A Brief Architectural History of the Palace of the Academy

Mission Statement

The Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) is committed to the advancement, shaping and serving of science. Keeping the criteria of excellence in the forefront, the main responsibilities of the Academy, as the prime representative of Hungarian science, are to support and represent various scientific fields, and to distribute scientific results. MTA contributes not only to the organisation of scientific research in Hungary, but also aims to tying the connection between Hungarian and international research closer. The Academy supports the scientific activities of promising young researchers, defends science ethics in public life, and guards the honour and values of scientific endeavors.

Architectural History

Széchenyi's example was followed by Ábrahám Vay, Count György Andrássy, and Count György Károlyi, who also made significant contributions to the founding of the society.The need for establishing a scholarly society was first mentioned by Act VIII of 1808. During the last decade of the 18th and the first decade of the 19th century, various plans were conceived for the establishment of an academy for developing and propagating the Hungarian language and for promoting the development of science, but funds for establishing such a society were not available. This question was often raised until, at the November 3, 1825, district session of the Diet in Bratislava (the seat of the Hungarian Parliament), the county delegates started a debate on the matter of a Hungarian Learned Society, criticizing the magnates for not making sacrifices for a national cause. It was there that Count István Széchenyi offered one year's income of his estate for the purposes of a learned society.

Main Building

The building of the Academy, inaugurated in 1865, was built at a turning point in the urban and architectural history of Budapest as one of the first yet most mature and valuable historicising examples of the neo-Renaissance style. This architectural trend, which virtually dominated the construction boom in Budapest that started in the 1870s, had been an alien, controversial new tendency in Hungary only a decade before. While west and east of us, in Paris and St. Petersburg, classicism developed evenly in the direction of the neo-Renaissance and, later, at the end of the century, the neo-Baroque style, in Hungary the events of 1848 caused a break in urban development and construction, as a result of which the new style could not emerge as part of an internal organic development. This explains the heated arguments that surrounded the building of the palace.

The stormy events of its birth did not leave their mark on this harmonious, building, richly ornamented both inside and outside, which has always been a distinctive element of the cityscape. One of the reasons is the difference in scale that has always set it apart from the neighbouring buildings. It was larger than the surrounding classicistic buildings of the Reform Age, breaking the well-ordered unity and harmony of the square. But a half a century later the Academy already looked small beside the huge newly erected bank and insurance head offices, and compared to the government buildings and hotels today. Nevertheless, the closed, clean-cut mass, the heavy block of the projection, and its mature architecture make the palace even today one of the prominent sights of the square.

The Prussian king's architect, Friedrich August Stüler, who, after long debates and against much protest, was commissioned to design the palace, brought to Hungary a blend of the Renaissance style of Northern Italy and the Neo-Renaissance tendencies of Berlin. In addition to designing the main facade and the floor plan, he played a decisive part in the selection of the architectural and sculptural ornaments that have become a distinctive feature of the building.

The spatial unity of the vestibule and the staircase, the spaciousness of the exhibit halls on the third floor, the proportions of the ceremonial hall expressing the spatial ideal of the transitional style - of Romanticism and the Neo-Baroque - of the period combine to form an architectural work that stands unparalleled in the Hungarian architecture of this period marked by growth all over the capital.

The harmony that characterises the facade and the spatial arrangement of the building cannot always be found inside, where the various, not fully harmonious ornamental tendencies of the period are seen side by side.

Allegorisation, a characteristic trend of the period, played an important part in the ornamentation of the facade and the interior, both in the 1860s while construction was underway and 20-30 years later when the last masterpiece in interior ornamentation, the figural and ornamental design of the ceremonial hall, was completed.

The external design of the building, the palace, with three facades and an enclosed court, has a three-storey-tall middle projection and two-storey- tall side and back wings. The prominent quintaxial middle projection is the distinctive architectural element of the main facade. Red marble steps lead up to three arched entrances flanked by two arched windows of equal width on either side of the projection. The deep-set openings are separated by wide symmetrical pilasters. A simple string cornice separates the ballustraded balcony above the arches. The balustrade above the pilasters is interrupted by pedestals decorated with marble inlay and rhombus design.

The most accentuated element of the main facade is the bold architectural design of the facade of the projection containing the two-storey-tall Ceremonial Hall, which treats the two storeys as a single unit. The five large enormous arched windows adorned with stone ornaments and carved stone dividers are separated by column pairs. The work of Miklós Izsó showing the coat of arms of Hungary with the crown held by graceful winged angels can be seen above the central window, and an inscribed tablet held by angels can be seen above each of the four other windows. The inscriptions read:

FOUNDED BY PATRIOTS (Hazafiak alapították)


COMMENCED OPERATION (Működni kezdett);


ERECTED BY THE NATION (Nemzeti részvét emelte)




The arched paired windows on the second floor of the projection are also separated by paired columns with a Corinthian capital that flank terracotta statues made in Berlin. The allegorical female figures personify the sciences: natural science, jurisprudence, philosophy, mathematics, and history. Apollo and Minerva heads set in medallions are seen above them.

