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Miklós Szentkuthy: Fekete Reneszánsz (Black Renaissance)

This is the second book in Szentkuthy’s St Orpheus Breviary ten book series. At the time of writing (2018) it has not yet been published in English but will be published in English by Contra Mundum Press in the not too distant future. It has been published in other languages, including French. It follows the standard modus operandi of Szentkuthy in this series, starting with the story of a saint and then romping through aspects of European intellectual history.

Our saint is St Dunstan, a tenth century English saint. He acted as adviser (more or less akin to what we would now call a prime minister) to several late Anglo-Saxon monarchs, held several bishoprics and was Archbishop of Canterbury. Despite his very busy life, he was, according to Szentkuthy, something of a loner. He was much involved in what Szentkuthy calls the Celto-Roman dispute, i.e. the pagan versus Christian approach to life. The key theme of this and Szentkuthy’s other books are these dualities which, in his view, pulled Europe one way or the other, eventually leading to us to what we have today. Szentkuthy generally speaks highly of Dunstan.

In the previous book, Szentkuthy had a key character (Casanova), a key work (Casanova’s Memoirs) and a key city (Venice). He has the same here though the three actually barely appear in the book. The character is the composer Claudio Monteverdi, the work is his opera L’Incoronazione di Poppea (the link is to a YouTube video of the famous aria Pur ti miro, Pur ti godo sung by my favourite opera singer, Danielle de Niese, with the counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky) and the city is once again Venice.

Monteverdi’s opera is about Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s second wife, known for her beauty and intrigues. One of Monteverdi’s main sources was Tacitus and the first chapter of this (after the St Dunstan one) is called Tacitus. According to Szentkuthy, Tacitus is heroically, divinely and victoriously deaf to music (note: the quotes are my translation from the French translation, which I read).

The best way of describing this book from this point is a rumbustious romp through various key characters and historical periods. Szentkuthy moves from the music to Tiberius. (We have met Tiberius before on this site.) It is the I-narrator who is recounting what is going on and it is not clear whether the I-narrator is meant to be Monteverdi, Szentkuthy himself or some other person, or perhaps an amalgam of all three. Given that there are numerous references to modern (i.e, early twentieth century) events, people and issues we must assume that the I-narrator is mainly Szentkuthy.

One of the key features of Szentkuthy’s approach is jumping off on tangents. For example, Tiberius can and does eventually lead to Poppaea but that would be too easy. Szentkuthy soon becomes interested in the various treatments of Tiberius by Roman writers, such as Tacitus, Seneca and Suetonius. He then mentions Tacitus’ views on Byzantium (he tended to avoid it) and is off to Byzantium and the idea that Byzantium is the squaring of the circle that we call Europe. Empress Theodora and Anthimus then get the Szentkuthy treatment. In short, Monteverdi’s sources and Tacitus on Poppaea are barely mentioned.

The next section is about the architect Filippo Brunelleschi who, of course, lived and worked primarily in Florence and not Venice. However, that does not deter Szentkuthy. We get a story of the young Claudio waiting for his father and then setting off on his own, wandering round Venice. He ends up in San Salvador Church, which he thinks was designed by Brunelleschi (it wasn’t), not least because his father frequently mentions Brunelleschi. This leads him off to Brunelleschi who is not relevant to Monteverdi, his opera or Venice.

Brunelleschi made two major contributions to architecture. Firstly was his use of perspective and second was the fact that he was influenced by Islamic architecture and brought this influence into his designs. Szentkuthy invents an Arab Sicilian who showed Brunelleschi the way. (Szentkuthy implies that they also had a homosexual relationship. This is by no means the only sexual reference in this book.) Pope Sixtus IV gets the Szentkuthy treatment (we get pages of discussion on his armchairs) before, by way of D H Lawrence, he tells us all the constituents of myths and philosophies will sooner or later finish in the music-hall.

We even learn of Szentkuthy’s own sexual fantasies. While in Vicenza, he sees a woman at the station to whom he is attracted. Though she is carrying an Italian magazine, he assumes, by her elegance, that she is French. They get into the same carriage (we also get a description of the other passengers in the carriage). The proximity of their heads awakens in him the thought of Sixtus IV, Brunelleschi and all the chemistry of the Renaissance before he is off spying on a woman in first class (he is in third), stretched out on the full length of the seat, an open Thermos by her side. Szentkuthy gives us a damning but detailed description of her despite having seen her, by his own admission, for a mere half a second.

From Brunelleschi, we move to the Palazzo Grimani. (There are two in Venice but he seems to mean this one.) Szentkuthy starts off the chapter by telling us that Monteverdi wanted to see Venice one last time but then poor old Monteverdi fades away again as we learn about the Grimani (via the Basilica of St Mark’s) before moving on to another of his dualities, nature versus geometry, before concluding that the flutings, meanders and balconies of the Grimaldi are one of the pure examples of primum malum. (Primum malum is a term used by St Thomas Aquinas meaning prime or basic evil.)

We end up with a letter written by her tutor (presumably Roger Ascham) to the teenage Elizabeth I. This is clearly pure Szentkuthy, as the exploits of Drake are mentioned in the letter, though Drake would have been around ten years old at the time. Had the young princess received this letter, I feel she would have been somewhat bemused, not least because, in places, it approaches the blasphemous. It is, of course, completely irrelevant to Monteverdi, Poppaea and Venice. Ascham/Szentkuthy comments on the Book of Revelations but also plunges into his favourite subjects, dualities: mask vs real face, infernal nihil vs divine nous, prayers vs questions, reason vs decay, heresy vs orthodoxy, they are all there. It is perhaps as well that the Princess did not read such a letter. (Ascham did write to her but not probably not in that tone.)

This is an amazing book, always zipping off on tangents, getting sidetracked at will, barely touching its main subjects but bounding its way through various aspects of European intellectual history from Brunelleschi to Sixtus IV, from D H Lawrence to the future Queen Elizabeth I, from Tacitus and Seneca to the Florentine Pazzi family. If you can keep up – and it is not always easy to do so – you will learn a whole host of interesting facts about people and events you probably knew little about, as well as Szentkuthy’s often dogmatic views on them. Above all, it is his exuberance and his interest in all and sundry that carries this book and makes it a wonderful read.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian 1939 by Hunnia Nyomda
First published in English in 2018 by Contra Mundum Press
Translated by Tim Wilkinson;