Michael Apafi I: between virtues and passions

Period: approx. 1590 | Previous story | Next story

Michael Apafi, perhaps unjustly deemed a weak prince, was ruler of Transylvania in 1661-1690, an interval characterized by great dangers. His rule brought a period of relative peace to the Principality and numerous benefits to the inhabitants. He supported education, book printing and coin minting. However, he was judged harshly for his joint passions for horologes and alcohol, as well as for the numerous witch trials carried out during his reign.

Michael Apafi was born in 1632 in Ibașfalău (today Dumbrăveni), to George Apafi, Count of Târnava County, and Barbara Petki, daughter of the Chancellor of the Principality of Transylvania. He received a Calvinist education, which had lasting effects. From the age of six he studied with private teachers, and from 1642 he attended the Reformed College in Cluj, then the Reformed College in Alba Iulia. In 1647, he went to study at Leipzig. The family forced him into a political and military career. In this way, he came to serve Prince George Rákóczi II, attending all the military campaigns of the Transylvanian army.

In 1653, he married Anna Bornemisza, and in 1661, he was installed as Prince of Transylvania by the Ottomans. The beginning of the rule of Apafi, who was more inclined towards meditation and reading than politics and government, was rather weak. After a couple of years he succeeded in consolidating his power, adopting measures which integrated the Principality’s economic policies into a coherent system and increased the revenues of the treasury. He was interested in the exploitation of gold, silver, iron and salt reserves, as well as the manufacture of paper, glass, and textiles. He supported the development of education and the printing of books, including those in the Romanian language. One example from this period is Golden Coffin, printed in Sebeș in 1683. He was also responsible for minting some of the most handsome and numerous gold coins in Europe in that period.

The Princely Palace, where he was surrounded with specialized and skilled personnel, was continually abuzz. In 1653, 503 individuals were busy in his household, 51 of whom were noblemen. In 1697, the princely staff reached 703. One of the most influential individuals among the servants of the prince was Michael Teleki, Chancellor of Transylvania from 1662 to 1690, who became one of the richest individuals of the province. The chancellor’s luxurious lifestyle of stirred the prince’s envy. Once, when he heard that Teleki had had some gold-plated vessels produced for him in Alba Iulia, Apafi remarked: “Do you know, my wife, what your uncle is doing? I am the prince of Transylvania, and I have no gold blown vessels!”

As an impassioned hunter, the prince kept dog trainers and caretakers at his court to manage his 129 grey hounds and 53 spaniels.

His greatest passion was for horologes. He possessed horologes of various shapes that were displayed in an orderly manner throughout his house and “he lingered around them all the time.” One of them, whose mechanism activated a puppy which moved and barked every hour, was always kept on the table. He employed famous watchmakers to look after his rich collection of clocks.

He was exceedingly fond of travelling. His visits to other cities lasted more than 24 hours, and his longer visits tended to be a drain on the host city’s finances. In 1670, for his second trip to Sibiu, the city spent 3,700 guldens. At his last visit to the same city, Apafi brought his entire household, for whom Sibiu had to provide accommodation and meals for six days. During the summer, the prince preferred to go to the baths, most frequently the thermal waters of Geoagiu (Hunedoara County).

Although his life was oriented towards values such as courage, discipline, faith and wisdom, Apafi was also subject to a number of vices which he struggled to resist. The most burdensome was alcohol: he was very fond of wine, and drank considerable quantities. Memorialist Peter Ápor (1676-1752) narrated that “The prince himself guzzled one bucket of wine and did not get drunk; he would only remove his velvet Cossack style cap, as if he was sweating, thus from his skull evaporated a steam of wine, and after that he drank even more.” During one of his frequent visits to Deva, he was described as one of the most “insatiable lords of Transylvania.” He was also a passionate smoker. However, he turned against tobacco, to the extent of oppressing other Transylvanian smokers, following an experience during an expedition organized by the Ottomans in 1663. While camping at Érsekújvár, he smoked too much strong tobacco and became intoxicated. After this episode, in December 1670 the Diet of Alba Iulia adopted his proposal to pass a bill forbidding the use of tobacco, stipulating high fines and other kinds of punishment for offenders.

This prince is also remembered as an oppressor of witches. Thinking that he was assailed by supernatural forces, the prince blamed magic for the ailments of his wife, Anna Bornemisza, and the early death of his children. The prisons gradually filled with more and more so-called culprits. Many trials were based on fabricated evidence, and most ended with horrific sentences. During his reign, 25 women were accused of witchcraft, 13 of whom were noblewomen. Such was the case of Zsuzsanna Vitéz, wife of Pal Beldi, one of his political opponents. Although no proof was produced, she was thrown in prison at the end of an eight-year-long trial.

After Anna Bornemisza’s death in 1688, while the province was under occupation by the Habsburg imperial troops, a hopeless and depressed Michael Apafi withdrew to the fortress of Făgăraș, taking refuge in among his books and his collection of English horologes. He died in April 1690 (C.I.P.)

Locație :