Annabel Barber, Editor of the Blue Guides tells us about Miksa Schiffer and urges us all to add the Schiffer Villa to our places to visit in Budapest:
Budapest in summertime is a fun place to be. Ruin pubs, thermal waters, party boats on the Danube and picnics on one of its beautiful bridges, temporarily freed of traffic, all compete for the visitors’ time. But for those who want to escape the frenzy, there are plenty of delightful semi-hidden corners. Tucked away in a leafy street close to Budapest’s famous parade ground known as Heroes’ Square, is the Schiffer Villa, a remarkable survival in a city where so many buildings were looted and plundered both during and after WWII. Since the 1990s the villa has been the headquarters of the Hungarian Customs and Tax Authority. It doesn’t sound like a particularly encouraging start, but they operate a free museum here, which gives visitors a chance to see the house’s jewel-case interior.
Built in 1910–12 by the Secessionist architect József Vágó, the villa was the home of the wealthy railway engineer and patron of the arts Miksa Schiffer, who lived here with his wife and four daughters. Vágó designed both the exterior (inspired by the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, by Josef Hoffmann) and the interior furnishings. The result is a Gesamtkunstwerk in the manner of the Wiener Werkstätte and though the exterior has been altered, the interior still contains plenty of original details.
Beautiful stained glass with a repeated pattern of swallows allows light to filter into the entrance lobby. From here, you go up steps into the main hall, the centrepiece of the villa. Imagine the splash of water from the marble fountain that once adorned the centre of the floor (bronze statuettes belonging to it are now in the Hungarian National Gallery). At one side stands a Carrara marble jardinière borne on stout yellow columns and decorated with carved reliefs of male and female nudes. The doors are inlaid with beautiful wood and mother-of-pearl marquetry, the walls clad in deep green tiles picked out with red studs in imitation of rivets. A tall window completely fills the left wall, its stained-glass panels showing women and children in a pastoral, Elysian setting. The aim of the villa’s entire design was to show how art can lift humanity heavenwards.
There is lovely stained glass in all the rooms on the main floor, much of it continuing the theme of bird life. Some of the door handles still bear the monogram ‘SM’, the initials of the owner. In the main salon hung a famous work by József Rippl-Rónai, a Hungarian artist who was a member of the Nabis in Paris (le nabi hongrois). Painted in bold primary colours, it shows Mrs Schiffer and her daughters in the garden of their summer villa. It too is now in the Hungarian National Gallery, where an entire section of the display has been devoted to recreating the Schiffer Villa, bringing together three surviving paintings, pieces of sculpture and photographs of the villa in its heyday.
Miksa Schiffer owed his fortune to his brother-in-law Vilmos Grünwald, founder of the Palatinus construction company, which built many of Hungary’s railways as well as the popular Palatinus bathing lido on Margaret Island, in the Danube between Buda and Pest. It has been recently renovated and is still going strong, a wonderful place to cool off on a hot summer afternoon. The Palatinus offices were in one of the apartment blocks which overlook the river on the Pest bank—and were supplied with water directly from Margaret Island’s thermal source. In 1944, after the Nazi takeover of Hungary, the Palatinus building was turned into a ‘Yellow Star House’, where Jews were forcibly confined and from where, in the autumn, the men were deported to labour camps. Miksa Schiffer was not one of them; he had died a few months previously. It is impossible to go far in Budapest without getting tangled up in its history. That is one of the manifold dimensions of this fascinating city.
The Schiffer Villa is just one of the sights covered in the new edition of Blue Guide Budapest £16.95.