What I Understand By A Capital

clockwise from top left: Coltei Church, Manuc's Inn, St. Anthony's Old Court Church, Metropolitan Church, Mihai Voda Church, Cretzulescu Church, St. Apostles' Church, St. George's Church.

The administrative efforts that very enthusiastic and dedicated people like mayors D. Dobrescu and Al. Donescu have made lately and the ongoing preparations for the “Month of Bucharest”, including the restoration in their original shape, of old buildings as the Tower of Colţea and Manuc’s Inn are the reasons for which I am determined to talk about what is, and what must be the capital city of a country. As it is not enough for a place to be a royal residence or to be given the pompous name of Capital with a capital C for it to be one indeed. For us to be able to speak of a genuine capital city several conditions must be met and we are going to see to what extent Bucharest meets them, so that by finding out where it comes short of what is needed, the very same good-will and enthusiasm of the leaders that I was talking about, combined with the critical and self-critical spirit of the inhabitants, help us eliminate these shortcomings – and change our city into what that foreign guest and friend of Bucharest called “the beautiful city that it might become”, through an uninterrupted and courageous effort. The first of the conditions I was talking about is that a capital city should include an essential, if not necessarily rich, part of the nation’s history and traditions. I am fully aware of the fact that in modern times, at the end of the abstract-and-entirely-devoid-of-a-historical-sense 18th century new capitals were built, instantaneously; it was a time that was apt to ruin everything that was meaningful in the century-old well-established traditions of the provinces of a great nation like France; these provinces were replaced on the new map of the country by squares representing the arrondissements and departments, their capitals marked by dots; new capitals with wide streets, tall buildings and wide open spaces that were erected on simple administrative orders issued by such-and-such office. Placed as it is on the confines of the Bărăgan Plain and consequently exposed to the icy north wind but not devoid of natural beauty (only people that criticize the city without having taken the trouble to go and see it can maintain that it is), the city that developed from the village of a certain Bucur (a man of whom only popular imagination was capable of making a shepherd, adding to the story even a little church that was supposedly erected by him, but which was in fact the chapel for the churchyard of the monks of the adjoining Radu Vodă Monastery) is rich in historic treasures, which are, however, entirely unknown to most people. While there is nothing left to remind us of the first centuries in the life of the city (the end of the 14th and the 15th century), the 16th century is represented by the Old Court Church that was restored about the year 1700 and is now taken care of by the National Heritage Commission. A real shepherd was buried in this church, Prince Mircea the Shepherd (though he had not been a shepherd in the common sense of the word, that is a man taking care of a flock of sheep, but a sheep merchant and had had a flourishing business trading sheep in the Lower Danube area). Another 16th-century monument is the church built by Alexandru Vodă, much extended by his relative Radu Vodă, the prince under whose name the church has been known to these days. And finally, a third church from the same century is the one built by Michael the Brave on another hill dominating the course of the Dâmboviţa River (in the meantime the church was removed and the hill was leveled in the last years of Ceauşescu’s rule; thus, the best known emblem of the city, the monastery on the hill, was wiped out – translator’s note). Beside the already mentioned extensions ordered by Radu Vodă in the 17th century to the already existing church of the 16th century, there are a number of other 17th century churches that have survived and in a pretty good shape too. If Matei Basarab’s Sărindar Church was foolishly demolished, we still have the Metropolitan Church (built around 1650) that has been recently hideously repainted, Doamnei Church, then the churches erected by the princely family of the Cantacuzenes – Cotroceni, the new Saint George’s Church, Colţea Church and the Church of the Saint Apostles and, outside the town, Afumati and Fundenii Doamnei – as well as Ienei Church, the One-Day Church and Creţulescu Church, the latter being built by Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu and his son-in-law, Iodache Creţulescu (the Cotroceni and Ienei churches were also demolished on Ceauşescu’s orders – translator’s note). An endless list of small churches is indicative of the religious fervor of the people of the Phanariots’ times, an age that, out of ignorance, we unjustly misrepresent even in this respect, while we owe to it the commanding splendor of the Văcăreşti Monastery, originally built outside the perimeter of the city and later incorporated by it, the magnificent gift of Prince Nicolae Mavrocordat, as well as Ghica Church in Pantelimon where the members of this princely family were buried (one of the most remarkable monuments of 18th century South Eastern Europe, the Văcăreşti Monastery