The Past: Plus Quam Perfectum

Bucharest is a city in search of identity. Its precise moment of birth is unknown, for the Cetatea Dîmboviţei of the 14th and 15th centuries only played host to its rulers when they occasionally came to ward off threats from south of the Danube or Hungarian attacks form the west. Even Stephen the Great of Moldavia besieged it in 1473. Everything before then is archaeology.It is thanks to archaeology, however, that we still find traces, albeit scattered, pertaining to the history of a town which was formed out of villages before becoming the princely seat in the middle of the 16th century when the Ottoman domination was concentrated in check points along the left bank of the river, and here appeared a European Aleppo with slum areas concentrating around churches and monasteries. As the most important trading centre on the northern fringes of the Empire, Bucharest attracted a Balkan population, which settled among the locals with their vineyards and fish ponds: there were Greeks, Armenians, Jews and even a "Turkish quarter".
Commercial connections with Dubrovnik and Venice, followed by the arrival of Italian missionaries, occasioned the appearance of the first canvas paintings alongside Byzantine-style icons in the houses built in wood or, sometimes, of brick. The number of books, initially only religious in nature, gradually increased, despite the only people able to read them being scholars of the Slavonic or Greek school, the scribes of the prince's chancellery and the odd boyar with an inclination for learning. Of the Bucharest houses of that time, which underwent successive transformations from one generation to the next, nothing now remains: war, fire, earthquake and floods left in their wake only dusty and swampy wastelands, empty cellars exposed to the sky, here and there a patch of pasture for cattle. "Bridges", the wooden structures that served to pave the streets, covered the stinking mud.
From the left bank of the Dîmboviţa, home to the old centre, the city spread towards the north, and a merchant's district was created in the Saint George–Lipscani area which stretched towards the route of the future Elisabeta Boulevard. There was no walled enclosure with guarded gates during the night, such as was characteristic of Western urban settlements. The few existing houses were surrounded by courtyards and sprawling gardens, and the number of inhabitants at the end of the 17th century was less than 25,000, a similar figure to that for Munich and Warsaw at the time. The old inhabitants of the town had a clear sense of the beautiful, though above all they valued dress and ornaments. This can be seen from the numerous bead merchants, silk smiths, tailors and lace makers, alongside whom silversmiths and gypsy goldsmiths would fashion jewellery from precious metals, not to mention the Indian satin, cloth and fur purchased for the princely court.
This aesthetic sensibility is seen predominantly in gardens and churches, which were located next to one another. This spatial proximity expressed a functional relationship between them. The orchard garden, containing many types of flower, existed before Brâncoveanu employed a Frenchman on a salary to redesign it in an Italian style. As early as 1649, Matei Basarab's wife, Princess Elina, wrote to Braşov to have sunflower seeds sent to her in Tîrgovişte. Thus the Central European model already existed, but there was also a Byzantine horticultural tradition, brought to these parts by the Serbs and identifiable through the names of the flowers, e.g. trandafir (rose), garoafă (carnation). A western engraving drawing a maze garden was considered a gift of great value, worthy of a ruler, in the absence of a real-life example.
Religious sites contained the largest amount of decoration. For example, the inscription above the door of Saint Sava in Bucharest – to which Brâncoveanu attached a school, an initiative he intended to be for the good of the community, meant not only to keep his memory alive, but also to ensure the salvation of his ancestors' souls – announces clearly that "His Highness did build from nothing this structure so ingenious and beautiful." The scenographic aspect of the interior painting and the valuable possessions used in decoration of the commissioned buildings won the admiration of his contemporaries. Often, as with princely residences out of the town like Mogoşoaia, Potlogi and Doiceşti, the church and the palace were part of the same complex, both being made complete by the garden, and with the chapel an addition to the building "so ingenious and so beautiful".
