Master Barbu And Slătineanu House

The chance passers-by through the quiet Cotroceni neighbourhood could discover, at the end of a well tended garden, a two-storey house with no other adornment than its iron-wrought latticework. What was strange was that leaning against the wall separating it from the house to the right were big, slightly deteriorated mosaic slabs depicting bizarre characters or animals. The old Slătineanu house had been bought by Barbu Slătineanu and his father, professor Alexandru Slătineanu, a respected pioneer in the field of bacteriology. To be the son of Alexandru Slătineanu and Irina, née Metaxa, to be the son-in-law of Alexandru Lahovary and Ana, née Kretzulescu, and to know that your ancestry includes Constantin Brînconveanu, were all reasons to be proud, but also meant that you had to live up to your great ancestors; and Barbu Slătineanu did. He had been born in Paris, in 1895, but since the age of six he had lived in Romania, his and his ancestors' country. A country for which he fought in the war as a soldier, whose old art treasures he studied, and where he started a collection in which many people rejoiced; he suffered and died when the country was no longer the one he had loved, when it came to belong to somebody else. My memories of him are from a time when he had lost the slenderness of youth, wearing a dressing gown and a beret very much like those worn by painters in the previous centuries, seated at a table and charming shards back into a peasant pot or plate, which came back to life and nobleness in his hands. He had a warm voice, with a baritone timbre, and the clear and nuanced phrasing of somebody who had enriched his Romanian with a perfect knowledge of French. If his father was called the Turk, due to an excessive inflexibility of character, Barbu Slătineanu, or Master Barbu, as he was called by his close friends, should have been nicknamed the Sultan. In his big house, his mere presence took up a considerable, domineering space. He studied, loved, rejoiced in the treasures that had taken over the rooms, he introduced them to his visitors with the warmth and pride he would have used to introduced his own children. It was only natural he should do that, given how voluptuous he was. The first capacity associated with the name of Barbu Slătineau is that of collector. He himself would probably prefer that of passionate lover of beauty. Although his house hosted works bearing impressive signatures (Van Gogh, Grigorescu, Camille Claudel, or, if we leaf through the files with engravings, Dürer, Rembrandt, Lautrec, and many others, equally famous), right next to them sat anonymous paintings, without anything jarring. It is precisely these totally unexpected associations that gave the Slătineanu house its particular charm. At every step, you could discover a different world. Next to glamorous French tiles from the 18th century, old Hurez bowls; although coming from a completely different world, their beauty entitled them to sit on 18th century French or massive Spanish or Italian pieces of furniture. What was amazing about that house was that everything matched, everything was in its right place, nothing clashed with its neighbours. I cannot forget the rugs from Oltenia, just as beautiful as the delicately woven Persian carpets, the Oriental weapons, sitting like giants on an Italian table and looking like a symbol of quiet and understanding, although they would have severed a few heads in their times of glory. When Master Barbu was not at home, or after his death, Mistress Picci, with a charmingly conspiratorial look on her face, used to pull out from under a sofa a box full of old folk costumes, or sumptuous Indian cloth, or fabrics and embroideries from both the East and the West. A privileged few had the pleasure of going past the doors of the libraries, where the entire history of printed literature lay in first editions, or of seeing the files with engravings and drawings illustrating the great moments of European or Oriental art. This house of beauty, of the happiest combinations of art objects coming from all over the world, could not have failed to have been a meeting place for the luminaries of the time: Vasile Voiculescu, Adrian Maniu, Ion Pillat, George Oprescu, Şerban Cioculescu, Vladimir Streinu, Ion Tzigara-Samurcaş, Dinu and Nelly Pillat, Hrandt Avachian, or historians Lambrino and Drăghiceanu. These friendships endured, not without bothering the communist regime though. In April 1947, after a remarkable military career, Master Barbu is suspected of what he actually was – a liberal spirit who could not tolerate the dictatorship, and is arrested together with his son, Stroe Constantin. After his release, he finds joy in spending time in the house, teaching classes in the history of ceramics at the N. Grigorescu Art Institute, and, especially, reading to friends, either from his own works, or from La Tentation d'Exister by Cioran. It was too much for the communist regime. He was arrested again, together with those who attended the 'Literary Circle,' released, and then arrested again. He died in 1959, during an investigation. The Slătineanu House was closed – a part of the valuable objects had been donated and had the status of public collection –, the name of Slătineanu disappeared, his main work, Romanian Ceramics, published by the Royal Foundations and awarded a prize by the Romanian Academy, was banned from libraries, as were all the studies and articles he wrote in a field where, together with George Oprescu, he was a pioneer. The house, without the name though, was reopened briefly – with Mistress Picci and Sandra Slătineanu Sturdza as hostesses – only to be closed again in July 1977, together with the other 12 formerly private museum-collections donated to the state, out of a demented wish to erase the names of the former owners from the people's cultural memory. Those who have at least once crossed the threshold of the Slătineanu House will always remember it. For me, the house was like a cello: any string you touch sounds beautiful, but the cello takes on all the sounds and sends them straight into your soul. For those who have crossed the threshold of this house, it still exists in the warm realm of memories; for those who did not know it, Bucharest is now much poorer.

by Radu Ionescu