The history of the Palace

From written records we know the history of the land-plot and the building on it from the end of the 17th century onwards. According to the ‘Zaiger’ (the first inquiry into the proprietary rights of the land-plots in the town of Pest after it had been liberated from Turkish rule) there were four plots of land on the present site. These were united, and in 1694 Nikolaus Wilfersheim Imperial and Royal commissioner started construction. By 1696, a spacious and elegant house with more than one storey and 18 rooms stood there.

 In 1747, Count Ferenc Barkóczy, Bishop of Eger and later Archbishop of Esztergom, who was famous for his patronage of the arts, became the new owner of the property. His palace was probably the most beautiful and most famous in the town of Pest. The U-shaped, two-storey, Baroque palace stood in the middle of the street front of the land-plot. At the back behind the rooms, an arcaded loggia connected the three wings. The imposing banqueting hall was situated in the central part of the building. To one side as a separate outhouse were the carriage house and the stables. The back of the land-plot was occupied by a large garden divided into four plots. On 4th August 1751, Empress Maria Theresa visited the Palace when she arrived in Pest with her husband Francis of Lorraine and their retinue. After landing, the couple proceeded directly to Barkóczy’s Palace and, from the first floor windows, greeted the soldiers and citizens who marched past in their honour.

In 1768 the Palace was bought by Count Antal Károlyi (1732–1791), thus passing into the possession of the Károlyi family, a family with a historical past, who held estates primarily in Eastern Hungary, and remained in their possession for more than one hundred and fifty years. During this time it underwent reconstruction several times. Around the 1760s, the Károlyis began the almost simultaneous construction of their municipal palaces in Vienna and Pest. The implementation of the 1769 plan – according to which the U-shaped main building was to receive symmetrically an L-shaped, storied wing on both sides, and the architecture of the street front was also to be rebuilt – took until 1791. In 10 years, perhaps as a consequence of the devastating flood in 1775, only the extension of the main building towards the south was completed. At the time of the disaster, Antal Károlyi opened his Palace to homeless refugees. As Captain of the Bodyguards of Vienna, Count Antal Károlyi spent more and more time there from 1785, although he also was also determined to complete his Palace in Pest. It was in this year that the Károlyi Family archive was set up in the splendid building. On Antal Károlyi’s death in 1791, an inventory was made, which testifies that the Palace represented modern tastes and had become a building worthy of the aristocratic family and well able to meet their needs. 50 rooms, 3 libraries, an archive, 5 separate kitchens and other service rooms provided convenience. Downstairs there were guests’ rooms, servants’ rooms, offices and service rooms, and a billiard hall in the north corner. 67 beds (including 2 four-poster beds), 153 tables, 33 couches, 2 sofas, 382 chairs and 9 benches completed the furnishing. 355 pictures hung on the walls. Since in the life of the family that led the famous Károlyi hussars respect for horses was traditional, a huge stable with room for more than 40 horses was built in the north side-wing in the place where the carriage houses had once stood. Finished in 1808, the new horse-training-school constructed along Mihály Pollack’s plans replaced the temporary one, which had been built in the garden. The court wings surrounding the formal courtyard opened onto the separated spacious Baroque-style French garden, where plants arranged in geometric formations flourished.

Count József Károlyi (1768–1803) Lord Lieutenant of Békés County and his wife gave magnificent balls inside the Palace walls. The Palatine Jószef was a frequent guest. At the inauguration of the palatine on 19th September 1795, ‘the splendour of Count Károlyi’s Palace deservedly caught onlookers’ attention. The gate was left open and the gateway was lit with many candles. A little along from the gate, a pyramid could be seen in the courtyard, and still further on eyes were caught by the lit-up garden gate’ (Magyar Hírmondó, Vienna). On 3rd May 1800, to celebrate the name day of the Palatine József’s young wife, Alexandra Pavlovna, a splendid ceremony was arranged. The ballroom was ‘adorned with 2000 wax candles positioned so that they formed various figures. The tables were laden with the choicest of dishes and potables for the official guests to partake of.’ (Magyar Kurir, Vienna).

The Neoclassical Palace of the Reform Period

The neoclassical building as we see it today was built by Count György Károlyi (1802–1877). The widely travelled, open-minded aristocrat was a close friend of István Széchenyi’s and Miklós Wesselényi’s, and supported their reform policy. He was a founder of the Hungarian Learned Society (Hungarian Academy of Sciences), took an active part in the work of Parliament as a delegate for Szatmár, and in 1848 became Lord Lieutenant of Szatmár County. He associated himself with every issue that served progress and the interest of the country. His moral and financial support assisted the establishment of the Chain Bridge, the National Theatre, the National Conservatory, the Kindergarten, the Hungarian National Agrarian Association and the Arts Union of Pest. The development of horse breeding was his labour of love.

On 16th May 1836, György Károlyi married Countess Karolina Zichy. It was probably in tribute to this illustrious event that the first known water-colour of the building was done. In 1837, Carl Vasquez also made a picture of the Palace, as one of the remarkable sights in Pest. With her sister Antónia, who was Count Lajos Batthyány’s wife, the Countess was always among the first to espouse the matters of the nation. To promote local industry they wore Hungarian garments made of domestic materials at their balls. Young people marched with torches in celebration of the two sisters, and Sándor Petőfi wrote them poetry.