The praise of one of the visitors to Brâncoveanu's court, an Oxford don who hailed him as a "reviver of architecture", was less inspired by the well built and richly decorated churches whose iconography he criticised as "representations of superstition", and far more by the "proud and grandiose" apartments of the palace in Bucharest. Here, as in Tîrgovişte, the boyar houses, made of stone and with shingle roofs, were equally handsome, their interiors protected by oak tree palisade. Civil architecture was represented by the manor houses in the surrounding area, one of these, that in Văcăreşti, being described by an Arab traveller as "a palace without equal in the world with the exception of France." (It was built by craftsmen brought from Transylvania, and hence, with its three storeys and tiled roof, probably resembled the castles of Hungarian noblemen.)
What stands out about the shining examples of this period is their geographical isolation. They would have impressed even Western observers but were too isolated; indeed, the political and economic centre of Wallachia had not yet become a capital with the communication networks enjoyed by a European city. Socialisation took place away from the home: at churches, public houses and around public wells. Cosmopolitan life in Bucharest flourished during the Phanariote era (later, another foreign witness, at the time of the Crimean War, was to note the existence of 37 different languages in use!) and would not be reigned in until the nationalist reaction at the end of the 19th century and only fully brought under control, under political pressure, after 1948. The relationship between urban and rural space has remained a highly charged one to this day, thanks to issues of supply and, later, the labour needs of industry. The adhesion of villages to the city continued so rapidly that, by around 1780, Prince Alexandru Ipsilanti, established a border by decree, albeit that limit was not respected later. The first urban reforms were also implemented around this time: not only in terms of repairing the wooden pavement of the streets or servicing the primitive sewerage system, but also through an alignment of buildings as a consequence of legislation designed to protect the "light of the streets". True urbanisation, however, requires delimitation between the bourgeoisie and other social groups. The contrast between urban elements and those from outside took a long time to become defined. The liberation of urban space from a feudal form of dependence did not take place until 1821. Indeed, the semi-rural appearance of Bucharest is the product of this social structure. This also throws light on the gap between the residences of the aristocratic elite and the living conditions in popular districts.
The Oriental-style boyar house, with its traditional overhanging closed loggia ("sacnisiu"), was an imitation of the Istanbul style. The interior, like in Fanar, was adorned with painted panels featuring vedute or city panoramas ("Tsarigrad and Moscow were well depicted," according to a chronicle in 1765) and mouldings similar to those on the walls of the Fundenii Doamnei church, representations of an enchanted garden with peacocks and cypress trees. The most valuable items in the house were the gilded mirrors and, as the same source said, "the cabinets decorated in silver and mother-of-pearl, all finely fashioned in Venice." One generation later, when the Prince of Ligne visited Russian-occupied Iaşi in 1788, he climbed the steps to some boyar houses, the layout of which he described as having a turret at the entrance to the only floor, a large central room with smaller rooms to the left and the right, and a balcony at the end overlooking a garden of fountains and pavilions: "de beaux jardins romantiques," in the words of the lord of Beloeil Castle.
The prevailing architecture in the other, southern, Romanian capital was a mixture of folk tradition and Oriental style, as seen in the transition from the traditional veranda to glass-walled gangway. We can take the appearance, in 1831, of a house in the Olarilor suburb: "Beneath these houses there are two shops, one a public house with one room and cellar big enough for eight barrels, another shop, a kind of patisserie with one room. Above the shops there are four rooms including bedroom and kitchen, in the middle a hallway and a corridor and staircase leading towards the loft." In the yard, next to the stable, there was a lavatory. As to the boyar houses, Ion Ghica recalled the houses in the area in which he grew up on the banks of the Dîmboviţa: "The giant houses, with verandas, hallways, various anterooms, loggias, large guest rooms, winter and summer dining rooms, bedrooms and larders, with arcades and reverse arches, cellars and basements below; shingle roofs taller than the house itself and with eaves overhanging all around by two yards. In a row along the courtyard wall, kitchens, servants and staff rooms, stables, outbuildings, flower and kitchen gardens, orchards, a hay barn and timber yard." The interior decoration was entrusted to those German and Italian painters who had ventured this far and who covered the walls and ceiling with the gods of Olympus. The first steps towards modernising the craft of building in Bucharest would not have been possible without the advent of the "architect": the first of these we know of, Transylvanian by name, appeared in 1819. Like doctors, these professionals were imports, and their biographies show that before reaching these parts they have travelled widely in the East, e.g. Johann Freiwald had worked in Yannina for Ali Pasha.
