexibility and adaptability. However, contemporaries criticized that style's heavy symbolism and monumentality, which in turn contributed to difficulties in maintaining hygienic and comfortable conditions, as well as to high construction costs and a shortage of apartments with affordable rents.

The book's two final chapters present the 1890s as a peak moment, completing and terminating Hungary's nineteenth-century aspirations. Concluding the volume's narrative, which begins with the country's backwardness and its architects’ attempts to overcome this shortcoming, the final chapters complete the story dramaturgically. In the chapter dealing with constructions related to the 1896 millennial celebration of the Hungarian conquest, author József Sisa seems to share a self-evaluation common to the era, according to which Hungarians “could now rightfully claim” that “they had worked off their historical disadvantage” (781).5 Grandiose constructions led to a quantitative and qualitative shift in the Budapest cityscape, where new buildings, as Sisa cautiously criticizes, were in some cases of almost “megalomaniac” scale. This was precisely the case with the two most prominent projects of the time, the Parliament Building by Imre Steindl (1885–1902) and the Buda Castle by Miklós Ybl and Alajos Hauszmann (1875–1905). The latter was the biggest royal castle in Europe, its size tripled during the period, even though it went virtually unused.

The final chapter deals with new phenomena and alternatives to historicism. Emphasized here are continuity and the “organic” transition of old into new, as was the case with architect Ödön Lechner, who represented a departure from historicism in some previous interpretations.6 However, the breaking points—when historicism definitively lost its validity and historic Hungary collapsed during World War I—remain outside this volume's frame and are not the subject of reflection here.

With a few changes, the English edition follows the Hungarian original, including brief explanations of select historical facts and events. Rich and genuinely diverse illustrative material fits the text and aids the reader's understanding of the authors’ arguments. The endnotes, ample bibliography (listing mostly Hungarian publications), and name and place index lend the book scholarly heft. The forty-three brief essays on significant individual buildings are informative and illuminating; unfortunately, similar portraits of the most important architects are not provided. Maps that might have aided readers in locating buildings are lacking, as is an international comparative chronology; these would have been of substantial benefit. That said, it is highly welcome that this thorough and demanding work has been made available in English, as its advent will help to integrate the nineteenth-century achievements of Hungarian architecture into an international conversation.


The published volumes of the series History of Hungarian Art are Lajos Németh, ed., Magyar művészet 1890–1919 [Hungarian art 1890–1919] (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1981), nos. 6/1–2 in the series; Sándor Kontha, ed., Magyar művészet 1919–1945 (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1985), nos. 7/1–2; Ernő Marosi, ed., Magyar művészet 1300–1470 (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1987), nos. 2/1–2. The Hungarian-language original version of the book under review is no. 5/1 in the series.
For a comprehensive history of Hungarian architecture, see Dora Wiebenson and Sisa József, eds., The Architecture of Historic Hungary (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998).
The title phrase is a Hungarian adage adapted from Ferenc Kölcsey (1790–1838), one of the most important poets and liberal political thinkers of the Reform era (1825–48).
See Németh, Magyar művészet 1890–1919.
However, in the introduction to the historicism chapter, Sisa admits that “even at this rate of development … Hungary had still not reached the level of the Western half of the Empire, while the Monarchy was also still behind the rest of Western Europe” (423).
For example, the classic essay “Magyar építészet” (Hungarian architecture), by the Hungarian philosopher and art historian Lajos Fülep, which was first published in the literary journal Nyugat [West] 11, no. 8 (16 Apr. 1918), deeply influenced the evaluation of historicism and turn-of-the-century architecture until the 1980s. For a contemporary position, see János Gerle, “Hungarian Architecture from 1900 to 1918,” in Wiebenson and Sisa, Architecture of Historic Hungary, esp. 225–30.