In 1832, György Károlyi commenced large-scale reconstruction work. The widely travelled aristocrat wanted to embellish the Palace in a new style based on his own experiences abroad. The work was begun by Anton Pius Riegel, an architect from Vienna, who designed the architecture of the main front in the neoclassical 3-6-1-6-3 axle rhythm. The task was completed by Henrich Koch (1781–1861), who had graduated from the Academy of Vienna and worked in Vienna (e.g. the Dietrichstein Palace), in Bohemia (the Kinsky Villa in Prague) and in Hungary. Koch completely transformed the middle part of the Palace. The Library was situated above the elongated section of the gateway. The three-flight glass-roofed main staircase and the two service staircases were pulled down and rebuilt on twice as large an area. The tympanic windows were simplified and made flush with the wall on the main front. In the spirit of Classicism, the ornaments were replaced by simplicity and the dignity of proportion. The decoration of the Ceremonial Hall and the salons was carried out in 1839–1840. Craftsmen created the exquisite work of contractors in Vienna, while some of the materials for the wall hangings, curtains and carpets were brought from France. In 1835, the supervision of the construction work was taken over by Mihály Pollack (1773–1855), a master of Hungarian neoclassical architecture. He worked on the Palace until the 1840s, while only a few streets away his main work, the Hungarian National Museum, was taking shape.

The ceremonial ‘house-warming’ took place in 1841. The Palace was renowned for its splendid evening parties, where, for example, Ferenc Liszt (1811–1886) had played the piano. During the bloody reprisal following the War of Independence in 1848–49, Jellasics and then also Haynau laid eyes on the beautiful building and set up their quarters in it. Haynau lived in the Palace for a year (1849–1850) and signed the death sentences in the back room on the first floor opening northwards from the library (today a work room). He allowed the Count’s family to use a few rooms only. György Károlyi was imprisoned for having supported the revolution and was only released on payment of a large ransom. Lajos Batthyány, prime minister of the first independent government of Hungary, was taken to prison from this building in January 1849. His memory is preserved in an embossment on the Henszlmann Street side of the Károlyi Palace.

Restoration work on the building continued after the 1840–50s as well. Miklós Ybl (1814–1891), a talented young man who was just becoming a distinguished builder and who later designed numerous famous buildings (e.g. the Opera House), carried out lesser or greater construction, reconstruction and repairs on the Palace. He designed a greenhouse and fireplaces. The decorative design of the Chapel in the 1880s can also probably be associated with his name.

During the decades of the 19th century, the Palace was considered to be one of the famous social hubs of the Pest aristocratic world. At a ball organised by Count Gyula Károlyi and his wife, Geraldine Pálffy, even Emperor Franz Joseph made an appearance (1883).

In the modernising drive of the first few years of the century, Mihály Károlyi (1875–1955), an important figure in Hungarian history, wanted to have the Palace demolished so that tenements could be raised in the same place. Due to the protestation following the newspaper articles he changed his mind and had the building modernised and equipped with new bathrooms and kitchen appliances, while in the first decade of the 20th century part of the stable was converted into a garage. In October 1918, the walls of the Palace once again witnessed historic events – it was there that the Hungarian National Council came into existence under the leadership of the Count, who supported the bourgeois democratic reforms. In January 1919, Mihály Károlyi became President of the first Hungarian Republic, and then in 1920 was forced into exile. His wealth was confiscated and the Palace nationalised. In 1946, having returned home, the politician was given back the building, but later in a ceremony he once again offered it up for the benefit of public education. He is commemorated in an embossment on the Ferenczy Street side wall of the Palace.

The Budapest Picture Gallery (1932–1953)

In 1928, the capital bought the building for 5 million pengős (the Hungarian currency until 1946) so that the collection of the Budapest Picture Gallery could find in it a worthy place. The private palace was turned into a public building and stripped of everything that was thought not to be in keeping with this: its textile hangings, chandeliers, wall-mirrors, fireplaces and movable property were all removed. In 1932 the interior furnishings, the rich picture gallery and the treasures of the silver chamber were auctioned off. Approximately one hundred of the most valuable pieces in the family portrait gallery and objects considered especially precious in artistic or cultural-historical terms were transferred to the National Museum on the recommendation of a select committee. In 1953, after 21 years, the Budapest Picture Gallery closed down and its collection was added to that of the Museum of Fine Arts.

The Museum of Literature Petőfi (from 1957)

Established in 1954, the Museum of Literature Petőfi was opened in 1957. Until 1998 the institution shared the building with the repository and workrooms of the Hungarian National Museum and the Budapest History Museum. The plan of the latter to move out provided grounds for major renovation of the building, which took place between 1998 and 2000. Designers of the architectural project and art history experts contributed so that the building could well serve the three main functions of the Museum of Literature Petőfi: the exhibitions, the scientific research and processing work, and the organising of events.