Our reputation in the world

In Venice, a small square opens at the side of the San Cassiano parish church, where the Ponte de la Chiesa leads to the Calle dei Morti on the other side. This latter got its name from the parish cemetery that was once there. At the foot of the bridge steps, there stands the marble corner column of the only house in the square, which bears the house number 1854 on its capital. However, the inscription under the capital is only noticed by those who go close enough to see the letters engraved on it in low relief.

The upper, larger part of the inscription was engraved by a skilled hand in regular capital letters:


Buda was besieged on June 18, 1686, and occupied on September 2

Beneath, another date was engraved in a freer hand:

1686 A DI 27 LV

On July 27, 1686

We do not know who considered it important enough to record the dates of the recapture of Buda from the Ottomans. But we know he was not alone.

The history of the liberation of Buda, occupied by Suleyman on August 29, 1541, goes back to September 1683, when the imperial German and Polish armies liberated Vienna from the Turkish siege, and a month later they also recaptured Párkány and Esztergom from the Turks. In the euphoria of the victory, Pope Innocent XI convinced the Hapsburgs, Poland and Venice to establish the Holy League for the recapture of additional Ottoman territories. The League’s troops already besieged Buda in 1684, but that time without success. In 1686, after a long preparation, they returned again and, after a three-month siege, at the cost of heavy losses, the finally took the city on September 2, after almost exactly 145 years of Turkish rule.

Gyula Benczúr: The recapture of Buda Castle, 1896. Entering through the castle’s Vienna Gate, Charles of Lothringen looks at the corpse of the Ottoman commander defending the castle, Arnavut Abdurrahman Abdi Paşa, whose monument stands behind the gate today

The monument to the Turkish commander of Buda stands at the place where he fell on September 2, 1686, defending the castle. It was erected in 1932 by the descendants of György Szabó, who fell in the same place, on the same day, besieging the castle. The inscription on the monument is in Hungarian, Ottoman Turkish and modern Turkish: “Arnavut Abdurrahman Abdi Paşa, the last governor of the 145-year Turkish occupation of Buda, fell near this place on the afternoon of the 2nd day of September of 1686, in the 70th year of his life. He was a heroic adversary, peace be upon him.”

The pasha’s death is also commemorated by Margit Kovács’s naive ceramics of 1977 at the Vienna Gate, at the beginning of Ostrom (Siege) Street. A particular blooper of the ceramics is that the castle in the background is besieged not by Christians, but by Turks, most probably under the influence of Géza Gárdonyi’s popular Stars of Eger, the most extensive romantic description of castle sieges in Ottoman-period Hungary

The recapture of Buda was celebrated all over Europe with fireworks, bell ringing and masses. This was especially the case in Venice, which, as a naval ally of the Holy League, liberated the Peloponnese from the Turks at the same time, which I will write about shortly. The inscription next to San Cassiano was also born out of this enthusiasm. It is not known, however, what the date of July 27 refers to. On that day, General János Eszterházy launched a major attack against the castle, but it was only partially successful, so it is unlikely that this is what the inscription reminds us of.

Fireworks on Brussels’ main square to celebrate the recapture of Buda

Among the celebrating cities was also Brussels, where, in addition to fireworks, several inns adopted Buda’s name. Around the lonely Buda Inn to the north of the city, a small village had developed by the early 19th century, which was later integrated into Greater Brussels as an industrial district.

Della Bosiers’ Fleur de Buda (1971) is about Brussels’ industrial district Buda

The next Hungarian historical event that made the hearts of all of Europe flutter was the revolution of 1956, after which squares and streets were once again renamed. Brussels already had its Buda, so what they did was to give number 56 to the bus going from the European Parliament to Buda quarter.

After the 1956 revolution, tens of thousands of Hungarian refugees were received in Italy as well, and squares in several cities were named after the Hungarian martyrs.

For example, in Capri (copyright by ribizlifőzelék)

Or in the Sicilian town of Piazza Armerina. On this October 23, we commemorated the anniversary here in a truly dignified place.

It was commemorated in a more dignified place by those Subcarpathian Hungarians, who in 1956 could not even dream of participating in the revolution, but now they are doing and promoting exactly what people of their age wanted to achieve in 1956, and what today’s Hungarian government wants to completely forget. After three hundred years, they are now improving our quite worn reputation in the world.    

