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The history of a building that represents the "Heart of Romanian culture"


Building-symbol of national culture, the Romanian Athenaeum, built in the heart of Bucharest 135 years ago (1886-1888), became the architectural and spiritual exponent not only of a city, of a Capital, but of a nation. Romania's great personalities and scholars gave lectures here, all the established and young professional artists of the country performed here, many world-class bands and soloists took the podium here, masterpieces of local musical literature were released "in first audition" here , here were organized the first extensive exhibitions, retrospectives of painting and sculpture of the masters of national plastic art, kings and queens, politicians and distinguished guests from abroad came here to participate in events of national and universal importance in - in a word, at the Romanian Athenaeum, moments of historical importance took place that were entered in the golden book of our people.


Few people know today that the Palace of the Romanian Athenaeum was built with the money from a public subscription, following the organization of a national lottery (500,000 tickets worth one leu), the appeal addressed to the citizens by the naturalist Constantin Esarcu (1836-1898), the founder of the Athenaeum Society Romanian, sounding like a popular call, through a downright comical and banal slogan: "Give one Leu for the Athenaeum". The idea of the call surprisingly turned into a lesson of unity, of awakening national consciousness. Conceived by the French architect Albert Galleron, following the scientific research and indications of Alexandru Odobescu, revised and completed by a bunch of Romanian specialists (Al. Orascu, Ion Mincu, Ion Socolescu, Grigore Cerkez, Cucu Starostescu), the circular building was due to the utilization the already existing foundations in the Episcopal Garden that were to serve for the construction of a circus. Inspired by ancient Greek temples, the edifice surprises at first sight with a historical colonnade that supports a triangular pediment.

On the ground floor, the impressive marble lobby includes the 12 Doric columns supporting the concert hall. Four monumental baroque spiral staircases in Carrara marble, unfolded with balconies on the intermediate floor, connect the hall and annexes (offices, rehearsal rooms, booths for soloists and conductor, etc.). Arranged in the form of ancient Greco-Roman amphitheatres, the almost 1,000 seats (three ground floor areas and two circular rows with 52 boxes, in the middle with a central box) offer perfect visibility from any corner and impeccable hearing. The perfection of the sound is due to the huge dome (richly decorated) that "absorbs" the instrumental and vocal background from the podium, to distribute it through reverberation to the listeners, with the entire range of harmonics up to the finest timbral colors and nuances. It seems that the exceptional acoustics of the sound cavity, specific to the Romanian Athenaeum, placed the hall among the most successful constructions of this kind not only in Europe, but in the whole world. The fresco, evoking the history of the Romanian people in 25 episodes, made over five years by the painter Costin Petrescu, the organ installed in 1939 following the material aid of George Enescu, the numerous technical improvements produced after the earthquakes and the bombing of 1944, from the end of the Second World War, but especially the changes from 1966-1967 (the introduction of air conditioning, the restoration of the ceiling, the change of armchairs, the redistribution of the boxes, the widening of the forecourts, etc.) transformed the Romanian Athenaeum into a unique architectural complex in the center of the Capital. For over half a century, it has been the headquarters of the "George Enescu" Philharmonic, and since 1958 the "Headquarters" of the "George Enescu" International Festivals.

Launching cradle of Romanian musicians, from Enescu and Lipatti, Clara Haskil, Cella Delavrancea to Ion Voicu, Lola Bobescu, Radu Aldulescu, George Georgescu, Dimitrie Dinicu, Eduard Wachmann, Alfonso Castaldi, Ionel Perlea, DG Kiriac, Constantin Silvestri, Elena Teodorini, D. Popovici-Bayreuth, Zina de Nori, Theodor Rogalski, Alfred Alessandrescu, Iosif Conta, Cristian Mandeal, Erich Bergel, Horia Andreescu, Valentin Gheorghiu, Antonin Ciolan, Ion Nonna Otescu, Mircea Basarab, Mihai Brediceanu, Egizio Massini, etc. The Romanian Athenaeum offered Bucharest music lovers unforgettable meetings with Pietro Mascagni, Vincent Indy, Richard Strauss, Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, Felix Weingartner, Hermann Scherchen, Erich Kleiber, Pierre Monteux, Clemens Krauss, Hermann Abendroth, Vaclav Talich, Herbert von Karajan, Carl Bahm, Wilhelm Bakhaus, Claudio Arrau, Marguerite Long, Wilhelm Kempff, Henryk Szeryng, Alfred Cortot, Arthur Rubinstein, Pierre Fournier, Zino Francescatti, Jacques Thibaud, Pablo Casals, Walter Gieking, David Oistrah, Yehudi Menuhin , Monique de la Bruchollerie, Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonid Kogan, Ruggiero Ricci, Daniil Shafran, Dmitri Bashkirov, Christian Ferras, Nikita Magaloff, Sviatoslav Richter, etc.

