Magyar Treasures: The Royal Palace of Gödöllő
Judit Vasmatics Paolini
The Royal Palace of Gödöllő is a magnificent imperial palace with splendid Baroque architecture. The grounds are expansive with a well-kept sprawling park and lovely gardens which beckon to delight any visitor. Count Antal Grassalkovich I (1694-1771), a well-known aristocrat who was a kamaraőr, a Royal Septemvir and president of the Hungarian Chamber built the Grassalkovich Castle (as it was first known). Work on the building commenced around 1733 under the supervision of Andreas Mayerhoffer – a prominent architect highly regarded for his Baroque and Zopf style which was so popular during the later part of the 18th century.
The palace was completed around 1748, having three wings and an inner courtyard. However, numerous expansions and modifications continued throughout the 18th century. Some were completed by Antal himself while others were accomplished by his son and grandson. The ornate theater was constructed by his son, Antal II. The lovely spas and the orangery were created by his grandson, Antal III. The double U shaped composition of the palace materialized during the grandson’s residence. It was he who witnessed completion of this majestic structure in the early part of the 19th century.
Once finished, the castle contained eight wings. A great number of rooms were designed to be utilized residentially. However, this grand palace provided so much more for its inhabitants. It incorporated a Catholic church, dedicated on May 16th, 1749 in honor of St. John Nepomucene. The baldachin placed above the high altar sits on four tall, black marble pillars. A noteworthy characteristic of the church is that it includes two pulpits designed in Rococo fashion. The church was accessible from the upstairs rooms providing easy admittance for the royal residents to attend Mass.
There was also a lovely Baroque theater as well as a riding-hall. In addition to the orangery, there was, of course, a greenhouse for flowers.
The garden designed by Antal I was very suitable for aristocrats such as himself – it reflected financial wealth and political influence. There was an upper and lower garden; its style was distinctively French and fashioned after the one in Versailles, featuring immense, symmetrical, planting beds which formed geometric designs; fountains, and stairs which led from one level to the next.
However, tastes and styles change. To reflect the times, his grandson transformed the garden in the 19th century. Thus, emerged a beautiful English landscape garden or park. Such a garden has no symmetrical character; it is spacious and open, often has a lake, rolling lawns with groves of trees, bridges, and attractive architecture. This was vastly different from the French garden where nature was used to create a view of geometric designs; the intent of the English garden was to enjoy nature, not control it.
In 1841, the last male descendent of the Grassalkovich family died, and the castle was passed to the female line. Once this happened, the palace was sold numerous times until it was acquired by the Hungarian State in 1867. Great care was taken in renovating the palace which was then given as a coronation gift to Emperor Franz Joseph I and Queen Elizabeth in 1867.
Franz Joseph received the Royal Palace of Gödöllő as a present, but was also required by his pledge at the coronation to spend regular intervals in Hungary. Elizabeth treasured spending time there; it was her summer home. She loved Hungary and its people; they too were very fond of her. She found staying at the palace peaceful and relaxing. When she longed for solitude, it was hers. When she preferred company, grand activities were designed for her – horse racing, pigeon shooting, etc. She particularly enjoyed horseback riding; elite Hungarian equestrians often visited the castle, including Count Gyula Andrássy who some believe loved her dearly. Oh, she was so fond of gypsy music and hosted gypsy bands on several occasions. She learned to speak Hungarian fluently. In Vienna, she felt tremendous pressure regarding her royal duties – she felt the scrutiny of the Habsburgs!
Conversely, Franz Joseph had very little time to indulge in leisure activities, for his work consumed his time in Hungary as it did in Vienna. Sensing the burden as the ruler of a dual monarchy, he worked very long hours. However, he did participate in hunts which involved shooting big game.
The palace symbolized Hungary’s independent statehood; in addition, it served as a political center in its own right. It was during this era that the palace again saw new enlargements and modifications in order to better accommodate the royal family. Work included enhancing the residential suites, constructing a marble stable and coach house, and renovating the riding-hall. Thus, having the royal family in residence, the picturesque palace in Gödöllő delighted in its second golden age.
