CENTRAL Slovak Museum, a house once owned by Thurzo.
photo: Zuzana Habšudová

POOR BANSKÁ BYSTRICA - smack dab in the centre of Slovakia, with all the geographic credentials of a capital, the city has always been a handmaiden to Bratislava and to the foreign clients of its mining resources.

Spanning both banks of the Hron river and nestling against the Low Tatras, Veľká Fatra and Slovak Rudohorie mountain ranges, the city has a physical beauty that is difficult to beat, and during the 1990s was championed by then-PM Vladimír Mečiar as a possible new capital in favour of the far-west Bratislava. It is, many Slovaks agree, the heartland of the Slovak nation, along with the Martin area 40 kilometers to the north.

But Banská appears never to have had muscular backers behind it. In 1255, Hungarian King Belo IV granted the settlement town privileges - not as a mark of favour for the locals, but in order to attract German settlers to develop the mining of precious metals in the area, mainly copper. Silver was found in the nearby Banská Štiavnica, while gold was extracted in Kremnica.

Such was the wealth of its natural resources that Banská at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries became known as the 'copper metropolis of Europe'.

"Copper products made here had a world-wide significance," says Milan Šoka, historian and director of the Central Slovak Museum in Banská Bystrica.

"In the 1980s, evidence of our ancestors was unexpectedly found in ancient submerged shipwrecks in Gdansk, Starograd and Hamburg. The copper plates, wheels, ingots and poles pulled out of the sea bore the Banská Bystrica coat-of-arms."

SNP Memorial to resistance.
photo. Ján Svrček

After early successes in developing the Banská copper mines, flooding became a serious problem in the pits. Ján Thurzo (1437-1508), a nobleman and businessman from the Spiš region, bought up almost all the silver and copper mines in the region from their desperate owners and brought in a foreign investor (Jakub Fugger) with whom he signed a preliminary contract in 1494 to finance pumping the mines out. Fugger and Thurzo in 1495 formed a powerful Banská Bystrica copper company, the Ungarischer Handel or Neusohler Kupferhandlung.

Using new technologies (the company's mining technique was the most sophisticated in Europe at the time), the Thurzo-Fugger cooper company also processed the raw material into finished products, such as dishes, boilers, wire, roof-tiles and coins manufactured in Kremnica. The firm provided medical care for its 1,000 employees.

"The Thurzo-Fugger cooper company with its huge complex of factories and warehouses, skilful organisation of production and transport, and its advanced accounting system, became one of the largest and most modern early-capitalist firms of its kind," says Šoka.

"They also realised that if they wanted a good work force, they had to take care of it. Compare how we were ahead of the world 500 years ago, and now how the world is ahead of us," he laughs.

Acquiring four buildings on Banská Bystrica's main square (one of which houses today's Central Slovak Museum), the company also entered the local market with cheaper products. The competition resulted in conflicts with the town's officials, while the company's gradual drive to increase profits by capping workers' wages culminated in a miners' riot in 1525, one of the biggest in central Europe.

The king then confiscated the Thurzo-Fugger company's property and arrested its management. Mining in the region continued until the 20th century, but largely under state control.

BANSKÁ Bystrica was an important business centre in the 15-16 centuries, less so now.
photo. Ján Svrček

Once a European spiritual, cultural and technical crossroads, Banská Bystrica now has only reminders of its past glory - dozens of abandoned mines (the best preserved of which are in Banská Štiavnica and Špania dolina), museum exhibits of precious minerals and mining artefacts, and a few important wooden carvings (Master Pavol from Levoča, a friend of Thurzo's, created the wing altar of St. Barbora in Banská Bystrica's Church of the Virgin Mary's Ascension). The wealth, like the prestige, remains in the hands of others.

"The precious and artistically valuable products made by local goldsmiths, for example, sit in Austrian, Swiss and German museums, as they were mainly created for monarchs and higher officials.

"Many of these works don't even have Slovak names, such as the 'handstein', a miniature created out of precious stones resembling a Slovak mine scene," says Šoka.