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.

Field clues for evaluating the construction date of a period house

Oltenia's coat of arms within a Neo-Romanian decorative panel, house dating from 1919 - '21, Vasile Lascar area, Bucharest. (©Valentin Mandache)

The Neo-Romanian decorative panel in the photograph above consists of vine branches and leaves, having at its centre the coat of arms of the Oltenia province, a historical region similar in size with Wales, located in south western Romania. The owner of the house wanted probably to state through this representation his origins or connections with this old Romanian province. The heraldic sign comprises of a shield on which is depicted a crowned lion raising up from a ban crown. A ban is an old medieval Hungarian term for regional governor, dating from the times when Oltenia was a Hungarian province, over five centuries ago. The lion also holds between its forelegs a six pointed star. I like how this heraldic sign gives excellent clues about the year when the house was built. It is a version of the coat of arms in use between 1872 and 1921. On the other hand, the panel and the whole house façade is made from moulded concrete, a material which started to be used on a larger scale in Romania after the end of the Great War. Moreover, the typology of the stylised vine branches is also characteristic for the early 1920s. All of these features lead me to the view that the house, or at least this particular house section, has been built sometime between 1919 and 1921. Of course that has to be confirmed with archive documents, but through experience and observation I am by and large positive that I am somewhere close to the construction date stated in deeds. The date thus evaluated helps me better understand in situ the architectural history context of that house, the materials and technologies used and formulate an initial guidance to the house owner regarding the restoration/ renovation of his/her period property or its market value range.

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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 Contact page of this weblog.

Great War memorial on village green with the figure of King Ferdinand of Romania

The Great War Memorial for the fallen soldiers in the village of Zatreni, Valcea county/ Photograph ©Valentin Mandache

This post has originally been published in Diana Mandache’s weblog on royal history, and is dedicated to the anniversary tomorrow, 24 August, of King Ferdinand of Romania’s birthday (1865 – 1927), the sovereign of the country during the Great War. The article reflects an important aspect of the local identity, at the village level, fostered by the dramatic impact of the Great War events on the Romanian countryside.

The citizens of Zatreni in south west Romania, paid a high price during the Great War, with 233 men killed in action, a huge loss for a village. The memorial on the village green dedicated to the local heroes features a somehow naively, in a provincial manner, rendered figure of King Ferdinand, the supreme commander of the Romanian army, seen in the above photograph. The monument, most amazingly, survived the communist period, probably because there was no inscription mentioning the sovereign’s name on the monument, which made the local communist authorities believe and propagate the idea that the bas-relief represented just a Great War era soldier personifying the army. Romania’s entry into the war on the side of the Entente was decided by a special Crown Council on 27 August 1916. DM

King Ferdinand’s Proclamation – 28 August 1916

Romanians! The war which for the last two years has been encircling our frontiers more and more closely has shaken the ancient foundations of Europe to their depths. It has brought the day which has been awaited for centuries by the national conscience, by the founders of the Romanian State, by those who united the principalities in the war of independence, by those responsible for the national renaissance. It is the day of the union of all branches of our nation.  Today we are able to complete the task of our forefathers and to establish forever what Michael the Brave was only able to establish for a short moment, namely, a Romanian union on both slopes of the Carpathians. […] In our moral energy and our valour lie the means of giving him back his birthright of a great and free Rumania from the Tisza to the Black Sea, and to prosper in peace in accordance with our customs and our hopes and dreams.

Romanians! Animated by the holy duty imposed upon us, and determined to bear manfully all the sacrifices inseparable from an arduous war, we will march into battle with the irresistible élan of a people firmly confident in its destiny.  The glorious fruits of victory shall be our reward. Forward, with the help of God!  FERDINAND   [Source: Records of the Great War, vol.V, National Alumni, 1923]

All rights reserved Diana Mandache’s Weblog Royal History

see also Forgotten Basreliefs representing Romanian royals

Church Shaped Neo-Romanian Style House

A unusual, medieval Wallachian church shape, Neo-Romanian style house dating from the late 1920s. Dorobanti area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

