Cotroceni Palace, from royal residence, to presidential palace

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

An absolute must see if you visit Bucharest, the Cotroceni (pronounced Kotrocheny) has a history of 400 years, a beautiful architecture and a very relaxing surrounding domain. It was first intended as a monastery, with churches and cells. Probably some kind of religious construction existed there prior to 1600. Prince Serban Cantacuzino, who financed the construction of the monastery wanted to take advantage of the tranquility of the green area and also built there some royal houses.

Today, Cotroceni Palace is very close to the Botanical Gardens and to the Lion Statue (a monument to minesweepers).
The history of this palace follows closely the history of Romania in the last four centuries, traveling from feudalism and servitude to neighbor empires, to independence, monarchic splendor, communism and today’s democratic republic. So let’s take this historic path while we visit the chambers.

Foreign visitors that come to Romania without knowing anything about the country are immediately struck by the similarities between Romanian language and Italian. And this is of course a consequence of Roman conquest of Dacia. After the retreat of the Roman administration, here followed about a thousand years about which we have only scarce information, but is obvious that the Latin civilization continued to be influential. As the Roman Empire was divided into two parts and Constantine moved the main capital to Constantinople, the Eastern Roman Empire managed to survive for a thousand years more than the Western Roman Empire, which was overwhelmed by barbarian invasion and political disputes. It was how a new civilization developed in this part of the world, a combination of Roman and Greek culture, who will be later known as Byzantine.

Although the regions that in the modern age will form Romania were not independent kingdoms for most of the time, the local ruling class tried to establish some dynasties, with the support of some neighbor empires, like the Byzantines, the Tsar or the Ottoman Sultan, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The man who commissioned the Cotroceni monastery and the royal apartments near it, Serban Cantacuzino was such a prince, continuing the Byzantine tradition with the approval of the Sultan, while having some progressive ideas. His family could trace its origin from the Byzantine nobility some six centuries ago. And he had the same lavish oriental style in clothing as well as in dwelling. But he was however a progressive ruler, contemporary to the era or Renaissance and influenced by humanism. He built notable churches and schools and even introduced corn to peasants, which was to become a vital ingredient. We particularly owe him the first complete Romanian translation of the Bible, as well as its copying in the printing houses the prince also built.

The ruler who followed Serban Cantacuzino on the throne of Wallachia (today’s south part of Romania, including the capital Bucharest) was even more famous and more ambitious in his reforms. Constantin Brancoveanu was also a patron of arts and even created his own architectural style (Brancovenesc). The Horezu monastery is a masterpiece of this style, which can be seen in an excellent state of preservation. The most important churches in the south of Romania are built in this architectural style, which blends Byzantine tradition to folk motifs. Among them, the Patriarchal church, Stavropoleos, Antim or the destroyed monumental monastery of Vacaresti. Yet another important palace you can visit is Mogosoaia Palace, just half an hour outside of Bucharest.

Brancoveanu commissioned the translation and printing of numerous foreign books and buildings who were monumental for their time. Constantin Brancoveanu is also the hero of probably the most horrific act of martyrdom in modern times. Accused of treason by the sultan, the prince was called at Constantinople (Istanbul) and put in front of a life and death decision. In front of delegations of foreign ambassadors, Brancoveanu was asked to renounce his faith and turn to Islam in order to prove his loyalty and maintain his throne. All his four sons were beheaded in front of him, but the prince refused the apostasy and shared their faith. For his heroic death in the name of the Christian faith, after the Revolution, the Romanian Orthodox Church canonized Constantin Brancoveanu as a martyr.

But the heroic age ended, and Romania stepped into modernity with two main national objectives: national unity and independence from Ottoman, Russian and Austrian-Hungarian empires. The man who embodied these aspirations was colonel Alexander Ioan Cuza, simultaneously elected ruler of Moldavia and Wallachia. A great reformer, Cuza completely reshaped the political and judicial system of the country, created schools and universities, moved the capital to Bucharest, made agricultural reforms by making peasants own the land they were working, created a national army, freed the Gipsy slaves, created Penal and Civil Codes as well as many others.

Alexander Ioan Cuza was the first to use Cotroceni as an official residence. And while Cuza started all those crucial reforms for modernizing the country, only the Hohenzollern kings who followed him lived to see the results of those changes. Their role in modernizing Romania was tremendous: Carol I gained full independence and Ferdinand I unified all Romanian territories after the first world war. Their cultural and political role is also great.

Carol I had the initiative of erecting a true palace on the place of the modest residence used by Cuza, his predecessor. For this endeavor, Carol turned to the French architect Paul Gottereau. The style employed by Gottereau was that of Venetian palaces, while the architect that carried on his work, redesigning the palace, Romanian Grigore Cerchez turned to Romanian Romanticism for the great reception hall. The entrance hallway is a replica of Paris Opera in a French neoclassic style, the work of Charles Garnier. A hunting trophy salon inside the palace displays an Italian Renaissance style, next to the sumptuous library used by king Ferdinand.

Of all the Romanian leaders, Nicolae Ceausescu was the only one to have a negative impact on Cotroceni Palace, which is amazing considering the fact he never lived there. On Ceausescu’s orders the church of the monastery built by Serban Cantacuzino was demolished in 1984. In fact as soon as Romania was occupied by soviet troops, Cotroceni was turned into a “palace of kids”.

Beside the atheism of communist ideology, the demolish of a four centuries old monument had no rational motivation. It was simply a barbaric act against the cultural heritage. It is more shocking if you think that the Cotroceni domain even went through an Ottoman occupation, during the 1848 revolution, without the church to be vandalized or affected in any way. The absurd of this situation was repeating the destruction of Vacaresti Monastery in the 1980s. This used to be the most valuable historic church in Bucharest and its place remained a vacant land for many years after the fall of communism.

Today the presidential administration functions in the newest wing of the palace, built in the 80s, under the direction of architect Nicolae Vladescu.
The most impressive room in the new area is the Unirii Hall (Unification Hall) where the president meets important guests. The hall has marble walls and numerous column remembering the architecture of Vacaresti Monastery. The roof is a stained glass with scenes from national history on a blue background.
Except for the wing occupied by the president, the rest of the palace is a museum and can be visited, but with appointment one day in advance. Once a year, an open doors day is organized, and the entire palace, including the presidential wing is available for the public.
A section of the green area of Cotroceni was turned into a public botanical garden.

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