The society they found here, before locals joined their profession, was still extremely conservative in so far as trade and money lending were controlled by a Balkan people accustomed to Turkish houses with their picturesque verandas, while craftsmen and wine growers were too poor to conceive of a new type of house. What had happened in the Ottoman Balkans, through the social and economic differentiation of small producers, had a different cause here. The bourgeois class we inherited from the Phanariots, and which continued to grow after 1821, hid behind the aristocratic titles of boyar it purchased. This was a bureaucratic process: the lowest professional rank which conferred the right of noble status was scribe ("man of the pen").
Thus by becoming a public servant, the Romanian broke into the increasingly numerous ranks of the elite. This meant abandoning Oriental fashion in favour of adopting "European" dress, ordering furniture and carriages from abroad and, to top it all, showing off with a modern house. However, leaving behind the solidarity of the merchants and craftsmen's guilds, he aimed at individual aggrandisement, and the house he now built looked out neither to the left nor the right, but was instead enclosed in its own courtyard from which access to the street was possible only via a serpentine path through other plots of land. The crowding of buildings in the centre knew no order, as one Austrian officer, who came to Bucharest in 1855, observed. Though he noted that "The Wallach is very able and thirsty for culture," he disliked the city and laughed at the locals for calling it "Little Paris". As a "foreigner from a civilised country," as Captain Dietrich described himself, he retained his critical tone but was unable to be anything other than full of praise for the luxurious shops of the Lipscani area, which were comparable with those of Vienna at the time. He was also impressed with the palaces owned by the important boyars, which were "crammed with oriental shine and western elegance; staircases, even hallways, are decorated with the most expensive carpets, adorned with gilded mirrors, bronze statues and even rare paintings." This sumptuous décor, he notes bitterly, "is of the most modern French taste. Only that which comes from France, in particular Paris, is valued." With somewhat more justification, he criticised the lack of civic responsibility among the rich: "Not a single offering of goodwill for the good of the city." The same conclusion was reached some twenty years earlier by the famous German military commander Moltke, who described what he had seen in Bucharest in concise terms: "The most wretched of hovels beside the most modern of palaces and old Byzantine style churches." The contrast between poverty and prosperity made him think of a border between two worlds: "Asia and Europe appear to touch in this city." The superficial imitation of the West, also noted by other foreign observers during this period of transition, is encapsulated by the wish in 1858 to introduce the European innovation of coal gas lighting, when only very few streets were even paved (in fact, it was not introduced until 1871). PERFECTUMThe next stage in this synthesis takes place during the reign of Carol I, between 1866 and the outbreak of the First World War. Contemporary witnesses, however, recall that it was only following independence that urban transformation fulfilled its promise, with the birth of the new city next to the old. The provision of drinking water by underground pipes, organised sanitation, the rectification and deepening of the Dîmboviţa river bed (with French engineers), the introduction of public transport (horse-drawn and, from 1892, electric trams) and the use of oil, gas and electricity in street lighting were the main reforms that brought the living conditions of Bucharest's inhabitants close to those in the West. The completion of this stage in the life of the city and the country was marked by the 1906 Jubilee Exhibition held to celebrate the first four decades of rule by Carol I, which can be compared to what the reign of Queen Victoria meant for London or that of Franz Joseph for Vienna, Budapest and Prague.In the capital of a united Romanian state (kingdom after 1881), the population had doubled to 300,000 at the start of the new century, compared with 177,000 in the year of Independence and corresponding to an overall demographic growth from 4,500,000 to 6,000,000 inhabitants. By the time of Carol's death, this figure had risen by a further one and a half million. The class brought to the forefront of the modernisation movement by the social schisms of the 19th century, the bourgeoisie of public servants, also increased in size: from 64,000 in 1871 to 102,500 by 1900. In Bucharest, the same census recorded the existence of some 6,000 public servants. The high number of architects (116 in the capital alone) was indicative of the high demand for practitioners of this profession, which had enjoyed official status ever since the founding, in 1891, of the Society of Architects under the chairmanship of Al. Orăscu, who also designed the BucharestUniversity building.