The ornate Neo-Romanian style house from the above photograph is in the final stages of a professional, in my opinion, renovation and restoration process. It is located in an area dotted with many prime Bucharest period property examples, embassies and exquisite government property edifices. What I found unusual about this building is its general shape, resembling closely that of a medieval Wallachian church, especially the types found in the Oltenia region of SW Romania. For example the arched porch next to the house doorway, visible in the second plane of the lower left corner area, is inspired from that of the Tismana monastery. I like how the church altar area is resembled by the apse like ground level veranda that has above it a beautiful alcove, tiered in three sectors that result in a discreet balcony. Also remarkable are the street fence poles, crowned by elegant jardininers decorated with Neo-Romanian style motifs.

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

The Abstract Tower of A Neo-Romanian House

The abstract tower structure of a Neo-Romanian style house from mid-1920s, Icoanei area, Bucharest (©Valentin Mandache)

One of the main decorative structures of a Neo-Romanian style house is its tower, modelled after that of the fortified houses called cula, built by the yeomen of Oltenia region in the c17th-c19th. The tower usually occupies a great deal of space from that available for habitation and therefore only houses built on large enough plots, difficult to find in the perennially crowded Bucharest, were able to properly accommodate such a prestige structure.  The architectural solution was to design façade structures mimicking the tower, integrating in it verandas on the upper floor or large bay windows. Many Neo-Romanian houses built on small plots of land feature such tower abstractions, seamlessly and graciously protruding from within the façade. I found an excellent example of a Neo-Romanian house tower abstraction, shown in the photograph above, dating from mid 1920s, where I very much like the late Art Nouveau decorative elements that characterizes the Neo-Romanian style in its early phases of development.

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I endeavor through this daily series of images and small 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 Contact page of this weblog.

Imposing Neo-Romanian Style House

A fine example of grand Neo-Romanian style house from mid-1930s, the period when this architectural style peculiar to Romania has reached its zenith. Piata Scanteii area, Bucharest. (©Valentin Mandache)

The house is an architectural jewel and encompasses many features that define the Neo-Romanian style: a citadel-like aspect, similar with that of the fortified houses, the cula, built between c17th – c19th by the yeomen of the Oltenia region, with a suggestion of a bastion in the big first floor bay window, a big veranda on left hand side, arched windows and even a pointed arch window inspired from the Ottoman-Balkan church architecture. The decorative panels contain grape vine representations symbolising branches of the tree of life, a central motif in Romanian mythology.

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

***********************************************

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 Contact page of this weblog.

Citadel Like Neo-Romanian Style House

An eloquent example of a Neo-Romanian style house from the 'citadel' phase/ period of this architectural style's development. The house dates from late 1920s. Armeneasca area, Bucharest. (©Valentin Mandache)

The Neo-Romanian architectural style, about which I wrote a popular article (link  here), had a number of distinct development phases during its nearly six decades lifespan from 1880s, when it was initiated by the architect Ion Mincu, until 1940s when it practically vanished as a style choice for new buildings, a consequence of reaching a dead end in terms of artistic-architectural expression in the new era of slender steel and concrete modernist buildings and also because the post-war communist regime perceived it as as an old bourgeois architectural style relic. The building above, which I photographed on a crisp, frost biting day this winter at minus-20 centigrade temperature, belongs to what I call the citadel phase of development for the Neo-Romanian style- its most spectacular period, that occurred between the mid-1920s and the mid-1930s. Its main inspiration model was the c17th – c18th fortified type house, called cula, of Oltenia yeomen (a social class between local aristocrats/ boyars and free peasants) in south-west Romania. The cula, was interpreted as a nationalist architectural metaphor of the centuries old resistance of the Romanian people against foreign invaders. The Great War, which was instrumental in the emergence of the citadel phase architecture, has been a very traumatic experience for Romania, a country that experienced defeat, occupation of most of its territory, but also exhilarating achievements like the occupation of Budapest, the enemy capital, and the doubling of its territory and population after the war. The Neo-Romanian architecture after the Great War, was thus developing on an excited collective psychological background of survivor-against-all-odds mentality, and the citadel like structures became the preferred chosen type for new buildings designed in the patriotic Neo-Romanian architectural style.  The edifice above is an eloquent example in that regard, where I also like the fact that even the tower roof finial has the shape of a mace, a fearsome medieval weapon, very much mentioned by the bards of the Romanian romantic poetry. See my article on Neo-Romanian roof finials and their significance/message- link here.