“Russian, go home. 1956-2022. The 68th Territorial Defense Battalion of Subcarpathia, Ukraine”

On the dignity of felines

I just photographed this Leonardo caricature in Tuscany. “Even the smallest feline is a masterpiece”, the master comments on his Vitruvian cat with a satisfied face, as if he already knew that he would start his humanist treatise Laudatio cati (In praise of the cat) or De dignitate felidarum (On the dignity of felines) with this motto.

I also photographed this picture because it offers an opportunity to compare two nations’ souls, whatever that means. The other nation is the Russian, and the subject of comparison is the emblematic song about the cat, which is sung in the 1966 Soviet cult film Республика ШКИД.

This film is about how a school and art training were organized in the 1920s, after the civil war, for the orphaned children who wandered around (and committed crimes) by the millions in Russia. The protagonist of the film, Mamochka, wants to prove his talent with a beggar’s song.

У кошки четыре ноги
Позади у нее длинный хвост
Но трогать ее не моги
За ее малый рост, малый рост

The cat has four legs,
and has a long tail behind.
But don’t hurt it, since
it is so small by stature.

The song, one might say, begins in the same way as the picture. In the first two lines, it realistically depicts the cat with its four legs and one tail. But while the Italian artist continues this as “and these can be written in perfect plane figures, the circle and the square, so it harmonizes with the great relationships of the created world,” for the Russian two things follow: aggression and mercy. The cat is small and fragile: the first thought of the Russian is that it is easy to hurt. The second is to take pity on it and protect it. And yes, these two fit together in the Russian soul.

But the Russian character also requires a third component: brilliant absurdity. Already the unnecessarily factual opening image is absurd, but it is the performance that makes it really creepy. In the 1980s and 1990s, I myself heard such creepy and powerful songs from child beggars on Romanian and Soviet trains, and later in Iran. The film about Pyotr Leshchenko’s life, Петр Лещенко. Все, что было… (2013), also begins with such a scene, where the little Pyotr sings and begs on the streets of Chisinau. The emotionless, haunting song, accompanied with pizzicato chords, seems to be an Orthodox funeral song, a relative of later workers’ funeral marches.

Gennady Poloka, the director of Республика ШКИД, wanted to spice up the film with some блатные песни, gangsters’ songs that were still well-known in the 1920s and which today are enjoying a renaissance under the label “Odessan pub songs”. Aleksey Yeremeyev, the author of the autobiographical novel on which the film is based, himself quoted some of them. However, from the song about the difficult life of felines he only remembered the first verse. As can be seen from a recently published interview with composer Sergei Slonimsky, the rest was partly written by the composer, and partly expanded further by some unknown sons of the people after the success of the film. This is how it was included, as an authentic блатная песня, on the 2010 album Легенды блатной песни by the band Amerikanka:

А у кошки четыре ноги,
Позади у неё длинный хвост.
Но трогать её не моги
За её малый рост, малый рост

А кошку обидеть легко,
Утюгом её между ушей.
И не будет лакать молокооо,
И не бууудет ловить мышей.

А ты не бей, не бей, кота по пузу,
Кота по пузу, кота по пузу.
А ты не бей, не бей, кота по пузу,
И мокрым полотенцем не моги.

У ней голубые глаза,
На ресницах застыла слеза.
Это ты наступил ей на хвост,
Несмотря на её малый рост

The cat has four legs,
and has a long tail behind.
But don’t hurt it, since
it is so small by stature.

It is easy to hurt the cat,
with an iron rod between its ears,
and it no longer drinks milk,
and won’t catch mice any more.

Don’t hit, don’t hit the cat’s belly
the cat’s, the cat’s belly
Don’t hit, don’t hit the cat’s belly,
and don’t hurt it with a wet towel.

It has blue eyes,
with a tear on its eyelid:
it was you who stepped on its tail,
regardless of its small stature.

The extended text is almost reveling in the methods of doing in the cat, described with forensic precision and placidity, while it constantly formulates them as prohibitions. This song may also hint at violence against women, especially against one’s girlfriend, like Murka, written about the same time, but the singing rogue also identifies with the cat, and experiences the aggression that menaces it – which he knows well from his own daily life – as a threat against himself.

The absurd and therefore Russian character of the song is further enhanced by the 2020 music video by Отава Ё, in which it is accompanied by a series of gags made in the visual world of the films about the 1920s and 1930s, like Leonid Gaidai’s Twelve chairs, Vladimir Bortko’s Master and Margarita, or Vladimir Davidenko’s Mishka Japonchik. The main task of the gags is to evoke this retro visual world, but from their seemingly random succession, the thread of protecting the vulnerable emerges emphatically. This, perhaps, may give some ground for optimism regarding the future of the song and of the Russian soul.