Origins of the money that financed the “Little Paris” architecture of Romania

Peasant woman gathering the corn crop in 1900s, Moldavia region. (early c20th postcard, Valentin Mandache collection)

In the period spanning between the last quarter of c19th, until the start of the Great War, Romania became one the main grain exporters of Europe. That was possible because of the extensive land farming in the vast Lower Danube plains of Wallachia and the fields of Moldavia, and the opening for international commercial traffic of the Danube and the Black Sea waterways. An important proportion of the revenues from those exports was used in financing the construction of a large number of private houses and public edifices. The customary architectural style employed in this nationwide building programme was what I call the “Little Paris” style, very popular with the general public, a part of that period’s Westernisation drive after centuries of Ottoman domination. The style is a picturesque amalgamation of provincially interpreted French c19th historicist architectural orders with a multitude of local Ottoman Balkan decorative elements. Bucharest experienced its first building boom in that period and even acquired the nickname of the “Little Paris of the Balkans”. There were also taking place interesting Art Nouveau and national romantic (Neo-Romanian) architecture experiments on that more prosperous economic background. The peasants of Romania, at that time representing over 80% of the country’s population, and their hard work in the fields were the force at the origins of that extraordinary transformative process. The old postcard above, dating from sometime toward the end of the 1900s, shows a peasant woman from Moldavia gathering the corn crop using a traditional sickle, an ancestral tool not much changed in the region since millennia ago. The photograph presents her confident and happy, an indication that she was farming her family’s plot, received most probably as part of the state’s far sighted land redistribution measures implemented after the terrible peasant revolt against absentee landlords and their agents that took place in 1907, the last medieval type Jacquerie of Europe.


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 heritage.


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