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

Daily Picture 8-Feb-10: Art Deco Furniture Find

Walnut veneer Art Deco style furniture made in mid-1930s, preserved in a very good state, placed in the best room of a peasant house located in Dolj county, south-west Romania. (©Valentin Mandache)

I found the fine Art Deco style bedroom furniture in the image above during my fieldwork as a buying agent for a client interested in purchasing a peasant house in the villages that dot the wine producing areas of Oltenia province in SW Romania. In the inter-war period, the peasants from the wine producing regions of Romania got relatively prosperous and started to acquire modern furniture and durable household items. These were destined, as was the Art Deco style bedroom furniture set shown here, for the best room of the house, well looked after and preserved as family heirlooms. The furniture in this case could be sold with the house or separately, making it an interesting and affordable acquisition for anyone interested in Art Deco antique artefacts.

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I endeavor through this daily image series to inspire appreciation of the historic houses of Romania, a virtually undiscovered, but fascinating chapter of European architectural 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 locating the property, specialist research, planning permissions, restoration project management, etc. To discuss your particular plan please see my contact details in the Contact page of this weblog.

From Country Mansion to Village Hall and Back Again

An old country mansion dating from early c20th, built by the local aristocrat/ landlord, in what was perhaps initially a neo-classical style, for use as his residence and farm administrative headquarters. Olt county. (©Valentin Mandache)

The mansion in the image above was confiscated by the communist regime in late 1940s as part of the communist takeover of the private property in Romania, subsequently used as a village hall until early 1990s, then given back to the descendants of the pre-communist owners and now as the result of a lingering property bubble that affects the country, is on the market for huge price tag, much higher than better quality period property from Southern France or Tuscany, left to deteriorate and out of reach of anyone willing to properly restore or renovate it. This is the usual sad trajectory followed by many of the historic houses that dot Romania.

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

***********************************************

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

Daily Picture 14-Jan-10: Peasant Dowry Chest

Peasant dowry chest, with a mix of ethnographic and "urban" decorations; 1880s made, Dolj county, Oltenia region, Romania. (©Valentin Mandache)

I went last summer to see some traditional farmhouses for sale in Oltenia, a region in SW Romania the size of Wales. Many of the household items were left in place like in a time capsule, as some of the houses were put on sale by the descendants of deceased elderly occupants. I was able to see for example a traditional kitchen with all its medieval looking utensils ready to use, or a quaint wine cellar provided with beautiful bricked arches and lined up with old oak barrels.  The dowry chest in the photograph above was one of those charming items encountered there. It was bought, according to the seller, the son of the former occupants, at local country fair in the 1880s and belonged to his great-grandparents. I found its decoration very interesting as it contains a mixture of ethnographic and “urban” motifs, reflecting the aspirational lifestyle of the peasants of  those times. Some of the ethnographic decoration can also be identified on the local pottery. What I found interesting were the two human figures, the teenage looking, male and female, an allusion to the use of this artefact as a dowry chest and that people got then married at a much earlier age. Their apparent hairstyle and clothes fashion look as early c19th, or even earlier, while their face type is very Austrian in my opinion. The Habsburg Empire had historically a powerful influence in the Romanian lands and Oltenia region was even incorporated for a few decades within the Austrian Empire in c18th. Perhaps that was also the origin of those two figures: a popular pattern/ model circulating among craftsmen for many decades, reflecting an aspirational fashion and look introduced by the new power in the land with its modernising message (Vienna and its empire was always perceived as an European modernising force in these parts of the Ottoman Balkans). I would advise those looking to renovate/ restore a house bought in the Romanian countryside, to furnish it, in order to preserve as much as possible from its personality, with at least some local artefacts, the colourful dowry chests being just one such example, and also try to find out some of the fascinating history behind these treasurable objects.

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

***********************************************

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