A Storied Work Of Survival – The Teleki-Bolyai Library: The Opening Of Another Chapter (Part Four)

Like so many institutions reliant upon a single person for their raison d’etre, the Teleki Library began to slowly degrade after the death of its founder, Count Samuel Teleki De Szek in 1822. Count Teleki had spent the final decades of his life ensuring that the library was properly cataloged and stored. For this role he had hired Targu Mures’ (Marosvasarhely) first librarian ever, Jozsef Szasz, to act as both caretaker and administrator of this extraordinary collection, both for preservation and scholarly purposes. Upon his death, Count Teleki left the library to his heirs, but designated the Transylvania Reformed Church as overseer of the collection. As the 19th century progressed the library became less a working institution than a sort of museum. Books were purchased that were not in line with the exacting standards set forth by the Count.

This situation was less than ideal. It was also not what Count Teleki had in mind when he envisioned the library as an educational tool. A year before World War I began, a foundation was established by one of the Teleki heirs to administer the library. This was supposed to help keep the library faithful to its original purpose. Little did anyone know at the time that Transylvania was on the verge of an unprecedented era of radical upheaval that would be brought about by warfare and radical ideologies. By the end of the decade, Transylvania would no longer be part of Hungary. Elite families, such as the Teleki’s, would feel a loss of power and prestige as the region now became a part of Romania. This would have only mild ramifications for the library.

On the Cusp of Change - The Teleki Library in 1942

On the Cusp of Change – The Teleki Library in 1942

Stolen By The State – Nationalization As Theft
It was not until after the Second World War that the library was confronted by the nightmare of communist control. Communism would also consume many of Count Teleki’s descendants, some of whom would suffer within the same walls that housed his incredible collection of books and prints. Romania’s communist party, with the assistance of Soviet occupation authorities, had been tightening their grip on the nation, including Transylvania, following the war. By 1948, they had complete control over the government and could enact whatever measures they saw fit. One of their main goals was nationalization. Nationalization in the context of postwar Communism was code for rampant theft. Everything would now be owned, or more to the point stolen, by the state. Aristocrats, such as those with the Teleki name, had the most to fear. They were targeted as class enemies. The Communists had a monopoly on violence. They could take whatever they wanted and that is exactly what they did.

The Teleki Library was soon nationalized. As for the Teleki family members who lived in or around Targu Mures they were robbed of nearly everything they owned by the communist state. Some were deported to labor camps, while others were humiliated by being forced to live in dire circumstances on the fringes of society. Chief among their woes was a lack of adequate housing which the communist government refused to provide them. This was how some of Samuel Teleki’s descendants came to inhabit a closet in the library. Another descendant took it upon himself to rob the library of several valuable treasures prior to fleeing westward. He took with him one of the most famous books in the library, the Corvina, the only Codex from the famed library of Matthias Corvinus. It would eventually end up in the United States. The library’s worst years were in the late 1940‘s and early 1950’s, but a troublesome situation also persisted to a lesser extent throughout the reign of Romania’s Communist Party.

For Future Generations - Teleki-Bolyai Library

For Future Generations – Teleki-Bolyai Library

A Rare Discovery – The Marginal Note Of Marosvasarhely
During these dark days the library was not kept anywhere close to the standards of Count Teleki’s original plan for the institution. Ironically, it was also during this time that the library acquired several collections from shuttered monasteries, churches, gymnasiums and private collections. One of these was the Library of the Reformed College in Targu Mures along with the Bolyai Museum holdings that celebrated the life and work of the father-son mathematical geniuses Farkas and Janos Bolyai. These items were combined with the existing holdings to create the Teleki-Bolyai Library as the institution is still known today.

The Reformed College library collection also provided the Teleki Library with its most famous holding, the Codex Koncz, a 14th century Latin copy of the Bible which had been discovered in 1860. The Codex Koncz itself is rare enough in its own right, but its most unique aspect only turned up in 1955. That was when two librarians at the Teleki Library came across a fifty-five word inscription in what has come to be known as the Marginal Notes of Marosvasarhely. It is the sixth oldest record of the Hungarian language. A rare find made all the rarer by its placement within the Codex. This is certainly the type of find that a passionate bibliophile like Count Teleki would have loved.

Flourishing Afterlife – A Library Open To Everyone
The library managed to survive the long dark night of communism that claimed so much of the aristocratic legacy in Transylvania. The fact that this massive collection of books outlasted the regime had much to do with indifference and neglect. The regime had better things to do then persecute old books. The library would not experience a rebirth until after 1989, when Romania’s communist state collapsed. This offered the Teleki-Bolyai Library a new lease on what has become a flourishing afterlife. Some of this rebirth took place outside of Romania in Basel, Switzerland where Teleki family members who had long ago left Transylvania created a foundation to support the library.

In 1999 the same type of organization was created in Targu Mures. It, along with several other state cultural entities, helped fund the complete restoration of the Wesselenyi House in which the library is stored. Today anyone interested in accessing the Teleki-Bolyai Library’s 200,000 volumes can do so in a reading room open to all. The fact that these reservoirs of knowledge are open to the public speaks volumes about the legacy of Count Samuel Teleki De Szek and the library he bequeathed to his beloved Transylvania.

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)