The main facade section of the side wings is much simpler and essentially the same as the facades facing the Danube and Akadémia Street. A row of simple arched windows above the red marble base articulate the surface of the ashlar-covered ground-level wall. The arched windows of the first floor are adorned with baluster railing, and the paired windows on the second floor with panelled railing. The terracotta statues of outstanding scholars and artists decorate the second floor, and candelabras stand at the corners of the ballustrated attic above the cornice.

On Stüler's suggestion, the terracotta statues of scholars, similarly to the allegorical female figures, were ordered from Berlin. The Berlin sculptor Emil Wolff made the molds for all of the statues except for the statue of the Hungarian philologist, Miklós Révai, which was made by Miklós Izsó. The statues of Galilei and Révai stand at the two sides of the main facade, those of Newton and Lomonosov - the latter replaced the statue of Raphael after the Second World War - on the Danube facade, and those of Descartes and Leibniz on the facade facing the Akadémia Street.

The Danube facade is articulated by a triaxial central projection that rises slightly from the wall surface. The arched ground-floor windows are flanked by massive, ashlar-covered pilasters, the first-floor windows by symmetrical wall pilasters and columnar arching. As opposed to the main facade, here the allegorical female figures - Archeology, Poetry, Astronomy, and Politics - on the second floor are statues in the round. Candelabras on the balustrated attic accentuate the corners of the projection. The structural design of the less accented quintaxial sections of the Danube facade resembles that of the subordinate sections of the main facade.

Due to the difference in level height inside the wing with 15 axes which faces Akadémia Street, the arched windows on the ground floor are set directly on the cornice above the base, below the level of the windows of the main facade.

An embossed memorial plaque, commemorating the foundation of the Academy in 1825, on the corner of the wing conceals this difference in level height. The plaque depicts István Széchenyi surrounded by others who contributed to the founding of the Academy. The relief is Barnabás Holló's work, which was cast in bronze by the Beschorner Company in 1892 and unveiled on January 15, 1893.

The palace interior

Ground floor

Through the main gate we enter the groined vaulted vestibule divided into three aisles by paired columns set on high pedestals. This grand reception area had often been the scene of important events. Many a deceased member of the Academy lay in state here, such as the statesman Ferenc Deák, at whose catafalque even Queen Elizabeth (of Hungary) paid tribute. When she died, the Academy paid homage by commissioning Barnabás Holló to commemorate the event. The marble relief was put on the east wall of the vestibule in 1914. The intimate atmosphere of the relief showing an idyllic glorification of the Compromise of 1867 has little to do with the Reform-Age spirit that the relief on the wall outside calls to mind.

Turning left in the ground-floor cross corridor we reach a series of rooms in the two storey-tall Danube wing, where the Academy's rich library once was and the academic club and restaurant is found today. Along the central axis of the rooms with a view of the Danube, a line of slender ornamented cast iron column pairs set on high pedestals can be seen, supporting high-arched groined vaults separated by tie-beams. The groined vaults are adorned by gracefully draped female figures set in blue rhombus frames. The archaizing decorative painting and the gilded and colourful painting of the columns make this the most colourful area of the building.A wide flight of steps leads from the central aisle of the vestibule to the elevated cross corridor, from where a grand staircase with laced, gold-plated cast iron railing starts and, branching out halfway, leads upstairs in a sweeping curve. The staircase in the semicircular projection toward the courtyard is lit through three big windows on both the first and the second floor. These windows close the upward sweep of the vestibule and the staircase, which gives the impression of spaciousness when we enter the building.

Turning right in the cross corridor, we reach the three rooms of the Oriental Collection in the corner. The panels and furniture in the middle room made in the 1950s are an interesting late example of Oriental archaism. Formerly, Elischer's Goethe Collection was exhibited in the corner room on the left. The display cases here were made at the turn of 20th century. The colours and motifs of the decorative painting were restored during the reconstruction of the building.

The rooms of the Academy's archives in the northern courtyard wing have a similar cast iron column and vault structure as the rooms of the former library.

