Špoljarić on politics, patronage and intellectual culture at the Hungarian court

The volume 38 of Građa za povijest književnosti hrvatske (Materials for Croatian literary history), published by the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, appeared recently. The long-awaited volume presents an impressive selection of writings by past Croatian authors in Latin, Italian, Croatian, and German (including Croatian translations and paraphrases from Italian and Latin); most of the texts are edited from manuscripts, and appear in critical editions. The earliest work in this volume is the Navicula Petri, a short theological treatise composed during summer of 1463 by Nicholas bishop of Modruš, and edited by our own Croatica et Tyrolensia postdoc, Luka Špoljarić. For the blog, Luka has provided a summary of his contribution.

Remains of the city of Modruš on a drawing from the 17th century.
Remains of the city of Modruš on a drawing from the 17th century.

Politics, Patronage and Intellectual Culture at the Hungarian Court in the First Years of Matthias Corvinus’ Reign: Nicholas of Modruš and Peter’s Barge (Study, Critical Edition and Translation)

The article presents a new critical edition accompanied by a facing Croatian translation of Peter’s Barge (Navicula Petri), a theological treatise on the problem of physical evil composed by Nicholas bishop of Modruš (ca. 1425–1480). Nicholas was a Croatian Renaissance prelate who enjoyed close contacts with the court of the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus (1458–1490) before embarking on a successful career at the papal Curia. The edition is based on the sole extant witness of the text, preserved as part of a fifteenth-century miscellany located in the Archive of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts (AHAZU) under shelfmark II.b.3. Two earlier editions of the work (Veličan 1999; Hrkać 2006) are not only marred by errors in transcription, but have moreover failed to recognize two major scribal errors and have thus included not the end of Peter’s Barge but the end of Leonardo Bruni’s Short Oration before Pope Martin V, the work which follows in the manuscript. The critical edition presented here corrects the transcription errors of previous editions, includes for the first time the ending of the work which can be found two folios further in the manuscript, and establishes the original sequence of
this final portion of the text.

As a work dedicated to the archbishop of Kalocsa Stephen Várdai (ca. 1425–1471), Peter’s Barge offers new perspectives on the political, social, and intellectual dynamics at the court of Matthias Corvinus during the first years of his reign, which are reexamined in the introductory study. The study first presents an overview of Nicholas of Modruš’s ecclesiastical and diplomatic career in the context of dynamic diplomatic activities between Buda, Rome and Venice that sought to counter the energetic Ottoman expansion in the Balkans. Owing to the influence of his earliest patron, Stephen Frankapan (†1481) lord of Modruš, the most powerful figure in Croatia at the time, king Matthias’ supporter and an important figure in these preparations, Nicholas entered the circle of intellectuals and diplomats around Várdai and especially John Vitéz bishop of Oradea (ca. 1408–1472), the two chief advisors to the king. At the same time, he was appointed by pope Pius II (1458–1464) as a legate to the Kingdom of Bosnia, only to witness its fall to the Ottomans in the spring of 1463. Though Nicholas of Modruš and Stephen Frankapan featured prominently in king Matthias’ autumn counteroffensive in Bosnia, during the following winter both fell out of grace with him. In order to shed more light on these events, the study proceeds by analyzing Nicholas’ contacts with the circle of Hungarian prelates, diplomats, and other intellectuals, highlighting the political and diplomatic roles of these figures, and interpreting their meetings not as mere idyllic otium spent in pursuit of intellectual topics, but as meetings during which discussions on the most important political concerns of the kingdom took fore. Having established the social hierarchy of the group, the study continues by analyzing themes, genres, and sources behind Peter’s Barge and Nicholas’ other work from this period, Dialogue on the Happiness of Mortals, as evidence of his intellectual profile. It challenges an earlier interpretation according to which Nicholas of Modruš was, much like Janus Pannonius or Galeotto Marzio, two other prominent
intellectuals connected to the circle at the time, a humanist. Instead, as is shown, the bishop’s works present him as a scholastically educated prelate, a typical former student of Paul of Pergola’s philosophical school. Yet, rather than a product of a detached intellectual, Peter’s Barge has to be understood as part of a Renaissance intellectual tradition which interpreted physical evils of “Turkish” conquests as God’s retribution for the moral evils of the res publica Christiana, as it was supposed to be read against a backdrop of the dangerous political situation brought about by the fall of the Bosnian Kingdom. The study then analyzes Nicholas’ sudden banishment from the Hungarian court in the winter of 1464, connecting it, as earlier studies, to Stephen Frankapan’s removal from the position of the Croatian-Dalmatian ban. However, against earlier interpretations, it presents both the lord and bishop of Modruš not as passive victims of Matthias’ centralization efforts, but as active players at the state level who were, much as other factions, involved in court intrigues in order to promote their own political interests. This inglorious end of Nicholas’ Hungarian episode sheds light on his On Consolation, a treatise on sorrow and methods of consoling he composed upon his arrival to Italy, as an effort in self-medication that was supposed to remedy the bishop’s aegritudines animi brought about by his exile from the royal palace in Buda to a provincial city of the Papal States. Finally, a postscriptum to this discussion of Nicholas’ Hungarian career is devoted to the miscellaneous paper manuscript which preserves the sole surviving witness of Peter’s Barge, and which offers evidence of continuing circulation of Nicholas’ works at the court in the years following his banishment. It traces the manuscript’s provenance story from the lower stratum of the court’s intellectual milieu all the way to Dubrovnik, as yet another example of the vibrant cultural interaction between the city on the Adriatic and the Hungarian court.

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