As is widely known, the United Kingdom’s new king, Charles III, has a deep affection for Romania, and has purchased several properties there, most famously the Blue House in the Transylvanian village of Viscri. King Charles has, over the years, raised awareness of the remarkably well-preserved organic, agrarian life of much of Romania’s rural population. Foremost, however, in drawing attention to the country’s rich and complex material culture is Jessica Douglas-Home, President of the Mihai Eminescu Trust, a charitable society that is dedicated to conserving Romania’s cultural and natural heritage. May the work of these people flourish—work that has been complemented by the wonderful Wild Carpathia series, written, produced, and presented by the charismatic Charlie Ottley, who now lives in Romania with his Romanian wife.
Perhaps regrettably, due to what appears to be a lack of native initiative, many of the charitable trusts and societies established to conserve Romania’s heritage have been founded, and are led, by English people. Fostering enthusiasm for such work among the Romanian population can be an uphill struggle. It is proving difficult to convince many Romanians of the matchless beauty of their country, a blindness demonstrated in the proclivity to toss garbage along the roadsides throughout the countryside, ruining the otherwise glorious landscape.
Sadly, Romania is, in many ways, a dying country. It is a country that ever struggles under deeply rooted political corruption, a country whose vast and ancient forests—home to Europe’s highest concentration of large mammals, including bison, bears, wolves, and lynxes—are being cut down by the illegally-operating ‘timber mafia,’ a land that ever faces intensifying demographic decline due to the large number of people who leave each year, and whose unique rural culture is rapidly vanishing.
Romania has failed to promote itself to the tourist market in the way it should have. With its huge temperate forests, immense mountain ranges, and labyrinthine web of meandering rivers at the Danube Delta, Romania could have easily been Europe’s safari destination. It still could be, if Romanians took stock of the extraordinary treasure that is their own country.
It is, though, especially important that new initiatives are launched to promote and conserve Romania’s rapidly disappearing architectural heritage. And there is already good work of this kind being done for the rural architecture and folk culture of the country’s rustic villages, especially in the old Saxon settlements with their fortified churches that are scattered across Transylvania. I am thinking, however, of what survives of the exquisite urban architecture of Romania, so much of which was bulldozed during Ceaușescu’s communist regime, and what remains is generally being left to deteriorate and crumble.
Before the communist era, during which Romania’s cities—Bucharest especially, once known as the ‘Little Paris’—were smashed apart by brutalist ideologues and remade as concrete hives resembling something out of a Judge Dredd movie, this land was famous for its striking urban architecture. The phrase, the ‘Little Paris,’ if one is familiar with Romanian history, immediately evokes the Francophone period—La belle époque—from the late-19th to early-20th centuries. During this period, lavish structures were built in the high French style, such as the Central University Library in Bucharest, the Cantacuzino Palace, and neo-gothic masterpieces like the Palace of Culture in Iași. Whilst some of these buildings were put to good use, many were left to dilapidate, like the magnificent art nouveau Constanța Casino at the Black Sea coast, which thankfully is now being renovated.
The country’s great moment of architectural innovation in the modern era coincided, not accidentally, with the establishment and reign of the Romanian Royal Family. From the House of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, the reign of the Royal House of Romania began with King Carol I, who became the first king of a united Romania in 1881, and ended with King Mihai, an extraordinary man who was disgracefully ousted in a forced abdication in 1947. It cannot be doubted that Romania’s golden age—a time of widely-felt national confidence—coincided with the reign of the Romanian kings, and one longs for the day of the restoration of the royal family (a good case for which was made some years ago on Romanian television by Jessica Douglas-Home).
Many of the urban architectural styles found in Romania, however, can be seen throughout Europe, and often better executed elsewhere. What is completely unique to Romania, though, is the breath-taking Brâncovenesc style, which arose in the 17th century. This style is named after Constantin Brâncoveanu, Wallachia’s martyred prince. Brâncoveanu had been a mere vassal of the Ottoman Sultan, under whose rule the Wallachian prince had laboured to bring his own lands to great prosperity, success that was tolerated as long as goods and slaves were sent across the Black Sea for Ottoman use. Soon, however, Brâncoveanu could stand the humiliation no longer. He formed an alliance with the Habsburgs and, with their help, forced the Ottomans out. He and his four sons were captured during their campaign after being betrayed by a family member; they were taken to Istanbul, tortured, and then martyred by decapitation for their faith and for their defence of a Christian Europe. He remains a great hero of Romania.
Brâncoveanu’s reign was characterised by tremendous artistic achievements, and under his rule the spectacular architectural style that bears his name emerged. Nowhere else in the world can anything like this style be found, which marks a distinctive synthesis of Byzantine, Ottoman, and late High Renaissance influences. On encountering a building of this kind, one is instantly captured by the balance, harmony, decorative intricacy, but also resolute solidity of the design. Each part of the building deserves individual attention, and yet everything complements everything else. The building is simultaneously a collection of parts and a perfect unity, allowing one to travel through the centuries out of which these exceptional structures have unfolded.