There was a lot to be done. In 1890 alone, they built 1,179 single storey houses, 98 two storey houses, 19 three story houses and 5 four storey houses. Political and economic stability provided the foundations for the development of the Romanian capital in this period. The abolishment of the barriers, which until 1895 had held back the expansion of the city, now allowed for enlargement towards the north and north-west. The east-west axis, taking in some of the traffic on Calea Moşilor, created a connection between the Obor suburb and the fashionable Cotroceni residential district, and included the levelling of uneven land, like that near Cişmigiu where there was a 5-10 m difference between one side of the boulevard and the other. Intersecting this "Strada Nouă" and heading towards Piaţa Victoriei, previously a peripheral area of country houses scattered between patches of vineyard, was the new Colţei Boulevard (today Lascăr Catargiu), which created a link with the administrative centre and connected hôtel particulier-style buildings in the same way as the central arteries of Paris or Brussels. Many façades were direct copies of what the architects had seen abroad, with stucco caryatids and mascarons used on one house after the other. An older attempt to imitate a Western style, on Strada Batişte, was sharply criticised in 1869 by Ulysse de Marsillac, a French journalist living in Bucharest, who poked fun at the plaster ornaments which easily disintegrated under the effects of rain or the summer heat. Looking at the same stucco work today, now over one hundred years old (though neglected for the last 60), it stirs the heart to see their resilience. In the meantime, these buildings have earned the right to a certain amount of respect through an association with the people who once lived there. Beyond their aesthetic qualities, it is also these lives which impress us.
Even the inhabitants of Bucharest during the period in question showed an indifference towards the past and wouldn't hesitate to eradicate it. The restructuring of the centre of the city was done at the expense of churches, inns and old boyar houses. However, the houses which replaced them were designed not only to provide higher levels of comfort; they also reflected a new aesthetic. It is this which emerges in abundance from the collection of images presented here. The intended public for this album does not need to be told why these works of art, of an amazing diversity of form and colour, have a right to exist. At the time these houses were built, the "borrowings" were possibly more obvious. But then, although the odd Galleron, Gottereau, Schiendl, Louis Blanc and Albert Ballu worked in the same way they would have done in their own countries, and although among the indigenous architects I. D. Berindei and Leonida Negrescu made no attempt to hide what good pupils of foreign schools they had been, the insertion of their designs into the landscape produced something that was different. The Bucharest discovered with admirable dedication by Dan Dinescu is a Baroque city.
Following him, step by step, along silent streets soaked in sun or frozen behind a curtain of snow, we see wrought iron balconies, elaborate stucco decoration, window frames, handrails, stone shields bearing heraldic insignia, faux gothic crenellations, mascarons and caryatids, painted and sculpted friezes under overhanging roofs all these have Western origins but exist here thanks to the infinitely patient skill of local craftsmen.
On the other hand there is shrivelled plaster on brick, ramshackle walls in the tight grip of ivy, darkened dormer windows, broken awnings, chipped steps: these signs of decay have taken on an originality and an enchanting poetry. You will be reminded of the old legend told by Kipling about the lost city in the Indian jungle hidden beneath heavy vegetation: there are no more people and the guardian of the ruins is a snake worn grey by age.
The great authority on architecture and urbanism Lewis Mumford identified in the Baroque the expression of an aspiration to power and order. It only appears at moments when authority triumphs, and this moment in Romanian society was late in coming and also of short duration. The era of Constantin Brâncoveanu can, through a climax of ornamentation lasting a quarter of a century, be seen as one of triumph over a number of significant political crises. With influences from Venice and the Habsburg world, which also included Transylvania, and the contribution of the Christian East, we discover the Baroque in the Wallachia of the magnificent prince. But we lose it again to local tradition, for, after Brâncoveanu's execution in 1714, a weak regime was installed, one under Ottoman tutelage and weakened by foreign military occupation and the scheming of the boyars. However, the return of the Baroque was made possible by the rediscovery of political stability based on lasting foundations that began in 1866 with the arrival on the scene of Carol I. Carol, the first constitutional monarch and someone with a German mentality and education synonymous with the previous century, ruled like Louis XIV without the latter's mistresses, but still skilfully and masterfully manipulating the men of politics, with the result that he was much respected but never loved. It was not his personal artistic taste, which was mediocre despite the training of his youth, but rather his overpowering desire for prestige and meticulous severity which had a major influence on the physical appearance of the capital. Mumford described the formal, methodical aspect of the Baroque city and its strict street layout, noting that architecture must pass through a whimsical phase of the Baroque before giving way to the discipline of the neo-classical. On the inside, the parlour is the centre of intellectual life and, simultaneously, the place for practicing the manners which transform culture into civilisation. In front of the house, the residential square also plays a role strictly defined by the Baroque theory of urban space: it is a place of socialisation for aristocratic and bourgeois families of the same standing and with the same life styles.
