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)

The Most Powerful Regret – A Life’s Work: The Teleki-Bolyai Library In Targu Mures (Part One)

Regrets are the great missed opportunities of life. Opportunities to have done something different, something better or conversely, to not have done something you lived to regret. Regrets are the silent recriminations that constantly whispering what might have
been in our ear. Regrets can also be a great motivator, a call to action the next time an opportunity arises. The hope is always that things will turn out differently this time. Regrets are also a part of travel. They inform the things we should have done and the places we may never go. They are the once in a lifetime chance not taken. I should know, since one of my biggest travel regrets came recently on a late summer trip to Transylvania. It occurred during a short stay in the city of Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely in Hungarian).

The Most Powerful Regret - Sign at entrance to the Bolyai-Teleki Library

The Most Powerful Regret – Sign at entrance to the Bolyai-Teleki Library (Credit: Sie)

Scintillating Style – A Euphoric Confection
The stay in Targu Mures was just for one night. The city made a good stopping point in breaking up a multi-day drive from Debrecen in Hungary to eastern Transylvania for me and my wife. We arrived in the late afternoon just as the autumn sun was slowly sinking towards the western horizon. The city was along our route to Szekelyland, the heart of which was still several hours drive further to the east. As such we only had a limited amount of time to spend in Targu Mures. Our short stay did allow us to walk through the city center where we looked at a clutch of beautiful churches. The houses of worship included a synagogue of scintillating stylistic impulses. The architecture of the Middle East, Moors and Mures River valley had been amalgamated into a euphoric confection of the otherworldly.

There was also the fabulous fin de siècle Prefecture and House of Culture buildings. Both were coming to light just as the sunset. The buildings glowed from the inside with a mysterious internal fire worthy of Transylvania. Targu Mures at dusk was a place of rustic enchantment. As twilight turned to evening it began to dawn on me that this city was worth more than a quick overnight stop. It seemed to be one of those “it’s what you make of it” kind of places. Far from overwhelming, but highly satisfying. In retrospect, I did not make enough of our stay. I failed to realize at the time that Targu Mures would become more than just a city for me, it would morph within my memory into a symbol of all the things I should have done. One place we walked past that evening, also became the one place I regret not visiting.

Scintillating Style - Synagogue in Targu Mures

Scintillating Style – Synagogue in Targu Mures

Checking Out – That Which Was Left Undone
Prior to our arrival in Targu Mures, I had read with great interest about the Teleki-Bolyai Library (Teleki-Teka in Hungarian/Bibliotheca Telekiani in Romanian). For bibliophiles it was a must see. The library contains 200,000 books, the core part of which are 40,000 volumes collected by the library’s founder and namesake, Count Samuel Teleki de Szek, long time chancellor of Transylvania and dedicated bibliophile. The Count’s passion for books mirrored my own. The library should have been the first thing we visited in the city. Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the afternoon. Thus, it got put off until the next morning. The next morning we could have visited the library, but impatience got the best of me. I decided that we should continue driving eastward into Szekelyland rather than wait until 10:00 a.m. for the library and accompanying museum to open.

Skipping the Teleki-Bolyai Library is something I have come to regret but one time and that has been continuously. I was the chief culprit behind the decision to skip Transylvania’s greatest library and one of the world’s best. All because I wanted to get an early start driving to Szekelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc). What was I thinking? The only possible answer is that I wasn’t. The upshot of this hasty decision was that not visiting the library has become my greatest regret when it comes to missed travel opportunities. This is compounded by the fact that the more I learn about it, the more I realize just how much I missed. For this was no ordinary library. That is because it started out like so many gifts to posterity, with a great man and his dream.

Bibliophile Extraordinaire - Count Samuel Teleki de Szek

Bibliophile Extraordinaire – Count Samuel Teleki de Szek (Credit: Samuel Czetter)

Indelible Impressions – A Tour That Would Last A Lifetime
A mere twenty kilometers north of Targu Mures lies the village of Gornesti. Relatively few of its inhabitants call it by that name. Instead the village is known to locals by its Hungarian name of Gernyeszeg. That is because seven out of every ten of its inhabitants are Hungarian speaking. It is a sleepy place, not very far removed from a distant and deep past. That past gave Transylvania one of its most enlightened sons. For it was in Gernyeszeg in 1739 that Count Samuel Teleki de Szek was born into the aristocracy. His privileged family name afforded him educational opportunities that others could only dream about. He took full of advantage of this situation by availing himself of a first-class education. At the age of twenty he embarked on a program to study abroad. This took him to several of the great learning centers in Europe. The tour would last four years, making an indelible impression on the young Teleki. It was during this time that he began to develop a plan to create a library that would house great books focused on scientific reason. Ones that would convey the enlightenment to Transylvania one volume at a time.

Teleki was one of the few Transylvanians who had the ability and means to pull together such a library at that time. His study tour had gained him invaluable connections in the book trade of central and western Europe. It was from those regions that he would have to procure the books for his planned collection of enlightened scientific works. Acquiring the books was probably easier than having them delivered to his estate in Saromberke (Dumbravioara in Romanian).  It was a daunting task, as Transylvania was way out on the eastern frontiers of Europe, a place not commonly associated with world class libraries, book fairs or most importantly regarding the delivery of books, good roads. Teleki’s Library was not created in a day or a decade. It would involve a lifetime of effort, one that would take a monumental amount of fortitude. Count Samuel Teleki had the patience and dedication to see his project through to fruition. That would become readily apparent in the years to come.

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