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  • Ilinca Stroe

A People’s Masterpiece: Atheneul Român (the Romanian Athenaeum)

As you walk past the elegant statue of national poet Mihai Eminescu, located in the little park in front of it, as you climb up the flight of stairs, cross the peristyle with its six Ionic columns and five fine mosaic medallions depicting great Romanian rulers, as you enter the monumental ground floor circular lobby, with its 12 columns and four spiral staircases made of pink Carrara marble, and head towards the richly decorated concert hall on the first floor, you wouldn’t guess that the story of this exquisite building started hundreds of kilometres away, in Iaşi, in 1860.

That year in the Moldavian capital three culturati decided to co-found the Cultural Society “Romanian Athenaeum”: statesman Mihail Kogălniceanu, physicist Ştefan Micle and historian V.A. Urechia. They meant to popularise scientific discoveries and accomplishments in the field of arts through a series of cultural events such as public lectures, exhibitions, etc. – activities befitting the etymological legacy of the word itself, since “athenaeum”, from Latinised Greek athenaion, means “the temple of Athena”, the goddess of reason and knowledge, as well as a place like a literary or scientific club.

The Society did well for a few years, until V.A. Urechia moved to Bucharest and became a director in the Romanian Ministry of Instruction. Loyal to his previous project, however, in Bucharest the humanist teamed up with naturalist Constantin Esarcu, and resumed the work of the “Romanian Athenaeum” Society in 1865. The Society comprised three sections (science, ethics and literature) and organised public conferences, i.e. courses about arts and sciences which were open to the public, destined, as Esarcu insisted, “for the people, and I repeat, for the people.” [1] Esarcu was a strong believer in the intellectual growth of the people through instruction, and he had set out to attain the “development of the national consciousness in the field of ideas in literature, arts and the sciences”. [2]

In time, the original location of the courses, a Society member’s house near the Cişmigiu park, became insufficient and Esarcu declared his “ambition to build in Bucharest a palace of the sciences and arts where we can proudly host celebrities that will visit us or whom we will invite to our country.” [3] In 1884, through government decree the Society was authorised to receive a piece of land which had been used by the Equestrian Society and where the circular foundations of a horse training facility had already been laid.

But, once the land secured, where to get the money for the building itself? Esarcu et co found the solution: a lottery was organised, with the slogan “Daţi un leu pentru Atheneu” (“Donate a leu for the Atheneu”), and so, painstakingly, through public subscription, penny upon penny piled up and flourished into a neoclassical-style “temple of Athena” masterminded by French architect Albert Galeron, seconded by Romanian architects Ion Mincu, Constantin Băicoianu, Grigore Cerchez and others, with 12-metre high columns, a majestic dome rising 41 metres above the ground, an auditorium with exceptional acoustics, 600 seats in the stalls and 52 loges, and the names of all the humankind’s major minds carved in stone on the exterior or painted among the interior rich decorations: Homer, Virgil, Michelangelo, Raphael, Pericles, Corneille, Beethoven...

Esarcu’s goal, to bring to the people the sensational richness of ideas from humanity’s arts and sciences, was coming true in 1888, when the building was inaugurated, thanks to the people themselves. Through public subscription were also done, in 1933-1938 and in 1935, respectively, the 75- square-metre long and 3-metre wide fresco by painter Costin Petrescu, depicting 25 major events in the history of Romania on the circular wall of the concert hall, and the organ on the stage. [4] By 1940, the people of Romania, particularly the inhabitants of Bucharest, had built for themselves a temple of the liberal arts without precedent in the entire history of their country. Indeed, very few other achievements in Romania rely on such a massive, superb collective effort to build something together.

Today home to the “George Enescu” Philharmonic Orchestra, the Romanian Athenaeum has hosted over time a good deal of major events in the country’s history, be them propitious or less so: it was the place where George Enescu made his debut in 1898, where his Romanian Rhapsody was first performed in public, five years later, and where Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was played for the first time on Romanian ground (1914). It was the building where, in December 1919, the Romanian Chamber of Deputies officially ratified the unification of Bessarabia, Transylvania, Bukovina, Wallachia and Moldavia into Greater Romania. It was also the place where the Romanian Workers’ Party came into being in 1948, which was to set up the communist regime in the country (and have the Athenaeum fresco hidden under a red curtain for decades, to conceal the country’s monarchic past). Most recently, it was the venue where Romania launched its European Council Presidency on 10 January 2019, where European officials Antonio Tajani, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk gave emotional speeches, some of which paid homage to the historical characters pictured in the Athenaeum’s fresco.

Declared a European Heritage site in 2007, Atheneul Român holds within its monumental walls an invaluable repository of not just musical, not just historic, not just political and cultural, but also illustrious spiritual echoes. A temple of Athena where Romania’s people have yielded the best and finest of their mind and soul.

Notes & Sources

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Ibidem.

Picture credit

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