Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.08.51

János György Szilágyi, In Search of Pelasgian Ancestors: The 1861 Hungarian Excavations in the Apennines. Translated by Péter Agócs.   Budapest:  Atlantisz Publishing House. Museum of Fine Arts, 2004.  Pp. 219; b/w ills. 66, color ills. 12, fold-out map.  ISBN 963-9165-75-1.  

Reviewed by Richard De Puma, University of Iowa (
Word count: 1302 words

In 1975 the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts acquired a small group of South Italian antiquities that had been in a Hungarian family's collection for more than a century. This book is the valiant attempt to reconstruct their context and, because they came from the very first Hungarian excavation in the classical Mediterranean world, to explore the history of 19th century forays into the worlds of collecting, exploration and high adventure. This difficult task has been realized in a meticulously researched and carefully translated book by János György Szilágyi (henceforth S.), the dean of classical archaeological studies in Hungary. Although best known for his magisterial analyses of Etruscan painted pottery,1 S. is well acquainted with most aspects of ancient Italian archaeology and here concentrates not on ancient Etruria but on ancient and Risorgimento Basilicata.

S. attacks the problem by first presenting a detailed catalogue of the 33 objects in the collection (pp. 23-86). It is worth quoting a passage from his introduction: "A discussion ... must naturally begin with a scholarly catalogue of the objects themselves, listing them without a neutral manner according to the canons of precision demanded by the standards of modern archaeological scholarship. Although it may look somewhat pedantic ..., this level of detail is indispensable ..., since the conclusions ... must inevitably build on the results of the catalogue treatment"(12). To a generation of younger readers this will seem old-fashioned, but it remains the most efficient and effective way to reconstruct a context for these isolated objects. So, each is described carefully in text and good photographs and then related examples are cited to determine chronological parameters. Most of the objects are simple, unprepossessing bottles and lamps, but there are a few painted vases that receive special attention and color plates. One could easily argue that these objects are not worthy of a major European museum, but their strange connection with early Hungarian exploits in Italy lends a peculiar relevance that S. exploits brilliantly to justify their addition to Budapest's famous art museum.

After this detailed catalogue, S. provides an extensive background analysis of Lucania before the Roman conquest and then its romanization (107-141). For English readers this is a valuable summary of both the ancient literary sources and the archaeological evidence, much of it the result of numerous Italian excavations and surveys often published in obscure journals, if published at all. Central to this discussion is the significant role of Paestum, a city where we can see the interaction of Greek and indigenous Lucanian culture. The process of "mutual acculturation" is best known today from the magnificent corpus of frescoes decorating the tombs of the elite. According to S., these paintings represent the only valid Lucanian (or Graeco-Lucanian) art form. This section ends with a discussion of the complicated relationship between the Samnites and the Lucanians before and during the period of Roman conquest.

In the fourth section, "The Place of the Rionero Find in Italic Culture," S. focuses on the previously catalogued antiquities now in Budapest (145-170). The objects were apparently excavated by Lieutenant Izidor Máttyus (1836-1870) in 1861 at Rionero, a small town to the south of Melfi. All but three of the 27 objects that can definitely be connected to these excavations belong to a specific chronological range: ca. 360-250 B.C., Lucania's golden age that ended with the Roman conquest. Although Lieutenant Máttyus provided almost no records of his archaeological activities, S. argues convincingly that the objects most likely came from a single votive deposit.2 The collection represents an interesting combination of materials that are likely products from Paestum, Campania, Greek cities like Tarentum and Metapontum on the Ionian coast, as well as central Apulia and Samnite areas. This variety is in keeping with what we know of the Rionero area, a region at the crossroads of the land routes connecting the Tyrrhenian and Ionian coasts with the Adriatic. The diversity and eclecticism of the finds is nicely illustrated by an Apulian red-figure olpe attributed to the Schlaepfer Painter (No. 3, 36-39). Recent cleaning revealed an unusual Greek dipinto on the base and the analysis and interpretation of this inscription (160-163) is a fascinating demonstration of scholarship. If S. is correct, this painted dedication refers to an otherwise unknown Oscan deity, perhaps similar to Artemis, and may even provide a new Greek compound. Whatever else it may tell us, the dipinto remains "the only proof of Greek literacy on the Lucanian side of the Melfese or for that matter over the entire area of inland Lucania north of Serra di Vaglio" (163).

