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Respect for books is an expression of the aspiration to knowledge and culture. Nowadays, when many public libraries are open to the public, the existence of such institutions might be taken for granted and regarded as banal. The avalanche of information brought by the information revolution may amplify such a perception. More than two centuries after Bishop Ignatius Batthyány established the library, his legacy as a bibliophile and founder still resonates. Only a few people at that time invested their financial resources in the acquisition of old manuscripts and early printed books for the study of ecclesiastical history. Such an enterprise required dedication but also certain financial conditions. The bishop possessed a passion for old books, but also held a position in society that made the funds to pursue such a prodigious collecting activity available to him.
Ignatius Batthyány was descended from an aristocratic family with a long tradition of cultural patronage and book collection. He studied in the Piarist Institute of Pest from the age of ten and continued his studies at the Jesuit institute in Trnava from 1755 to 1762. This played an important role in his later evolution, particularly in terms of his interest in theology and his passion for history. From 1762 he pursued theological studies in Graz, and in 1763 he went to Sant Apollinare College in Rome where he earned his doctorate.
During his studies, he was entrusted with the administration of the college library. He also received permission to copy historical documents from the Vatican’s libraries and archives, acquiring more than 3000 volumes during his stay in Rome. In 1766 he moved to Eger, where he spent fifteen years. In 1773, he was appointed general provost, a position that enhanced his income and allowed him to purchase important collections of books from private owners and ecclesiastical institutions. In 1780, he was appointed bishop of Transylvania. In 1788, he acquired the vast collection of books belonging to Anton Kristof Migazzi, Bishop of Vienna and Vac. This collection amounted to 8000 volumes and included the famous Codex Aureus (known in German as Lorscher Evangeliar). He also purchased collections of varying size mostly from ecclesiastic institutions located in the territory of today’s Slovakia, including the collections of the collegiate church of Spiš, the Dominican monastery of Košice, and the church in Bardejov. We know that he paid 600 florins for 16 manuscripts and charters to Samuel Szekely Dobay. From the city of Levoča he acquired 412 items: 158 manuscripts and 254 printed books.
By 1792, Bishop Ignatius Batthyány collection amounted to 18,200 volumes. He kept libraries at his homes in Sibiu and Cluj, but in 1794 he decided to store the collection in one place, namely Alba Iulia. He found an appropriate location for his books when the army offered the Trinitarian Church, which the military had received following the abolition of the monastic orders by Joseph II. The second floor of the church was provided with necessary furniture for storing the collection. In the same year, Ignatius Batthyány founded an institute which included an astronomic observatory and a printing press besides the library. In August 1798, shortly before his sudden death, he amended his will to dedicate the financial resources necessary to support the running of the library and the institute.
The library was further enriched with donations of books by nineteenth-century bishops in Alba Iulia. His collection is still impressive due to the high value of the handwritten books, the incunabula, and the many books printed in important European printing presses of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For this reason, it is recognized as a valuable treasure trove of European medieval and early modern books. (C.P.G.)