A Passion For Books – Count Samuel Teleki De Szek: Creating Transylvania’s Greatest Library (Part Two)

When it comes to collecting, there is the getting and there is the having. The end goal may well be the having, but the getting is often much more exciting. The thrill of the hunt, the art of the chase and the joy of the find can keep a collector searching for ever greater discoveries. Perhaps this was the reason that Count Samuel Teleki De Szek dedicated sixty years of his life to collecting books for a library that would surpass anything found in Transylvania at that time and still holds an exalted reputation today. As he went about creating one of the great libraries in Europe, Teleki spent more time collecting books than he did reading them. Accumulating 40,000 books is no easy task and was just as demanding as any course of study. At a time when long distance travel was extremely difficult, getting them back to Teleki’s estate in the heart of Transylvania was no small order. Despite such difficulties Teleki persevered.

His passion for book collecting, the humanities and scientific literature went hand in hand, spurring him onward to overcome all obstacles in the search for works of enlightened reason. This was the genesis of the world famous Teleki-Bolyai Library (Teleki-Teka in Hungarian/Bibliotheca Telekiani in Romanian). Starting in the mid-18th century his efforts began to pay off. The volumes he collected were those which stimulated Teleki’s interest in the intellectual achievements of the Enlightenment. He set out to methodically create a repository of the most up to date intellectual ideas of the age. This would slowly transform into a library of scientific and humanistic learning, not just for himself, but eventually all Transylvanians. Teleki spared little expense in his efforts to acquire the best volumes. He was a learned man on a mission, one that would span the rest of his long and eventful life.

An Open Book - Count Samuel Teleki De Szek and one of his many books

An Open Book – Count Samuel Teleki De Szek and one of his many books (Credit: Teleki-Bolyai Library)

Collector’s Curiosity – An Insatiable Pursuit Of Knowledge
Count Teleki was a man with a passion for learning. He sought to make his mark, by collecting an unprecedented amount of knowledge in his library and reforming public education in Transylvania. His library was part of that process. Both the scope and scale of it were unprecedented, especially when one considers how far Transylvania was from the great centers of European learning. Teleki was forced to cast a very wide net in searching for both the best and rarest books. His acquisition plan was informed as much by logistics as anything else. Documentation shows that he purchased books from twenty-five different European cities and towns. Though his collection was soon growing from the hundreds into the thousands he did not sacrifice quality for quantity. Rare books were sought with the same dedicated zeal with which he pursued more recent works that advanced the cause of enlightened humanism.

Among the rarer volumes, Teleki managed to procure fifty-two incunabula, books printed prior to the year 1501. One of the most valuable was a Corvina codex that had been part of Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus’ famous library (Bibliotheca Corviniana). And it was not just rare books that piqued Teleki’s collecting curiosity. He also managed to acquire over a thousand old Hungarian prints. Teleki was a man who knew great art when he saw it, most especially when it could be found in illustrated form within books. World famous artists such as Rubens and Durer, were examples of the type of world class artists whose illustrations were to be found in the books Teleki purchased. There were also fine editions of the greatest classical works and scientific reference works. Teleki spared no expense in building his collection.

Vienna Calling – Serendipity For A Master Planner
Serendipity also played a role in Teleki’s ability to acquire much of his collection. While he dedicated his life to collecting books and advancing education, politics was his chosen career. Befitting a wealthy aristocrat from one of Transylvania’s most powerful families, he rose to political prominence through the ranks of county administration. After a decade of successful public service in his homeland, Teleki was selected by the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II to serve as the Chancellor-Assistant of Transylvania in 1787. Then in 1791, he was named Chancellor of Transylvania, a position he would occupy for the next three decades until his death in 1822. These positions meant he would spend a great deal of the latter part of his life in Vienna. They also placed Teleki close to one of the most enlightened royal courts in Europe. Most importantly, he would now be living in Vienna, which was one of the epicenters of the European book trade. This put him much closer to important points of contact who could assist him in procuring both old and new works. His time in the city was crucial to acquiring a world class book collection.

During his time in Vienna, Teleki not only bought books, but also spent a considerable amount of time cataloging them. The upshot of this effort was the publication of a four-volume catalog of his library twenty-two years in the making. In this work, he laid out a plan for how the library was to be a public institution. The library would be housed in Marovasarhely (Targu Mures in Romanian), the Transylvanian city that was closest to his estate. The Baroque building in which it would be housed had been inherited by Teleki through his wife’s family. A separate wing for the library was constructed at the turn of the 19th century. That same wing still holds the library today. Proving that Teleki was not only a world class book collector, but also a master planner.

Chancellor of Transylvania - Count Samuel Teleki De Szek

Chancellor of Transylvania – Count Samuel Teleki De Szek (Credit: Teleki-Bolyai Library)

Reasonable Pursuits – A Humanist At Heart
Teleki was not just a bibliophile, he was also a publisher and an advocate for the advancement of education, science and culture. His philanthropic efforts included providing support for students from Transylvania to study abroad, offering them the same experience that had transformed his own life. He also funded a wide range of scholars. Teleki also managed to find time for publishing. His most notable literary achievement was twenty years in the making, as he managed to publish the complete works of Janos Pannonius, the Renaissance poet, diplomat and bishop whose writings were among the earliest humanist writings in Hungary. Teleki was a Renaissance man as well, though he lived, learned and studied in the Baroque period.  His efforts to accumulate, catalog and codify knowledge in the furtherance of enlightenment and reason took learning to a whole new level in Transylvania. His library collection has kept it there.

Click here for: A Final Resting Place – Shelf Life: The Library of Zsuzanna Bethlen de Iktar at Teleki-Teka (Part Three)

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