Sedentary Vengeance – Vlad Tepes (The Historical Dracula) Imprisonment at Visegrad

The real life historical Dracula, Vlad Tepes or “Vlad the Impaler,”  is most often remembered for the extreme bloodletting he unleashed in Transylvania and Wallachia – both parts of present day Romania – in the 15th century. During Vlad’s multiple reigns as Prince of Wallachia he displayed a level of cruelty unmatched in medieval history, which considering the times is really saying something. The list of those who suffered his wrath was long and notable. These included rich landowning boyars, Saxons, Ottoman Turks and Hungarian nobles. Vlad’s macabre designs were not only reserved for elites and foreigners. Peasants and the destitute were also among the many thousands of his victims.

Vlad Tepes - known to history as Vlad the Impaler

Vlad Tepes – known to history as Vlad the Impaler

Betrayal & Confinement– The Prince of Darkness at Peace
The popular conception of Vlad’s life might lead one to believe that he was forever at war, constantly engaged in torturing or killing his many enemies. To be sure there was plenty of that, but there was also a long period he spent in confinement, far from his homeland. During this time, he did not engage in warfare or for that matter much of anything. This period is much less well known and even less discussed. It took place along the Danube in Hungary. Beginning in 1462 he would spend a decade under house arrest in Visegrad at the summer palace of the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. During this time he was the political prisoner of the king. For ten years Vlad’s life was sedentary and domesticated. This is the polar opposite of the usual image of him as a bloodthirsty avenger. Vlad Tepes spent one-fifth of his life in relative solitude waiting for the moment when he could return to the warpath.

Why was Vlad imprisoned at Visegrad? The simplest explanation of Vlad Tepes’s imprisonment at Visegrad is that he was betrayed. In 1462 he had traveled to the Kingdom of Hungary seeking money from King Matthias to continue his campaigns against the Ottoman Turks. At this point, constant warfare had nearly bankrupted Vlad who was no longer able to pay his mercenary forces. Unbeknownst to Vlad, the king was in no position to loan him money. Matthias had his own financial worries. He had already spent a large sum of money that had been given to him by the Papacy for the purpose of carrying out expeditions against the Turks. He was more interested in cultivating the Renaissance in his homeland, rather than fighting yet another war.

Matthias took Vlad prisoner and had a letter drawn up showing that Vlad had actually proposed peace with the Turks. Thus Matthias had made it look as though Vlad had committed treason. This letter soon made its way to the pope. The upshot was that Matthias imprisoned Vlad for the foreseeable future. At the same time, the king had distracted the papacy with this incident. To the point, where they forgot about the debts Matthias owed them. As for Vlad, he was now a vassal of the Hungarian king. Confined to a palace in Visegrad, the feared Vlad would become a useful political tool.

Aerial view of the ruins of the Royal Palace at Visegrad (Credit: Civertan)

Aerial view of the ruins of the Royal Palace at Visegrad (Credit: Civertan)

Frozen In Fear – The Domesticated Impaler
What was Vlad Tepes up to during all those years? Was he plotting revenge? Planning an escape? Wondering if he would ever regain power? Did he spend his time walking in the lavish courtyard of the palace, staring at its magnificent hanging gardens, visiting with other guests who were staying in one of the palace’s 350 rooms? Did he examine the ongoing work at the palace? This might have brought about a stinging realization. The money which could have funded Vlad’s campaigns against the Turks was instead being used to adorn the palace with Renaissance style flourishes. What little information is available about Vlad’s time at the palace seems to confirm that he had not changed much. He was still able to satisfy his lust for torture. According to a Russian Ambassador to the court, Vlad occupied himself capturing birds, then cutting off their heads or plucking them free of their feathers. An Italian bishop reported that Vlad cut up mice and then impaled their body parts on small sticks.

In the hands of King Matthias, Vlad also became a political weapon against the Turks. When the Sultan’s diplomats arrived at Visegrad to talk over the terms of an armistice that had went into effect, they could not help, but notice that Matthias had Vlad present. The emissaries must have frozen in fear. This would have sent shivers through the entire Ottoman leadership. Almost certainly, the news of Vlad’s presence was relayed all the way back to Sultan Mehmed. After all, in 1462 Mehmed had ordered his army to retreat when he came upon a horrific sight, a forest of 20,000 impaled corpses left behind by Vlad and his mercenary forces at Targoviste in Wallachia. Eventually Matthias moved Vlad to a house further down the Danube at Pest before finally freeing him from twelve years of captivity. Vlad was sent back to Wallachia to deal with local forces that had allied with the Turks.

Statue of Vlad Tepes in his birthplace of Sighisoara, Transylvania (Credit: Sailko)

Statue of Vlad Tepes in his birthplace of Sighisoara, Transylvania (Credit: Sailko)

An Uneasy Peace – A Paradox at Visegrad
Most likely the years at Visegrad extended Vlad’s life. He was assassinated a mere two years after he had regained his position as Prince of Wallchia. He was forty five years old when he died. Vlad Tepes had lived longer than most of his kinsmen. Then again he had been singularly responsible for lowering the life expectancy in any area he occupied for long. The only exception in his life was his time at Visegrad. There, on the banks of the sullen gray Danube, amid the splendor and refinement of a Renaissance palace, the Prince of Darkness was confined to a life of uneasy peace.