The first floor

The Ceremonial Hall occupies the first and second floors of the frontal projection. A coved vault with panels and gilded accentuated ribs with painted decoration covers the longitudinal area of the Hall. The ornamental elements of the vault are the work of Albert Schickedanz, who designed the Museum of Fine Arts. The vault rests on plaster caryatid pairs standing on pedestals set on the balustrade of the gallery, while the gallery itself is supported by evenly spaced red marble column pairs. The gallery with gilded balustrade adorned with grotesque motifs runs along three sides of the Hall. The row of caryatid pairs standing on columns is repeated in the space between the enormous frontal windows as if framing them. The moulds for the caryatid figures, similarly to the figural ornaments of the facade, were brought from Berlin.

The east and west walls of the Hall are decorated by triptychs painted by Károly Lotz. Medieval and Renaissance architecture in the paintings link the compositions, which were intended to give a comprehensive picture of Hungarian cultural history. Saint Stephen is the central figure of the painting on the west wall and King Matthias of the one on the east wall. Allegorical Lotz paintings personifying the sciences and the arts can be seen in the lunettes above the windows and in the ceiling panels, which form a harmonious unit with the richly ornamented and colourful decorative painting of the ceiling and the wall surfaces. The general assembly of the Academy convenes in the Ceremonial Hall, which nowadays also functions as a concert hall. At one time parliamentary sessions were also held there.

A doorway in the Ceremonial Hall leads into the council room of the Presidium. From there we reach a peculiar, long and narrow corridor designed according to the scientific requirements of the 1860s for conducting optical experiments. The next room, as we move into the Danube wing, is known as the Hall of Pictures. Originally, the allegory of the Academy and Széchenyi's full-figure portrait by Johann Ender were exhibited here. Today, portraits of academicians can be seen in this traditionally furnished room.

Behind the slight projection of the central part of the Danube wing facade, there is a small conference room called the Reading Room or Conference Room, where sessions and readings for which the Ceremonial Hall was too big were held. The ornamental moulding of this room is one of the richest in the building, but the four Ligeti landscapes are its greatest treasure, two of which were commissioned specifically for this room. Allegorical plaster medallions adorn each of the four corners of the panelled ceiling, in the middle of which a round frieze decorated with a garland of fruit and putti surrounds the base of the chandelier. Formerly, the corridor, formed a part of the Reading Room where the general public interested in hearing lectures by academicians was admitted.

A plaque in the northernmost rooms in the Danube wing commemorates the folk music researchers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, who worked here in the 1930s.

The Presidium occupies the rooms in the corner on the first floor of the Akadémia Street wing overlooking Roosevelt Square, where originally the Kisfaludy Society worked. Their painted ornamentation was uncovered and restored during the reconstruction of the building. The rest of the rooms in this wing are the conference rooms of the Scientists' Club. They were badly damaged during the Second World War, and rebuilt in their present state in the 1950s, together with what is today the splendid, alcoved Concert Hall. In the 19th century these rooms were the official residence of the secretary-general. The most famous secretary-general, the novelist János Arany, was the first to live here. His armchair has been put, as a reminder, in the corner room overlooking the courtyard. The former secretariat of the Academy, thus Arany's office, too, was located in the north wing where now we find the store rooms and research rooms of the Manuscript Collection of the Library.

The second floor

The gallery in the Ceremonial Hall occupies the second floor behind the main facade. The rooms of the Danube wing formerly housed the Esterházy Gallery, where, originally, caryatids lined the spaciously separated cabinets giving the series of rooms a dynamic spatial effect. After the Second World War a small lecture hall was built in the corner overlooking Roosevelt Square and a large one in the part overlooking the Danube. Only two caryatid pairs survived the war. The lecture halls remained even after the reconstruction; however, the application of the old architectural motifs in the larger one recalls something of the beauty of the former series of rooms.

The offices of the Secretariat are located in the corner rooms of the wing facing the Akadémia Street, where the Széchenyi Museum once was. Here, too, the decorative painting, reflecting the magnificence of the architecture, has been restored to its original state.

The third floor

The exhibition rooms of the former Esterházy Gallery, located in the frontal projection and in the area above the semicircular staircase and covered by a glass roof, have been restored in their original form together with the original colors, painted and ornamental decoration. The structure and color scheme of these splendid rooms, which were the first built in Pest specifically for exhibition purposes, are excellent and characteristic examples of 19th-century museum architecture. The portraits, landscapes, historical genre paintings, archeological drawings, Elischer's Goethe collection, and the very beautiful objets d'art of the Széchenyi Museum are among the most important treasures of the Academy's fine arts collection. Some of these works adorn the palace rooms. The richest donation to the fine arts collection was made by Count István Széchenyi. The allegorical painting of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences by Johann Ender was also his gift.

It is one of the important gains of the reconstruction that the rooms unused for decades have regained their original function, and today, in addition to exhibiting the Academy's rich fine arts collection, they also house temporary exhibitions.

Written by Mária Kemény