Perhaps the most striking example is the Horezu Monastery in central Romania, founded by Brâncoveanu in 1690, and still an active monastery. A very early example of the style, though much developed in the early 18th century by Brâncoveanu himself, is that of the Holy Trinity Church of the Cozia Monastery. Sinaia Monastery, still an active monastery, found at the town which the royal family made its home, is another exceptional case of this truly Romanian design (the monastery library, incidentally, houses the oldest Romanian translation of the Holy Bible, dated 1668). An especially beautiful later example is that of the Kretzulescu Church, in central Bucharest, commissioned in the 1720s by one of Prince Brâncoveanu’s daughters and her husband. This church was to be demolished by Ceaușescu, but it was saved on account of the widespread uproar at the proposal to bulldoze it, especially from leading architects who hoped that at least some national architecture would remain. The church is well-known not only for its purity of design but for its stunningly painted interior. My (Romanian) wife’s favourite, however, is the capital’s hidden sanctuary, the Stavropoleos Monastery.
A few miles from Bucharest is the near-Orientalist Mogoșoaia Palace, a palatial complex built by Prince Brâncoveanu as his own residence. When he and his family were executed in Istanbul, the family’s lands were confiscated by the Ottomans and the palace was turned into a drinking house. The palace eventually made its way back to Brâncoveanu’s descendants after it was bought from the Ottomans by wealthy boyars and then gifted to the Brâncoveanu family. The palace has a fascinating pre-communist history, which is worth looking up. Under Ceaușescu, it was forcibly nationalised (otherwise known as ‘stolen’) and its treasures looted by government crooks.
Romania’s buildings from Brâncoveanu’s time that were not destroyed by the communist regime, though few, are generally well-kept now, either as museums, state buildings, or as working monasteries. The 17th and early-18th centuries, however, are not the end of the story of this unique national architectural style. In the late-19th century, an astonishing thing happened. A movement began, analogous to the gothic-revival in England, of neo-Brâncovenesc architecture, largely led by pioneering architect Ion Mincu and his students and friends. By the 1920s, many private homes of middle-class Romanians were built in this style. The neo-Brâncovenesc style remains one of the staggering achievements of Romanian cultural history.
Like much of Romania’s history, however, the story of this artistic revival is a sad one. Most of these buildings were destroyed by the communist regime. Those that survived have been left to deteriorate to the point that it is unlikely that they will ever be salvaged. Often, such neglect is deliberately calculated, so that the authorities can justify bulldozing them for new, cheaply made apartment blocks—equally ugly, but inferiorly made, to Ceaușescu’s blocks. One stumbles upon neo-Brâncovenesc masterpieces in the cities and large towns of Romania, often now with crumbling façades and exposed wiring, also frequently vandalised by spray-paint. Many streets in central Bucharest are lined with decaying buildings from this period, crying out for a restoration project. Certainly, some of the more famous neo-Brâncovenesc buildings have been put to use, like the History and Archaeology Museum in Constanța and Bucharest’s Nicolae Minovici Folk Art Museum. But the genius of this 19th century revival is not best seen in these huge buildings, but in the fact that it made the national aesthetic style quotidian, by flanking the urban walkway with examples of the style realised as ordinary homes.
Today, these buildings are not only neglected, but there appear to be very few—if any—Romanian architects seeking to study and develop the national style. Rather, having come out of the architecturally disastrous age of communism, Romanian city-planners are heaping rubbish upon rubbish by building the same junk that has ruined the urban environment from one end of Europe to the other. Examples of this urban defilement can be seen in the ironically named Cathedral Plaza in Bucharest, or that city’s horrific apartment blocks that ruin one of the capital’s few areas of natural beauty at the Văcărești Nature Park—with all such buildings being erected in the 2000s.
What has happened to the urban environment throughout our hallowed continent is one of history’s greatest tragedies. There is a reason why, in the religion of Europe, heaven is understood as urban. Heaven is a city, the New Jerusalem, because human beings realise their personhood in togetherness. What the ancient Greeks knew well, namely that man becomes fully human in the polis, Christianity raised and blessed, making the city the place of our redemption. One of the great feats, therefore, of the powers of darkness has been that of making the city a place where beauty and goodness struggle to find a home, banished as they are by cynical and facetious giants rendered in expressionless glass and steel, declaring that the city is not a place where humans dwell and come to peace with each other—rather, only machines and those who imitate them are welcome here.
In the face of this trajectory, the neo-Brâncovenesc movement has so much to teach us. What is desperately needed, it seems to me, is a new charitable organisation, for which I propose the name of the ‘Constantin Brâncoveanu Trust.’ The purpose of this organisation would be threefold: first, to promote knowledge of the history and principles of the Brâncovenesc style; second, to renovate those buildings of this style that need repair; and third, to support the training of architects who wish to learn and creatively develop the national architectural style of Romania. As someone trained in a very different discipline, namely philosophy, there is little I can offer to such a project, but I can offer the idea—after all, ideas are my discipline—and I hope and pray that someone (preferably, a Romanian) with the suitable expertise will heed the call.