was also one of the most outstanding victims of the final years of Ceauşescu’s rule, being demolished in the late 1980-s – translator’s note). Boyards or lesser country nobility, merchants or craftsmen’s guilds, all competed to build such religious monuments so that their memory should outlive them and that they be remembered in the future. So far, however, we haven’t managed to make good use of these architectural jewels, to set them off against the background of the city, even if they are the only monuments that have survived in the city, as most of the palaces and residences have been demolished and no trace has been left of them. We allowed huge modern buildings to be erected around these churches, buildings that are not only utterly ugly, but they also cast their mould-breeding shadows over these houses of worship for which even the most savage barbarians would have shown more respect. It’s not enough to have monuments – and we saw how careless we were in preserving them – a capital city needs large avenues. No human mind can understand how we allowed – at a time when something could still be done in this respect – that Calea Victoriei should have such a sinuous course, which blocks any meaningful perspective on this main road of the city. One could argue that this winding course can be full of surprises and that this labyrinth where you are forced to change direction every hundred yards has its special capricious beauty. I could hardly accept such a point of view. We should be grateful at least that, since this cannot be changed today because of lack of money, we were lucky to have at least energetic mayors like Pache Protopopescu and Nicolae Filipescu who gave the city its two main avenues, thus creating conditions, even if with a delay of several decades, for a normal traffic in the city. To achieve this, they pulled down whole neighborhoods of shabby, unhealthy buildings. The new buildings that replaced them, though not very much in tune with that of the old boyards’ mansions on Calea Victoriei, are much more appropriate for the place that Romania and its Capital should occupy in South Eastern Europe at present... Being a genuine capital has not to do only with buildings, but also with people and their behavior. About a century ago, Mihail Kogălniceanu, writing about Iaşi, tried to sketch a caricature of what he called “the provincial boor”. Before World War I there were no such people in Bucharest. There were two categories of people in Bucharest then; both were equally stable, well-established and endearing. On the one side there were the boyards (the old noble families or more recent nobility) who inhabited often attractive houses in spite of their stylistic eclecticism, houses that you could see in the main neighborhoods of the city in the vicinity of the major streets; and, on the other hand, there were the townspeople living on the outskirts of the city, in houses with porches and big gardens or orchards. They were almost villagers in nature but they loved the city they lived in as much as the other category of people and they were all proud of living in it, they were an integral, organic part of Bucharest. In the last twenty years, however, all sorts of people have come to Bucharest. Peasants fleeing the countryside and hoping to make a living more easily than by farming the land, tramps coming from God knows and God forbid where; and they were not only people from the so-called Old Kingdom (an informal name for Romania before World War I and the territorial gains that followed ittranslator’s note) but countless others from God knows what end of Transylvania or Banat or Bucovina or Bessarabia, people lured by the ease of a new kind of existence and the numerous opportunities of enjoyment that a big city always provides. And this flow is continuous, we can’t stop it, we are not allowed to. It also brings in lots of foreigners that have no love or respect for the Capital, they seem, on the contrary, to be keen on spreading and protecting the filth that suffocates the city. It’s a world that needs breeding and education. Beside the many schools that already exist in the city – though the number of libraries is unacceptably low, the City Library still awaiting its inauguration – we need an educational system for the grown-ups, to teach them not reading, but good manners. It’s a barbarian world that needs to be shaped and molded into cultural patterns, but not random ones, it needs the patterns of our decent, century-old culture, itself the result of a long process of sifting and remodeling. When we come to see our small churches behind the modern buildings, when we stop changing Calea Victoriei into a string of warehouses for foreign factories advertising their products from Banat and Maramureş and we do not allow a greedy, wealthy proprietor to buy the services of a crazy architect and bring in the Tower of Babel to replace the decent residences of a sensible nobility, when the invaders of this city that has had a long history and used to have its good customs, too, are forced to respect their host city and behave in a civilized way, then we will have a capital indeed! In no way do we fall short of what is needed for this task, but we should hurry! I’d like to live to see the new city after I have so lovingly studied the old one. Translated by Dan Mateescu

by Nicolae Iorga (1871-1940)