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The Corvinas, the name given to books that once formed part of King Matthew's library, have recently been added to the UNESCO list of world cultural heritage, where they rub shoulders with the 42 existing Gutenberg bibles and the manuscripts of Hans Christian Andersen's works.

The Corvinas were added following pressure from the current owners of the books, who are spread far afield. There are around 216 surviving codices from King Matthew's library, about a tenth of the original collection. 53 of them are in Hungary, 49 in Italy, 39 in Austria, and the rest are in French, German, British, American and Turkish collections.

Perhaps the most surprising fact about the famous collection is that so many books are still to be found in Hungary. Two hundred years ago it was believed that none of them remained in the country. When Sultan Suleiman took Buda in 1541, he took part of the library away as war spoils. What remained either disappeared or was destroyed. In 1802, the Hungarian parliament decreed that the Corvinas should be located and brought home. Their repatriation became a political matter in the Hungarian Reform era. Orsolya Karsay, curator of manuscripts at the National Széchenyi Library, said King Matthew's library became a symbol of the nation's past wealth. This despite the fact that nobody knew what they contained, since no catalogue survived. It was only in the 1840s that a speculative catalogue was compiled.

Most of the books were repatriated by means of diplomatic background activity. She cited the fate of the two Modena Codices as an example.

The two books contained works by St John, a fourth century bishop of Constantinople, and his contemporary, St Jerome, who translated the bible into Latin. Though King Matthew certainly ordered these two books from Florence, it is possible that they never reached King Matthew's bookshelves, according to Karsay. What is certain is that by 1560, both volumes were in the collection of Alfonse II, bishop of Modena, where they stayed for almost 300 years.

Then, they suddenly became players in a political game of chess. In the autumn of 1847, "Metternich wanted to calm the rebellious Hungarians with the offer of Corvinas," according to Árpád Mikó of the Hungarian National Gallery. The Viennese court managed to persuade Ferenc Hapsburg V, the then-owner, to surrender the two codices. But by the time the two volumes had reached Vienna, revolution had broken out in Pest-Buda, rendering the gesture pointless. It took another four decades for the books to reach the Hungarian National Museum, their original destination, where they arrived in 1891. The museum's director of manuscripts at the time, János Csontosi, established their whereabouts, and lobbied for Franz Josef to give them to the Hungarians. Their return turned out to be temporary, however, because following the Treaty of Trianon, Italy demanded them back. They were exhibited in the Palazzo Venezzia, the former Austro-Hungarian embassy, in Rome in 1922. Their return was seen as important in Italy, as an article in an Italian newspaper at the time shows: "Italy has never allowed herself to be deceived by gifts or beautiful words. She refused to give an inch on her own rights."

The Italians were only happy for five years, since the volumes were on the road again in 1927, when they were sent to the National Széchenyi Library. Benito Mussolini was the benefactor in this case. He dispatched them as part of a friendship and cooperation agreement signed by the two countries.

While this long story was playing out, some 40 Corvinas returned from Turkey. Both bequests were made as the declining Ottoman Empire sought allies for itself. The first four volumes were sent by Sultan Abdul Aziz in 1869. Supposedly it was Gyula Andrássy, the then prime minister, who suggested this kind gift to the sultan.

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