The pomposity of the Baroque was thus embodied for the last time in Europe in the spectacle provided by Bucharest. A NOTE ON THE PRESENTAmong the spiritual needs of today, which arose as a reaction to confusion, ignorance and pretension, there also exists the desire to break free mentally from this disappointing environment and seek some form of compensation in history. Looking to the past opens up many opportunities. New arrivals to Bucharest, whose numbers have risen and continue to rise, have the feeling of having been transplanted into a foreign city. They suffocate one another in a space too narrow for the number of vehicles. They assert their claim to a cell in the giant beehive. Residential housing is being squeezed out towards the outskirts, while the centre is being crowded with office buildings, which, after business hours, fall into darkness. After the urban revolution begun in its most brutal form by Ceauşescu widening boulevards for parades and annihilating a large part of the city's historical heartland, property speculation is now launching an assault on the capital, mercilessly razing parks, filling every inch of vacant land and seeking to do away with every last old building in order to construct yet more towers of concrete, metal and glass. It is the equivalent of placing a gas mask over the wrinkled face of an old man and thus rendering it anonymous. It is the triumph of the conventional over the signs of age imprinted on the identity of the city by experience. Indifference strikes a blow simultaneously in every corner of the historic centre without consulting anyone but the odd bored or corrupt public servant. Nicolae Iorga's prophesy is coming true: "The murder is being planned by means of lifeless forms of an old city that was once a life."Under these circumstances, Dan Dinescu's talent is of great importance to everyone, not just architectural historians. These kinds of books should be available at least for every generation, and the more the better! An entire series of volumes, reprinted after many years or at the initiative of publishers, currently fill the shelves: memories of Bucharest, recollections of the days of old, research requiring specialist knowledge, studies or collections of old photographs. There will never be enough, for they complete, correct and uncover new information about the old city. Looking at the images in this album, which was worked on by Dan Dinescu over many years and capture fragments of present-day reality, provokes strong emotions: the joy of discovering the beauty of details which go unnoticed by the hurried passer-by, and the sadness of viewing these in a state of humiliating deterioration. From these images we must draw the strength to stand up to the aggressive greed which, beneath our very eyes, is disfiguring the face of Bucharest. WHAT YOU WON'T FIND HEREWhat Dan Dinescu's photographs don't show is the interiors of these houses. If we were to take a look inside we would most likely see crooked furniture, broken refrigerators, the odd tin oven or wire mesh bed, some post-war wedding photographs, piles of old junk, all the moulding remains of a household belonging to residents who moved in 60 years ago when the original owners were expelled by the then triumphant new regime. These are tenants of the state, and they still hold on today, under the umbrella of the law, in houses claimed by the heirs of those thrown out by the Communist regime.
Only in very few houses do you still find family portraits showing the boyar headdress and powdered wigs of the 18th century or a reproduction covering an entire wall of some frescos in a village church that possibly no longer exists. More frequently, we find gentlemen with starched shirt fronts and chests covered in medals and women with their faces hidden behind wide-rimmed hats. I saw the face of a young Romantic poet painted by Aman in a room above old stables reached by a rickety wooden staircase that passed a dripping wash basin. When houses are demolished, they sell the Meissen stoves and glass walls used to divide the "modern" apartments of the 1930s. I was shown a lamp and a mirror that used to belong to Maiorescu. I heard recollections from pre-Revolution St. Petersburg told over fine porcelain cups in which the dust engrained by time could be seen through the golden transparency of the tea. In some cases, libraries that have remained intact still hold the odd shelf of French literature, from first editions of Dumas, to Jules Vernes and authors belonging to the Action Française, while in the English corner there are old novels bearing the likenesses of Trollope and Dickens. Elsewhere, I even found Chekhov in pamphlets printed on cheap Russian paper from the start of the 19th century.