Franz Joseph died in 1916; upon his death his grandnephew, King Charles IV (1887-1922) became King of Hungary. Charles and the royal family spent only a brief period at the palace due to the difficulties of World War I. In 1920, Miklós Horthy (1868-1957) became the Regent of Hungary and enjoyed the manor as a summer respite until 1944. During World I and World War II, no construction occurred to enhance the palace. However, an air-raid shelter was built during World War II. Unfortunately, all glimpse of a golden age of the palace faded, for Germans and Russians alike depleted the castle of its treasures.
From 1945 until 1990, the Russian military utilized the southern wing and outbuildings while the main portion of the palace provided housing for the elderly. In addition, the grounds were portioned off into small lots. The Soviets left in 1990, and housing for the elderly was discontinued. Thus, after years of neglect, the palace had suffered extensive damage.
Restoration of the palace began already in 1985; for this reason, some of the mansion was partially cleared. The more extensive restorations commenced only upon the departure of the Russian troops and the elderly.
Restoring the palace was a tremendous undertaking which also required reconstruction in some parts of the manor. The roof of the riding-hall and the stable-wing was severely damaged and necessitated rebuilding. Structural support was also needed; for example, both the central wings and the double cupola required reinforcing. Great care was taken to maintain the integrity of the mansion. Utilizing information found in the archives helped recreate its authenticity. Removing paint which shrouded walls and rooms unveiled the beauty of the previous centuries. Architectural structures were unearthed as were the former designs of the palace gardens.
The goal in the reconstruction was to allow the best use of the main front wings of the castle; a well thought out, elaqborate architectural plan was implemented. Twenty-three rooms on the first floor were restored to reflect the period of the royal residence at the palace. Also, included is the time the Grassalkovich family occupied the manor. Great emphasis was placed on the Baroque church.
We must note that one of the rooms replicated is a room from the 17th century constructed by the first resident of the castle for Empress Maria Theresa. Striking features in this room included colorful stucco and red marble.
Restoration of the first floor of the castle includes the ceremonial room which is located at the center of the main wing. It was used for special events such as state dinners, concerts, pageantry, etc. The suites occupied by the royal family include the family dining room. Some of the suites occupied by Franz Joseph included his office where he completed especially important duties, as well as the office of his adjutant-secretary. Also located here we find a small Coronation Room where one of the walls displays an immense painting of the coronation.
The predominant color utilized in the suites used by Elizabeth is her favorite violet blue. It’s featured on the walls, curtains and incorporated in the furnishings, especially on seat coverings. Numerous paintings of the King and Queen can be spotted throughout the palace.
In 1996, the Royal Palace of Gödöllő opened its doors to the public as a museum, with only eight rooms completed for exhibition. Over time, the number of rooms ready for display exceeded thirty. Now, in addition to viewing the splendid manor there are so many more options to enjoy: classical concerts, activities for children, conferences.
The grounds of the estate today reflect those of an English garden of yesteryear. There is an abundance of natural scenery, and a sprawling park with ample space for enjoying the outdoors is located behind the castle. Lovely flowers thrive on the estate with tender care. Some are near the rear façade of the manor. Others appear and bloom along the park’s border. Strolling along, one can view a statue of Maria Theresa. Further on, nestled between the trees sits the only Baroque structure which has been renovated. This royal pavilion is rather small with seating available for but a few. The walls here contain portraits of Hungary’s former rulers.
A good number of years ago, I had a chance to visit the royal palace myself. It was well worth the trip as I stepped back in time, taking delight in a magnificent Hungarian wonder, the Royal Palace of Gödöllő.
Judit Vasmatics Paolini is a former member of the Southern Connecticut State University Alumni Association Board of Directors, former lecturer at Tunxis Community College, and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.