Drobeta Turnu Severin: Fin de Siècle architecture and Roman heritage in south western Romania

The Danube’s Iron Gate gorge system separates the Carpathian and the Balkan mountain ranges, controlling the main waterway, and thus one of the important trade routes, between Central Europe and the Balkan peninsula. The city of Drobeta Turnu Severin sits immediately downstream from the Iron Gate and thus is excellently positioned to benefit from the traffic passing on the great river. Its history can be traced down to the period when the area was inhabited by Celtic and Dacian tribes, the place name “Drobeta” being probably, in my opinion, a Celtic origin toponym having similar roots with that of Drogheda in Ireland, which means “bridge of the ford”. In fact one of the most audacious civil engineering and architectural master-works of the Roman Empire, the Emperor Trajan’s bridge over the Danube (inaugurated in 105 CE), immortalised on the Trajan’s Column in Rome, both built by the architect Apollodorus of Damascus, stood in the vicinity of the city at a place where the river has one of the lowest depths in the area, which tallies with the meaning of the word mentioned for the Irish case. The “Turnu Severin” part of the city’s name came into use during medieval times and it means a northern (“Severin”) located tower (“Turnu”) provided fortification, originating probably in the old-Romanian language of early Middle Ages. An abstract depiction of the ancient Trajan’s bridge is presented bellow on the reverse of a bronze Roman coin, sestertius (RIC 569-C), issued by the emperor to commemorate its inauguration.

Roman coin issued in 105 - 108 CE depicting the Trajan's bridge over the Danube, close to Drobeta Turnu Severin (Valentin Mandache collection).

After the fall of the Roman imperial rule in the region, Drobeta flourished again economically and as an urban centre comparable with the Roman times, only eighteen centuries later, in the reign of Prince, later King, Carol I of Romania (1866 -1914). That was the result of freeing the Danube navigation in the second part of the c19th both physically by the blowing up of the dangerous underwater rocks from the Danube’s cataracts at Cazane, upstream Turnu Severin, and politically by wars against a dying out Ottoman empire, the erstwhile overlord of the region, and subsequent international treaties. Those circumstances allowed the navigation of large modern vessels on the river course, which allowed goods to easily travel from Vienna as far as the Aegean Sea or grains from the Wallachian plains to reach markets in the heartland of Europe.

Old warehouses (1890s - 1900s) that once stored goods from the Danube river trade, Drobeta Turnu Severin, south western Romania.

Drobeta Turnu Severin greatly profited from the important trading opportunities generated by its favourable geographical location and those auspicious political circumstances prevalent at the Fin de Siècle. A remnant of those glorious times is the large warehouse pictured in the photograph above, today left neglected as the region is currently adversely affected by the actual recession and government maladministration. The city was also endowed in that period with beautiful buildings, a very small sample being presented in the images bellow.

Little Paris style house, late 1890s, Drobeta Turnu Severin, south western Romania.

The usual architecture of those houses is the Little Paris style, which represents French c19th historicist styles, interpreted in a picturesque provincial manner in Romania from the “La Belle Époque” period.

Little Paris style house, dating from the late 1890s, Drobeta Turnu Severin, south western Romania

The edifices presented here are quite large by any standard and richly ornamented, more than positively comparable with the best houses in this style of the late 1890s Bucharest.

Neo-Gothic - early Renaissance style house dating from the late 1890s, Drobeta Turnu Severin, south western Romania.

There were also buildings in other styles as the one shown in the image above testifies, due to a diversity of increasingly sophisticated tastes among a very cosmopolite population that numbered Romanians, Germans, Serbians, Jews, Hungarians, Greeks, Italians and many other ethnicities.

Little Paris style house, late 189s, Drobeta Turnu Severin, south western Romania.

Turnu Severin, in 1906, together with the rest of Romania celebrated King Carol I‘s forty years of glorious and prosperous reign and eighteen centuries since the Roman conquest of Dacia (in 106 CE), a historical watershed moment that set into motion the formation of the Romanian people.

The bust statue of the Roman emperor Trajan, inaugurated in 1906; the cental park of Drobeta Turnu Severin.

As part of those celebrations, a bust of the emperor Trajan was inaugurated in the central park of the city, whose history and identity is so much linked to the events at the start of the second century of the Christian era.

The column shaft of the bust statue represnting the Roman emperor Trajan, inaugurated in 1906; the cental park of Drobeta Turnu Severin.

Trajan is also considered in the Romanian nationalist discourse and imagination as the founding father of the nation, a role shared with the Dacian king Decebalus whom he vanquished in two devastating wars. Those conflagrations represented the largest scale military engagements in Europe until the advent of the Great War, as stated by the historian Julian Bennett in his seminal biography of Trajan.

1906 Royal Jubilee Exhibition - "Expozitia Generala Romana" postcard decorated with Neo-Romanian motifs expressed in an Art Nouveau manner. (old postcard, Valentin Mandache collection)

The 1906 celebrations culminated with a great exhibition, “Expozitia Generala Romana”, in Bucharest, where the country’s achievements in arts, science and industry were presented to the wider public. The Neo-Romanian style, the new national architectural order has also been one of the main themes of that exhibition, seen in the graphic motifs of the postcard presented above, circulated with that occasion. The two personages whose deeds the country, including the people of Drobeta Turnu Severin, were then enthusiastically celebrating, the Emperor Trajan of the two millennia ago (on the left hand side) and King Carol I, were facing each other across an altar with the Roman She Wolf emblem inscribed on it, blessed by a woman figure personifying Romania, a veritable effusion of national identity symbolism, giving an idea about the ebullient atmosphere and pride felt by the people of that era.

The photographs containing examples of period architecture from Drobeta Turnu Severin were provided by Irina Magdalena Bivolaru, a native of the city and a keen reader of this blog.

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I endeavor through this daily series of daily articles to inspire appreciation of the historic houses of Romania, a virtually undiscovered, but fascinating chapter of European architectural history and heritage.

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If you plan acquiring a historic property in Romania or start a renovation project, I would be delighted to advice you in sourcing the property, specialist research, planning permissions, restoration project management, etc. To discuss your particular plan please see my contact details in the Contactpage of this weblog.

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