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Szilágyi János György and the Hungarian classical studies

September 9, 2017

Szilágyi János György (1918-2016) was the last living student of Karl Kerényi, one of the leading scholars of the Hungarian classical studies (Altertumwissenschaft). As a doyen of his field and a well known etruscologist, art historian and classical-philologist, Szilágyi was respected not only in Hungary, but also in Italy, where he was known as one of the biggest etruscologists of the 20th century. His almost one century long life and carrier was the living book of the Hungarian classical studies in the 20th century and Szilágyi János György. Photo of the author from 2011beyond. He was active already in the 1930’s and remained a cited and active person even in the 2010’s. Coming from an intellectual Jewish background of Budapest – the city dominated by the Jewish middle-class intellectuals in the beginning of the 20th century – due to his family, he had already as a child and student a very rich network with the Hungarian intellectual, cultural and political elite of the 1920’s and 30’s. He preserved this attitude of openness and holistic view on the world till his death, having probably one of the biggest network in academia and beyond.

I was privileged to speak with him and made an interview in 2011, focusing on his life, work and the perspectives of the Hungarian classical studies, but we discussed also about the Hungarian roots of Angelo Brelich – a project which I still keep in standby, hopefully I will have the opportunity to continue.

After his death, there were numerous Hungarian obituaries of Szilágyi, however the most detailed  biography published recently is the life-interview of Szilágyi, made in 2003 by György Litván and Adrienne Molnár, published in two special volumes of the Enigma journal (nr. 87-88, 2017). The volumes contains also numerous letters and special writings related to the life of Szilágyi, written by his friends and colleagues, mostly writers and literary persons. The interview (173 pages) is the longest life-interview made with a Hungarian classical scholar. Litván – who died shortly after this interview in 2006 – was a well known historian of the 19th and 20th century, so his IMG_4395questions and the entire structure of  the interview was consciously built up to present not only the life of a single person, but it’s a detailed and obviously subjective kaleidoscope of the Hungarian classical studies from 1918 till 2003. Szilágyi was not only the oldest member of the Hungarian Classical Association, but also with the biggest academic network in Hungary and abroad (Europe and even the United States).  His bird eye perspective and ability to synthesize his life in a historical context made this interview actually the most detailed history of Hungarian classical studies published till now.  With more than 500 footnotes, the editors of the volume (especially Géza Komoróczy) made a great job, uniting the entire literature on the  history of Hungarian classical studies published till now. From these footnotes and the interview of Szilágyi we get an impression how monumental is his life and how rich was his academic network (almost 1000 personalities are mentioned in the text).

These two volumes – together with the rich historiographic bibliography of Szilágyi János György, Ritoók Zsigmond, Török László and others – could consist basically the starting point of a project which would focus on a comprehensive history of Hungarian classical studies in the 20th century.

(photos made by myself in August 2011 in the office of Szilágyi János György from the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest)

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