“Anything the Kaiser can do I can do better.” Those were the words of Miklos Esterhazy, otherwise known as “Miklos the Magnificent.” After visiting Esterhaza* Palace, which showcases some of the finest Baroque architecture in the whole of Europe, one is inclined to believe him. Esterhazy commissioned what has been called the “Hungarian Versailles” in 1762. He travelled to France in order to take a closer look at Versailles. He set his sights on attaining the most splendid level of aristocratic architecture. He looked not only to emulate the grandeur of Versailles, but also to surpass it.
A Quest For Opulence – Constructing Esterhaza
While Esterhazy looked to Western Europe for inspiration, architectural historians often look a bit closer to home when searching for antecedents to the Esterhaza Palace. The prototype for the palace was not that far away, famed Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. Miklos commissioned the palace on one of the many Esterhazy family estates, at the village of Fertod in far western Hungary. He selected the palace’s site due to his familiarity with the area. It was the location of his hunting lodge and grounds before he became the reigning prince of the family. The palace was relatively remote in comparison to other estates owned by the high aristocracy. The site was not the most obvious or stable for a palace. It was located on marshland, full of swampy ground. Not exactly the firmest foundation for such a grand architectural enterprise.
Construction took over twenty years before the final product was completed. The finished structure was elaborate in the extreme. Such architectural elements as a two-flight staircase leading up to a balcony on the external, central façade evoked a sense of grandeur. The 126 room palace included a 22,000 volume library. Mirrors in several rooms covered the walls, creating optical illusions. Outside the walls, massive French gardens contained 60,000 flowers in bloom, all at once. The palace quickly became the scene of elaborate social gatherings, a place where aristocracy and artistic creativity mixed amid levity and pomp. It pretty much goes without saying that the Esterhaza palace was at the vanguard of late 18th century cultural enlightenment.
Palace of the Arts – Esterhaza & High Culture
Within the walls of Esterhaza, patronage to the highest of arts took place. No less a musical impresario than Joseph Haydn was the court composer. His “Farewell Symphony” was the most famous of many notable musical works he composed at the palace. The opera house (yes Miklos Esterhazy had his own personal opera house!) was even burnt to the ground during a magnificent fireworks display. One of the many pyrotechnical shows at the palace was set off by the hand of no less a historical personage than Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa. She only came to the palace once, in September 1773, but this visit left a lasting impression. Later she was said to have remarked “when I want to see a good opera I go to Esterhaza Palace.” On average, a new opera was performed once a month under the direction of Haydn. Grand festivals and magnificent concerts took place all through the 1770’s and 1780’s. A select audience of aristocrats and nobles was invited to enjoy this outpouring of culture. Baroque elites in Mitteleuropa (Central Europe) enjoyed the best of everything.
In a symbiotic relationship, Miklos Esterhazy satisfied the aristocrats need for haute couture, they in turn satisfied his longing for attention and acknowledgement. Like most great works and ideas that are the product of a single patron, Esterhaza’s golden age waned after Miklos’ death in 1790. It soon fell into disrepair as the heirs of Miklos preferred to live at the main family home, Schloss Esterhazy in Eisenstadt, Austria. Building the palace may have taken twenty years, but maintaining it proved to be of even greater difficulty. For most of the 19th century the palace was plagued by indifference and neglect. Around the turn of the 20th century, it did enjoy something of a renaissance as Prince Miklos Esterhazy IV and his wife Margit decided to renovate Esterhaza. They used it as their main residence.
Fate of a Nation – Fate of a Palace
During World War II, Esterhaza’s fate mirrored that of the Hungarian nation. It was commandeered by both Axis and Allied occupation armies during the latter part of the war. It was first transformed into a German military headquarters. After the Germans fled the area in early 1945, Esterhaza became a Soviet military hospital. The occupation of the palace, presaged the period of communist control which transformed Hungary into a satellite of the Soviet Union. Most of the Eszterhazy’s fled into exile. Those who did not, found themselves marked out as enemies of the state. The palace fell into disrepair and the grounds ended up being used for agricultural and botanical experimentation.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the palace has come under the care of the Hungarian state. Reconstruction is now proceeding apace with the help of funds from the European Union. Esterhaza’s former luster is slowly being restored. Visitors today get a glimpse into an age of aristocratic opulence, when design and high culture took refinement to a whole new level. Here was the aristocracy at its height, given to stylistic displays of immaculate taste. This was a period in Hungarian history when families of extraordinary wealth competed to showcase their luxurious residences and landholdings. Esterhaza Palace offers a window into an age that has long since passed, though its legacy still shimmers, reflecting Miklos Esterhazy’s astonishing vision.
* Note: Concerning the name of the palace, today it is known as the Esterhazy Palace, during its historical heyday, it was called Esterhaza. The author has chosen the latter since this article focuses on its historical aspects.