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  • Ilinca Stroe

Currency Mirroring Values: Romania’s Banknotes

Banknotes, of course, carry financial power. But they’re also indicative of what a country values in terms of achievement, which is in turn suggestive of that country’s character. So much so that we might be tempted to coin a “saying” like, “tell me who you put on your banknotes, and I’ll tell you what kind of a nation you are”.

For example, most of the US dollar banknotes feature statesmen (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, etc.). The UK pound banknotes sport an economist (Adam Smith), a businessman and an inventor, a statesman (Sir Winston Churchill), a writer (Jane Austen). And the Swedish krona picture national personalities from several regions of the country: a writer, a singer, an actress, a film director, a soprano and a diplomat.

Much like the Swedish currency, the Romanian new leu (RON) banknotes are dedicated to cultural personalities, suggesting this is a nation which may not harbour a very practical vision of money (after all, having only statesman on all of your banknotes, as is the case with the US dollar, does indicate a certain attitude towards money), but it views money, instead, as symbolic of human achievement, particularly cultural achievement.

Let’s see specifically what kind of personality, performance and field are celebrated on the current RON banknotes. Noting in passing that all of them are the size of their euro counterparts, each with its colour theme and printed on polymer, let’s start with the lowest denomination: the green 1 RON bill, which features Nicolae Iorga (1871-1940). Iorga was not only a reputable historian, professor, literary critic and playwright, but also the co-founder of a political party and for about a year the Prime Minister of the country. A child prodigy and polyglot, he had an extraordinary memory and an astounding capacity for hard work. He could read and write and was familiar with the works of several international authors before he started first grade; he completed his graduate studies (at the Faculty of Letters in Iaşi) in just one year and three months [1]; he was fluent in French, Italian, Latin and Greek before he turned 15; he held 32 scientific titles granted by universities academies and institutes in the whole world; and he wrote a total of 1,000 volumes and over 20,000 articles [2]. A massive contribution to Romania’s culture and good name abroad.

The light purple 5 RON bill is dedicated to George Enescu (1881-1955), indisputably Romania’s most important musician. Self-defined as a “five-in-one” musician (composer, conductor, violinist, pianist and music professor), Enescu confessed that composing music was, to him, the most blissful experience a mortal could have [3]. A child prodigy, he started playing the violin at an early age, and there’s a manuscript of a 12-bar “opera for violin and piano” called “Romanian land”, which says “by Gheorghe Enescu, Romanian composer aged 5 years and a quarter” [4]. He wrote the two famous Romanian Rhapsodies, the opera Œdipe, five symphonies and a great deal of chamber music. He conducted the renowned Orchestre Symphonique de Paris and New York Philharmonic, he was the violin teacher of legendary Yehudi Menuhin, and top cellist Pablo Casals described him as "the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart" [5].

Going on, the light pink 10 RON banknote pays homage to the world of arts: it portrays artist Nicolae Grigorescu (1838-1907). The founder of Romanian modern painting, Grigorescu as a young artist painted two monasteries (Zamfira and the more widely known Agapia), and studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris with peers such as Auguste Renoir. He enjoyed international exposure particularly in France, where many of his works were exhibited at the 1867 and 1889 Universal Exhibitions in Paris, while at home he was appointed “frontline painter” with the Romanian Army during the Romanian War of Independence (1877-1878). His impressionist works are nowadays sold on the local art market for quite high prices: “Little peasant girl resting” was sold for €270,000 in 2011 [6], while “Colombina in green” was estimated at €150,000-250,000 in 2013.

Next, on the yellow 50 RON bill a flying pioneer is pictured: Aurel Vlaicu (1882-1913). An engineering student in Budapest and Munich, Vlaicu worked with the Austro-Hungarian Navy and in the Opel car factory in Rüsselsheim. He built his first glider and conducted his first flights when he was 27, and he designed three more powered airplanes in his short life. With the second of them he competed at the International Flight Week in Aspern-Vienna against rivals such as Roland Garros, where he won prizes for “precision landing, projectile throwing and tight flying around a pole” [7], and was granted a pilot license by the International Aeronautical Federation. With that, Vlaicu’s work raised early 20th-century Romanian plane design and engineering to world-class level.

The blue 100 RON banknote features Romania’s lead satirist, Ion Luca Caragiale (1852-1912). A playwright, short story writer, poet, theater manager, political commentator and journalist, Caragiale remains, above all, the quintessentially untranslatable diagnostician of the Romanian spirit. It is particularly his plays, influenced by literary trends like Neoclassicism, Realism and Naturalism, that capture with brilliant wit, uncompromising accuracy and a mercilessly analytical eye the weaknesses, peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of the Romanian people: the unprincipled political leadership, the inglorious ethical vacillation, the silly sentimentalism, the taste for defeatism, melodrama and inertia, and a tremendous sense of surrealism. Caragiale, it is overwhelmingly agreed in our culture, is and will probably always be our contemporary and our ever-astute cultural critic.

The dark orange 200 RON bill shows the portrait of humanist Lucian Blaga (1895-1961). Unlike all of the other personalities portrayed on the Romanian banknotes, Blaga was a markedly interbellum cultural shaper. The inter-war age represents the peak of modern Romania’s spiritual self-profiling and quest for identity, and so it was at that time that Blaga, a philosopher, playwright, poet, university professor and diplomat, theorised what many consider the core of profound Romanian identity: “spaţiul mioritic” (the mioritic space), a spiritual realm inspired by the shepherd lifestyle and transhumance as distilled in a foundational folk ballad called “Mioriţa” (“The Ewe Lamb”). Blaga, in his work, sought to capture the ineffable and the sublime of Romanian spirituality, with faith, endurance, sentiment and a certain amount of dreaminess at its core.

Finally, the light grey 500 RON bill features no one else than Romania’s national poet, Mihai Eminescu (1850-1889). Eminescu, described by literary critics as “the last great European romantic”, is considered a literary genius because he converted the Romanian language into a vehicle for poetic beauty, but also because he merged foreign cultural influences, from German Romanticism to Hindu spirituality, into an original work which fully expressed Romanian sensibilities. Eminescu, particularly as a journalist, is also (one might say “unfortunately”) deeply representative of Romanian nationalism, too, with its assertive vigour but on the other hand its xenophobic tendencies. So in a way Eminescu stands as the perfect sum of our virtues and flaws.

If we were to draw a tentative conclusion regarding what current Romanian banknotes suggest about our cultural identity, it would probably become apparent that the higher the value of the bill, the more valued abstract notions (wit, the “mioritic space”, sensibility, “Romanianness”) are. State policy? Some financial institution’s strategy? Mere coincidence? Or a kind of subliminal statement? Irrespective of the real cause, the fact remains that high-value RON bills value the more inexpressible traits of Romanian character. Intriguingly so.

And on a final (feminist) note, following increasing criticism that only men are portrayed on Romanian banknotes, the National Bank of Romania has recently announced that in 2020 it would issue a 20 RON bill picturing World War I hero Ecaterina Teodoroiu, who was extensively portrayed here. We’re looking forward to that!

Notes & Sources

[1] <https://booknation.ro/curiozitati-despre-nicolae-iorga/>

[2] <https://www.tititudorancea.com/z/biografie_nicolae_iorga.htm>

[3] <http://www.rasfoiesc.com/hobby/muzica/George-Enescu-geniu-al-muzicii31.php>

[4] <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Enescu>

[5] Ibidem.

[6] <https://www.romania-insider.com/another-nicolae-grigorescu-painting-sold-for-record-price-on-romanian-art-market>

[7] <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurel_Vlaicu>

Picture credits