Zorro In The Carpathians

When the Hungarians conquered Transylvania, several Romanian noblemen decided to adopt Hungarian language and culture, in order to get prominent positions in the establishment. The most famous is, of course, Hunyady János, called, in Romanian, Iancu de Hunedoara. He eventually became governor of Hungary and his son, Mathias, the most famous Hungarian king, who married an Italian princess and brought a student of Ghirlandajo to Buda (the Hungarians refer to him as "our Renaissance king"). Caragiale could not help scorning the Romanian pride related to the origins of the Hunyady family. One of his characters, Marius Chicos Rostogan, a professor of "the new school", asks a student upon the examinations: "is it not so that Iancu de Hunedoara, and his son, Matei Corvin and, as a consequence, practically all Hungarian noblemen, great magnates and the like, are just as Romanian as we are?" However, Iancu had to invent a legend in order to become thoroughly accepted. According to this legend, he would not have been his father's son, a small Romanian nobleman called Voicu, but the illegitimate son of king Sigismund (Zisgmónt). The legal proof would have consisted in the ring given by the king, then stolen by a raven and finally recovered. The raven with the ring in his beak became the coat of arms of the Hunyads, who called themselves Corvinus. Other families did not take the trouble to invent princely antecedents for themselves. They did not need any kingly ring, but simply turned their Romanian names into ones with a Hungarian ring. Cande became Kendeffy, Ban became Bánffy and so on. This was made easier in the long run, because Hungarians were much more enlightened than other people and believed in cultural endorsement, not in ethnic roots. The Blut und Boden theory (right of blood, right of soil) was rejected by them: one is Hungarian not by birth – one needn't have a Hungarian mother – but by choice. He who adopts Magyar language and Magyar culture is entitled to a Magyar identity. In 1700, when the Habsburgs came to rule over Transylvania, the frustrated Hungarians became only too willing to gain new supporters. That is how the Nopchia, a family of Romanian gentry (the name comes from Noaptea, the night) became Nopcsa, so to speak, overnight. The castle of the Nopcsa family can still be visited in Sacel, a village close to the Carpathians (the Retezat Mountain). Photo 1 is an image of the castle, as it looks today.
Nearly all the Nopcsas held important offices within the empire. They were King's counselors, county governors, chancellors of the state, etc. Among them, a very interesting character still manages to stir the imagination: Count Nopcsa László, who lived in the second half of the 19th century. This was a very uncanny figure. Proud and mighty, he enjoyed prancing and entertained lavishly in his castle. However, he was also keen on excitement and adventure. During some nights, he dressed up as a brigand, an outlaw, put on a black mask and robbed passers by, irrespective of their standing. Sometimes, he even followed his own guests along the road, once the party was over, frightened them to death and took their jewels from them. The Romanian peasants that saw him riding his horse, the dark mask on the face, thought he was the devil himself and named him Faţă Neagră (Black Face). The Hungarians transposed the nickname into Fátyá Négrá. The man was quite a Zorro of the Carpathians, but, unlike the romantic character, he was completely unconcerned with social justice. He practiced robbery as a sport, did not care about the money and did not give a damn about the poor. Photo 2 is an image of the mysterious count.
The famous Hungarian romantic writer Jokai Mór was thrilled by this story and turned count Nopcsa into a character of his novel, Szegény Gazdagók (The Poor Rich), published in 1860. It was some time before Bram Stoker launched his famous novel about Dracula, the Vampire, which would soon turn Transylvania into a notoriously mysterious and haunted place. Jules Verne himself would use Transylvania as a setting for his gothic novel, The Castle in the Carpathians. As a matter of fact, the castle Jules Verne describes, formerly the Kendeffys' castle, is situated quite close to the Nopcsa one. László Nopcsa did not fail to recognize himself in the character of count Hácégi, the hero of Jokai's novel. He sued the author several times for injuring his public image, but lost all cases. However, he decided to break up with his past, left his domain and settled in Deva, the county's capital city, where he lived a lonely life and died in 1883. His nephew, Ferenc, born in 1877, would be an even more intriguing character then his uncle. Ferenc Nopcsa discovered on his land in Hatzeg (Sânpetru) some curious bones which proved to be those of a dinosaur. His domain had been suddenly transformed into a sort of Jurassic Park. He decided to get an in-depth view into the matter and studied paleontology at the Science University of Vienna. At the age of 22, he published a scientific description of the new species he had had the chance to discover: Limnosaurus transsylvanicus. However, Ferenc Nopcsa's taste for adventure was stronger than his scientific commitment, so he took the 2000 crowns he received from a relative upon his graduation and spent them on a trip to Albania. He got involved in the conflicts between various tribes and only just failed to become the king of Albania. Ferenc of Albany is quite a match to Lawrence of Arabia. Photo 3 is an image of him.
He also published extensive studies of Albanian geography, geology, linguistics and suchlike. At the beginning of World War I, Nopcsa got involved in politics and, probably, espionage. He came to Bucharest, trying to prevent the government from taking sides with the Entente. Then, he served in the Retezat Mountains as a spy for the Central Powers. After the war, he lost all his fortune. Trying to chase the Romanian peasants from his land, he was severely injured. He lived in straightened circumstances with his companion and lover, the Albanian Bajazid Elmas Doda. He took a steady job, as director of the Royal Geologic Institute of Budapest, and his new scientific contributions to paleontology were widely recognized. However, the man became increasingly gloomy and painfully conscious of the decay of aristocracy and of its values. He administered a sleeping pill to his companion, shot him in his sleep, then shot himself too. Like most good stories, the one of the Nopcsa family ends in despair.

by Adrian Mihalache