A Maze of Imagination: The Hungarian Parliament Building

There is hardly a more fantastical structure in the whole of Europe than the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest. Sitting astride the Danube, on the Pest side of the river, this architectural wonder is an eclectically astonishing mix of neos: Gothicism, Medievalism, Renaissance and Baroque. Viewed from the Buda embankment, it looks as though it is literally floating on the slate gray river waters of the Danube. When the sky is blue and the sun is shining bright, the building’s reflection unfurls upon the ripples of the river, a shimmering image, sparkling in lustrous splendor. If Disney’s Magic Kingdom was ever to have a stone and mortar counterpart, than surely this must be it.  The building looks as though it is out of a fantasy, a reimagining of grandeur on a scale that can be interpreted as confident, prideful and chauvinistic. It is a symbol of both independence and rebelliousness, infused as much by emotion as symbolism. More than anything, it stands as a singular reflection of the people for whom it was built.

A Maze of Imagination - the Hungarian Parliament

A Maze of Imagination – the Hungarian Parliament

A Transformative Optimism – The Building of Budapest
By the early 1880’s Budapest was in the throes of a transformative belle époque. The trigger for this golden age had taken place a decade and a half earlier. A compromise with the Austrians in 1867 led to the creation of the Dual Monarchy. The emperor of Austria was also crowned as the King of Hungary. At the same time, Hungary was offered virtual independence. One result of the compromise was that Hungarians were allowed their own parliament to practice self-rule.  In 1873, the three cities of Buda, Obuda (Old Buda) and Pest were consolidated into one. From this agglomeration came the city of Budapest. Soon it was the fastest growing metropolitan area in the whole of Europe. People poured in from the countryside, leaving the landed estates behind, while looking to take advantage of the industrial revolution.

The city was literally bursting at the seams with economic activity. Hungary was now an equal part of an empire and virtually independent. The Magyar people, having been liberated from what they believed were centuries of oppression by foreign interlopers, cultivated an economic and cultural renaissance. Much of the newly created wealth went into architectural projects. Banks, universities, market halls, churches and a grand basilica rose from the flatlands of Pest. These constructions were the result of a tremendous optimism. The Magyar nation was ascendant. What followed would be the most optimistic construction project in Hungarian history, a brand new Parliament Building.

Crowning acheivement - A Renaissance dome under siege by Neo-Gothicism (Credit: Alex Proimos)

Crowning acheivement – A Renaissance dome under siege by Neo-Gothicism (Credit: Alex Proimos)

Medievalism Without Reason – A Parliament For the Ages
A contest was put on to see who could create the best design. The competition was fierce. Among the runners-up was Alajos Hauszmann, the famed architect who had designed numerous palaces and would go on to lead the renovation of Buda Castle. All was not lost for Hauszmann. For his entry in the competition would become the Ministry of Justice. This building, along with another runner-up which would become the Ministry of Agriculture, occupied positions directly across from the new Parliament. While each of these might be called stately and grand, they were dwarfed in size, scope and scale by the winning entry from architect Imre Steindl. One critic in the late 19th century termed the prize winning creation, “medievalism without reason.” Some of its stylistic elements certainly seemed to recall the Middle Ages, yet more than anything it redefined architectural possibility. It showcased a broad array of styles placed adjacent or piled on top of one another. For instance, the renaissance dome was topped with a gothic spire. It was a little bit of everything and a whole new thing. It was a building both of the ages and for the ages.

The style was both elegant and grandiose. Its size was otherworldly. This became readily apparent to those who visited the interior. The place seemed endless and unknowable even to those whose job brought them to work within its confines. There were no less than 691 rooms, a third of which were offices (big government was around in the 19th century as well).  The main entrance led to the first of 29 staircases, so many in fact that if stretched end on end they would cover twelve miles. Public officials could enter through 27 gates, use up to 13 elevators and relax in one of ten courtyards. It took over two decades to finish construction. It was finally completed eight years after it was dedicated. The architect, Steindl, went blind and died before it was finished. This hardly mattered, since his vision had little to do with sight and everything to do with imagination.

The Grand Staircase - the path to splendor

The Grand Staircase – the path to splendor

The Art of Possibility – A Building and Its People
Beyond the splendor, the building is, as it was at the time, really about a reverence for the past. It was everything Hungary had been. It looked back at various golden ages in Hungarian history. Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture were all inspirations. On the walls facing the Danube every former ruler of the Kingdom of Hungary, leader of Transylvania and famous Magyar military figures was sculpted in stone. On and on it goes. The message is clear. Hungary and Hungarians represent greatness, it is the architecture of exuberant nationalism.

The building may have been officially finished in 1902, but it never really will be complete. It seems to be in a constant of becoming. Renovations have occurred throughout its history and there are, few if any times that it can be viewed without intrusive scaffolding. In this way, it mirrors the Hungarian nation, which is still a work in progress, never quite complete. The building is reflective of the people it was built for. Magnificently seductive, bursting with creativity and filled with a fierce, energetic pride, it is Hungary and the Hungarians, a nation and a people redefining the art of possibility.