In section V, "Our Pelasgian Ancestors," (173-219) S. traces the history of 19th century views on the origins of the Hungarian people and their supposed connection to the aboriginal Pelasgians, the earliest inhabitants of Italy. This is, in fact, the story of a fervent nationalism and it helps to explain why men like Lieutenant Máttyus collected antiquities and invested a great deal of significance in them despite their humble appearance. S. also draws an interesting parallel between Máttyus and his superior officer and close friend, Dániel Ihász (1813-1881), another enthusiast of antiquities. The two men offered different responses to the artifacts they collected in Italy. Ihász, who formed a collection of Pompeian material now lost, was a connoisseur who valued objects for their aesthetic quality. Máttyus was interested in the historical context of the objects he collected; their intrinsic beauty, as isolated objets d'art, was of secondary importance to him. In this regard, these two men can be seen as exemplars of the standard responses to antiquities still with us today.

S. valiantly summarizes the complex history of the Hungarian Legion's activities in Risorgimento Italy. It was at first closely connected to Garabaldi and even participated in the march on Naples with him (11 September 1860). Both Italians and Hungarians had aspirations to independence from Austria, but a complicated series of political intrigues eventually relegated the Hungarian force to a series of difficult incursions against the briganti, the loosely organized guerrilla movement in Southern Italy. This is what brought Máttyus to this rugged and dangerous part of 19th century Basilicata. S. synthesizes the tangled history of this period. Those interested in the formation of modern Italy will find his carefully researched and documented treatment highly informative and accessible. The personal biography of Máttyus is not well known, but S. weaves it skillfully into the larger tapestry of late 19th century Europe. In 1863, four years before the official dissolution of the Hungarian Legion, Máttyus returned to Hungary, wrote a number of essays and his most influential work, a handbook on military procedures published in both German and Hungarian in 1868. Throughout this period of his life, he continued his interests in classical antiquity but there is no mention of his 1861 Italian archaeological activities in his surviving papers. He became a member of the Hungarian Parliament in 1869, but died of an aneurysm a year later on 21 July 1870. He was only 34. The collection was inherited by Máttyus' younger brother Arisztid (1839-1914) and passed eventually to a great-nephew of the original excavator. Thus, 105 years after Izador Máttyus' death, this relative sold the collection to the Budapest Museum.

All in all, this is a fine book. It will be especially valuable for English-speaking students who wish to learn about the pre-Roman history of Lucania. It also has much to tell us about Risorgimento Italy and, in particular, the peculiar involvement of the Hungarians in Italian politics of the period. Most of all it is an admirable demonstration of what careful scholarship can do to enhance a small collection of relatively minor objects and reconstruct vividly their lost archaeological context. Because so many ancient objects in modern museums and private collections fit this category today, it is a useful model.


1.   Ceramica Etrusco-Corinzia Figurata. Parte I. 630-580 a.C., trans. E. S. Graziani (Florence, 1992) and Ceramica Etrusco-Corinzia Figurata. Parte II. 590/580-550 a.C., trans. C. and K. B. di Cave (Florence, 1998).
2.   For a recent series of papers on votive deposits, see Depositi votivi e culti dell'Italia antica dall'età arcaica a quella tardo-repubblicana, A. Comella and S. Mele, eds. (Bari, 2005). For Lucanian votives, see especially the articles by H. Fracchia (597-606) and M. Gualtieri (607-613).

Read Latest
Index for 2006
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:31:16, Friday, 03 April 2009