Romanian Profile

excerpts In the first half of the XVIIth century, there appeared a new combination of imported styles which has been characterized as the first Wallachian manifestation. The prototype of this style is the village church of Gherghiţa in Prahova county. A later example of this style is to be found in the Biserica Doamnei [Church of the Lady] in Bucharest. The floor plan is rectangular and there is an open portico surrounded with pillars supporting an arcade which later included a bracket-type and clover-type design above the columns. The ante-nave, which was previously separated from the nave by a wall, in this church runs into the nave with only pillars and arcades between. There is one tower over the nave and one over the ante-nave or over the portico, which later tower houses the church bell. For the first time the staircase to the bell becomes an integral part of the building on the north wall. There is no corresponding structure on the south wall so the building loses its symmetry.In the second half of the same century this partial amalgamation was modified. The structure was elevated and the effect is of more graceful outline. For the first time, the pillars and arcades of the open portico and the door and window frames are heavily painted or sculptured. Lace-like sculpture is found on the altar screen as well as on the pulpit and chairs. This style of church became generalized as "Romanian" during this period and today examples are to be found throughout the country.The same architectural basis was followed in the late XVIIth century at Fundenii Doamnei Church outside Bucharest, which was built by a member of a family of Greek origin, Mihail Cantacuzino. However, the subsidiary elements became increasingly incongruous. The exterior sculpture is delightful even if sections of it would seem more suitable in Persia. It is said that a Persian sculptor was imported to do the decoration; certain Persian motives are used and a delicacy of workmanship characteristic of that nationality is present. The pavilion on the exterior is Persian and is flanked by cypress trees. The stylized peacocks at a fountain with swimming fish, the vases with flowers, the lemon trees and the pears and pomegranates are typical. The sculpture over the door is less fortunate: Professor Oprescu refers to it as "Italian Baroque under pressure of Byzantine eastern influences."The first part of the XVIIIth century saw the construction of the Văcăreşti Monastery [demolished by Ceauşescu in the 1980s] by the Mavrocordato family in the same tradition as the earlier family of Greek origin, the Cantacuzinos, and as the Brâncoveanu family. This structure includes even more lavish embellishments but the style is practically unchanged. It is one of the last evidences of church architecture in this tradition; from the second half of the XVIIIth century interest in architecture and sculpture waned and the accent was placed on painting. The Romanian sociologist, D. Drăghicescu, [in 1907] points out a distinguishing characteristic of the Romanian religion:"There is no town or townlet in Romania as in other countries which bears the name of any saint. Instead of the churches named after saints giving their names to the quarters in which they are situated, as is customary among other Christian peoples, it is the quarters that give their names to the churches. Thus, there is the Oţetari (vinegar makers) Church, the Olari (potters) Church, the Tăbăcari (tanners) Church, etc.Others bear the name of the person who built them, thus Kalinderu, Cretzulescu, Manea-Brutaru, Enei, or else queer names, such as, for instance, the Church of the Silver Knife, Arnota, Cozia, the Church Made of One Single Tree Trunk, etc."Because the Virgin and the saints represent specific community problems such as births, marriage, children, health, crops, business, social promotion, and also are patrons of individuals bearing their names, the relationship between the Romanians and their gods is more personal and temporal, less doctrinaire and metaphysical.The Catholic priest, who was also an Austrian diplomat, reveals how personal and personified this relationship is [Stefan Raicevich, Voyage en Vallachie et en Moldavie, Paris, 1822]:"There is no doubt that the masses which have not the remotest idea of Christian morality consider all those who do not belong to their religion as heathens. That is why they worship an image more than they do the Eucharist. For instance, in Bucharest, there is an image of the Virgin Mary which is supposed to have miraculous powers. If the Prince or some great lord is ill, the finest carriage is sent to fetch it from the Sărindar Monastery where it is kept. The Abbot gets into the carriage, which is surrounded by burning torches, holding the image to his breast. If the sick man is of inferior rank, a monk in an ordinary cab takes a smaller image which is probably a copy of the other one. Finally, if the sick man is poor, a lay brother walks to the sick man's home with a small picture. All, however, send a present to the Monastery. In the streets through which the image passes, the people bow down with a reverence which varies in proportion to the size of the image." An English Protestant reverend, accompanying his Ambassador to the court of the Sublime Porte at Constantinople, in 1818 wrote in his memoirs [Rev. R. Walsh, Narrative of a Journey from Constantinople to England, London, 1828]:"…Formerly, it was the practice for the Boyars, like their ancestors the Scythians, to ride on horseback, from which they seldom were seen dismounted in the streets. It was only about thirty years ago that they adopted the more effeminate habit of riding in carriages; and this practice is congenial to their vain and indolent disposition, that now they would not cross to the opposite side of a street without entering into them. But the circumstance which most distinguishes Bucharest is melancholic dissoluteness of manners among all classes. The town abounds with wine-houses; and, to attract customers, a number of women are kept in each house, who are ready at a call to dance and sing for the guests. To these houses the Boyars repair from their own families and pass their evenings among the most shameless class of females that ever disgraced the sex. In this way it is that Bucharest is rendered infamous for profligacy beyond any other city in Europe. The number of this unfortunate class is so great, that it was proposed to lay a capitation tax to them, as the most profitable source of revenue that could be resorted to and it is expected that the proposal will be carried into effect. …The first thing that struck me in the streets was the number of brilliant carriages rolling in all directions or standing at the doors.…It is the favorite vanity of the boyars to display these machines, on which they expend large sums of money; as they are made merely for show – falling to pieces in a year or two, and requiring a constant expense to supply new ones. In one of these gaudy vehicles a fat Boyar sits, wrapped in a rich pelisse with an enormous calpac, or cap of curious shape, consisting of two large lobes swelling out one above the other and covered with green or scarlet velvet. In the front is generally a tall, dirty fellow, in a shabby, ragged, grey great-coat; his head covered with a large, slouched, foxy felt hat, tied with cord, from which his hair hangs loose and matted about his face and shoulders. This barbarous mixture of finery and rags the Wallachians seem to have derived from the Russians." Most revealing and of pointed importance are the observations made by the Russian Ilya Ehrenburg. In 1945, he interspersed his observations inevitably with allusions to Marxism: "Romania impresses the visitor by its contrasts. Luxurious Bucharest and not far away the coal mines of the JiuValley where the miners live in underground hovels and crawl into their dens like wild beasts. There is plenty of contrast in Bucharest too, a skyscraper and next to it a hovel, luxurious motor cars and oxen, a lady with a Parisian hat and a barefooted peasant woman in a cotton frock. The boyar's palace with decorative birds, with Della Robia pottery in the stables and Louis XIV closets, and next to it a miserable hovel. Choice French cookery and a life of starvation. Literary salons where Mallarmé adepts wrangle with Tristan Corbière adepts and millions of illiterates who instead of a signature affix a cross…" Donald DUNHAM, a distinguished American diplomat and writer (Envoy Unextraordinary, 1944; Kremlin Target U.S.A., 1961; Zone of Violence, 1962, etc.) was trained at Harvard and Yale, and at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. His diplomatic career occasioned his first-hand exploration of various cultural backgrounds such as those of Germany, Greece, China, Arabia, Romania, Switzerland, Papua New Guinea. excerpts from © Donald Dunham, Romanian Profile, The Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999

by Donald Dunham