All of this, if it is not already lost, is wasting away or being destroyed. The attack to which we are powerless witnesses is eradicating all traces of continuity. Twenty years ago, I used to think that the last line of battle on which old Romania would fall was BelluCemetery, with its grandiose and abandoned tombs, busts whose noses have been broken off and angels whose wings have been severed. Since then, the victorious march of progress has reached the very houses of the city itself, and these are now falling, one by one, to make way for ten or twenty storey buildings of a style found everywhere and nowhere. Romanians are in the money! When we were all poor, the only changes made to the appearance of the city were performed by the state or, towards the end of this period, according to the whims of a crazy couple, who dreamed of a new capital for a truly unique country. For some time now, however, we have been living as if under bombardment: in one corner or other, those parts of the city until now spared by history are taking blows that wipe out their past. With the arrogance that comes with rapidly-acquired wealth, by means of tricks and ruses that go unpunished, speculative investors are setting their eyes on old houses and transforming them overnight into piles of rubble not unlike Ceauşescu, who, during "work visits", would order: "I want this gone by Monday!"
These photographs show us what things caught the eyes of passers-by more than a hundred years ago, but we can still only guess at what life was like inside these houses. Surely not as comfortable as people demand today: with hot water on tap and central heating (the rise in heating costs notwithstanding), or more modern comforts such as double-glazing and mobile phones. Telephones and electric lighting were new at a time when bathroom facilities were limited to a tub of water and a wash basin and water was brought by the barrel from the Dîmboviţa. Along paved streets (a great invention of McAdam!) there rattled the last carriages and the first automobiles, and down the centre of Colţei Boulevard there was a lane for horses lined by rows of poplars that weren't felled until 1970, when the view of Piaţa Romană from Piaţa Victoriei was brutally opened.
Coming back to the interiors of the houses, which do not appear in this album, a glimpse of these can be had from other photographs found in public and private collections. For example, the Museum of the History of Bucharest has a collection of images from inside Casa Manu on Calea Victoriei, which for a long time was a children's nursery (it is now closed and empty). The only time I have been inside there were still some immense mirrors left. In one of the photographs in the album made by Constantin G. Manu, who also published a collection of documents on his family history, you see fur everywhere, on couches and on the floor, as well as icons, scimitars, hookahs and other accessories of Oriental living which many boyars still retained, even after Unification. It was one of Constantin's brothers, Ioan Manu, who is gilding the stuccos to the Highest Court of Appeal, who built the Parisian-style house on Şoseaua Aviatorilor now occupied by a certain Mr. Becali. The father of the brothers, General Gheorghe Manu, lived in the manor house in Budeşti, outside Bucharest, which was destroyed entirely by the earthquake in 1977.
Our memories – we who know what these interiors looked like – are sometimes visited by ghosts. Chippendale chairs now stored in a garage, an immense Maria Theresa wardrobe sold or taken abroad, a causeuse, as furniture in the shape of an S was then known, whose two seats brought interlocutors face to face, a bas-relief by Henri Coandă, sculpted in a material specially invented by Coandă himself, library shelves fixed to the walls, a gift of Queen Marie: these are the scattered memories of different houses long since disappeared.
The voices of these people will die out with those of us who heard them and for whom they never failed to be a comfort. If only their houses, the environments they saw when they stepped outside, were not being sacrificed every time rapacious ignorance spies some prey, we might be able to hope that one day this city will be visited precisely for what has been preserved from the architecture of the first century in the history of modern Romania. If the destruction continues, we will be forever in the debt of the kind and understanding artist Dan Dinescu for having produced this historical document. from The Discreet Charm of Bucharest Romanian Cultural Institute Publishing House / Editura ICR, 2008 English version: Samuel Onn 

by Andrei Pippidi