Temple of Romanian art and culture, the Romanian Athenaeum remains, after 135 years, not only a building of universal heritage, representative as architecture for Romania and the Balkans (with reference to Greek antiquity), but also a symbol of a people's spiritual tradition . And if the original circular foundation was never dreamed of by the founders, architects and builders as an ideal form for an architectural monument (there were voices in the era who criticized the unusual technical solution), here is the time for the descendants of the culture of ancient Dacia to become a turning stage not only of history, but also of art in the context of Europe. "Riding" for three centuries (the equestrian foundation turned out to be basaltic), the Romanian Athenaeum opened wide its doors to enlightened universal spirits, who met in Bucharest, to fraternize with the natives of the lands at the mouths of the Danube. Although the founders dreamed that all the sister arts would find their place under the dome of this cultural forum, yet it seems that few realized that the exceptional natural acoustics of the hall give only music a climate of plenary, singular affirmation, becoming the parent house for the great personalities and talents of the world. To perform on the podium of the Romanian Athenaeum in Bucharest today is equivalent in lyric art to appearing on the stage of the Scala Theater in Milan. The temple in the heart of the Capital, built 135 years ago, has become the immortal "visiting card" of contemporary Romania.

Text by Viorel Cosma

In the sphere of the same interest for decoration comes the constant concern formulated by C. Esarcu and Al. Odobescu since 1888, to create a monumental fresco on the circular wall of the hall, a fresco that must evoke the most important moments of our national history, but at the same time create a faithful image of the specificity of the Romanian soul.

Proposing in 1901, a project in the spirit of what was shown above, the painter Ștefan Popescu wanted to create this 300 square meter work on canvas, considering that in this way the hall would not have to be closed for a while. But the lack of sufficient funds makes the project drag on for many years.

Finally, Prof. Costin Petrescu's project for the creation of a fresco representing in 25 episodes important moments in Romanian history is accepted. The funds came from public subscription.

The work in length of 75 square meters and width of 3 m started in 1933 in the "al Fresco" technique will be inaugurated on May 26, 1938.

We consider that a brief description of the scenes is interesting because their ideational value is clearly superior to the artistic value, a fact that does not surprise us considering the programmatic nature of the work and the need to submit the composition, drawing and color of the space offered, in an ensemble with certain plastic and decorative coordinates. But let's follow the sequence of episodes:

Among the 25 scenes, the last one has a very special history, especially since today it no longer exists in its original form. At the time of the inauguration of the fresco, the painter Costin Petrescu described the scene as follows: "The national epic ends with a final painting, which symbolically depicts the duties of our generation today. Against a background of a modern city with the attributes of public work and armed power, Carol II, the King of Culture, accompanied by his august son Grand Voivode Mihai, descends the steps of an edifice in the midst of the people called this time to strengthen the Great Heritage through strong cultural training" . 

As a whole, the fresco is done in a somewhat free manner, one can speak of a flat realistic style. The chromatic dominant is cold, abounding in grays. Hence the general slightly blurred effect, without special plastic accents.

These features of the fresco could mean at first glance that the work lacks artistic interest. However, in the hall as a whole these data become in a way qualities, the work occupying its place discreetly, as a kind of pendant to the warm tones of red and gold in the luxuriant decorative wealth of the dome.

Serving the beautiful idea that national history should be presented as an open book, in which every viewer can find something of the greatness of the past and thus meditate on the spiritual and moral values of our people, the fresco of the Athenaeum is significant for the emblematic character of the monument.

Scena 1
Scena 2
Scena 3
Scena 4
Scena 5
Scena 6
Scena 7
Scena 8
Scena 9
Scena 10
Scena 11
Scena 12
Scena 13
Scena 14
Scena 15
Scena 16
Scena 17
Scena 18
Scena 19
Scena 20
Scena 21
Scena 22
Scena 23
Scena 24
Scena 25
Ateneul vechi
Cladirea Ateneului
Ateneul Român
Ateneul Român
Rotonda interior
Sala mare
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