Approaching Wenckheim Palace on a mid-December day brought with it a strange feeling. Due to the time of year, it felt like we were the only ones around. As far as visitors went that was true. The parking lot adjacent to the palace looked like a wider extension of the driveway, it was nearly empty except for automobiles owned by the handful of employees who worked here. The lack of people gave our arrival a more intimate, personal touch. For me, it felt like we were coming for visit as old friends of the family, but there was no family to be found. I did not have to read a history book to imagine what had happened to the last Wenckheim’s to inhabit this palace. They would have been swept away, like so much else by the Red Army’s arrival in the autumn of 1944. I doubted any aristocrats stayed around to suffer the dire consequences that would have been forthcoming after being labeled class enemies on the spot. This would have likely meant execution or a fate even worse than death. The palace survived though. A lasting reminder of the lavish life that the Wenckheims, as well as many other aristocratic families throughout Hungary, led in the years before two World Wars consumed the countryside.
Metaphorical Messages – Redefining The Idea Of A Palace
Wenckheim Palace was a mystery to me and would remain so during my visit. There was very little literature or information panels in English. For that matter, there was not that much more written in Hungarian. The bookstore/sales area was bare bones. The entrance fee was nominal. It was rather obvious to me that Wenckheim Palace was badly in need of a budget and professional staff. The tours were self-guided by default. Everyone who worked here, either seemed preoccupied or bored. I was happy to learn that the palace had won a large grant from the European Union to restore much of the palace to its former glory. The work was slated to begin in a few more months. Until then, visitors were pretty much on their own. My wife and mother-in-law, both native Hungarian speakers, were not able to offer much in the way of interpretation either.
Learning about Wenckheim Palace would require some good old-fashioned detective work. This meant taking a closer look at the few details I could discern. My investigative work started with the latter half of its name. Calling it a palace, on the order of a Versailles or the Hofburg, did not quite do the building justice. Wenckheim was as much manor house as palace. There was even a tower, recalling what might have been a castle. I stared at its eclectically styled, neo-renaissance exterior without taking the time to enumerate the number of windows. If I had, the count would have come to 365, same as the number of days in a year. Inside the symmetry continued with 52 rooms, matching the number of weeks in a year. A final callback to the calendar related to the palace’s four entrances, corresponding with the number of seasons. Distracted by the palace’s architectural eclecticism, it was hard to notice such metaphorical messages.
A Feat Of Imagination – The Rural Residence Par Excellence
The palace had been designed to such symmetrical specifications on the orders of Krisztina Wenckheim, one half the aristocratic couple who commissioned the palace’s design and construction. It was built from 1875 – 1879. The architect was none other Miklos Ybl, a man who had studied and soaked up the architectural atmosphere in Vienna and Munich. He brought new ideas back to his native Hungary where he worked exclusively during the latter half of the 19th century. He would soon become the most in demand architect during Hungary’s golden age which followed the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867. As Budapest boomed, following its unification as a single city in 1873, so did Ybl’s career. Many of Ybl’s most famous works date from this time. These include the Hungarian State Opera House, St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Varkert (Castle Garden Bazaar). His creative instincts were not confined to the capital, as he took his talents far afield into the far-flung provincial areas of Hungary.
This brought Ybl to rural locales where he achieved incredible feats of the imagination amid landscapes that had been previously known for agriculture rather than architecture. Wenckheim Palace would help change the rural idyll. Ybl’s services were coveted by all the major aristocratic families at the time. Only a few were able to command his attention. The Wenckheim’s had the money, power and prestige to purchase Ybl’s services to design a palace on the southern Great Plain. He did not disappoint his patrons with the Wenckheim Palace. It was a rural aristocratic residence par excellence. His fantastical creation was a regional icon where the uber-wealthy rural gentry gathered for grand balls and all-night parties filled with shimmering glitz and moonlit romance. These glory days have all but faded. I viewed the palace as just the scaffolding of what was once a grand social and cultural edifice.
An Indelible Impression – The Passion & Pathos Of Love
The current state of the palace could not have been much farther removed from the golden age. Walking through the large rooms it was apparent that the décor was not indigenous to the site. Period pieces of furniture had been placed in the rooms as much to occupy space as portray any sense of elegance. I assumed all the originals had been stolen during the Second World War. The presentation of such areas as the dining room, men’s and women’s salons and bedrooms were well done, but lacking in the prevailing haute bourgeoise spirit of that gilded age. There was one bedroom that did manage to leave me with a lasting impression. Laid out on a bed was a woman’s dress. Looking as though its owner had left it there as a ghostly reminder of a consummated romance. I imagined the dress’s former occupant as an alluringly voluptuous figure. For a moment, I could sense the passion and pathos of love that had once pervaded these chambers. Such romantic notions had long since vanished from this bedroom, but the tiny hint of them that remained was still powerful enough to melt hearts.