Along the millennia, the Romanian culture developed as a product of its inhabitants, conquerors, religion and traditions, with notable differences depending on the region. The rich and still vivid popular art and culture draw inspiration from immemorial agrarian and fertility rites, successfully combined with newer influences. A wide range of symbols and motifs, some unique in the world, is recognizable in the decorative arts, literature, music or dance. The reunion of all these elements contributed (and continue to do so) to the creation of the Romanian cultural identity, one that has left its print on the development of the Romanian people.
The first cultural manifestations on the territory of Romania date back to the Neolithic. The pottery cultures from Hamangia – Dobrogea (5th millennium BC) and Cucuteni (3rd millennium BC) are considered masterpieces of the prehistoric art.
The ancient peoples that coexisted on the territory of Romania left valuable marks of their passage, mostly in the aspect of that period’s human settlements. The Dacian Fortresses of the Orăştie Mountains or the remains of the Greek colonies along the Black Sea shore give us clues regarding the architectural development of the era.
The Medieval and Pre-Modern Culture
During the 14th – 18th centuries, Romanian culture followed two trends: one towards the West and one towards the Eastern Orthodox world, structured after the Byzantine model. Depending on the region, period and field, one of the two tendencies became predominant. While architecture traditionally combined the two trends, painting and music were closer to the Byzantine tradition, due to their religious character.
In Moldavia, during the reign of Stephen the Great (1433-1504), Gothic and Byzantine architectural elements combined into one original Moldavian style. This was continued during the following century, when the famous painted monasteries of Bucovina were erected. Their exterior wall paintings represent one of the most flourishing examples of Byzantine art on the territory of Romania.
Meanwhile, in Transylvania, the influence of Central Europe was felt through the intensive use of the Gothic architecture. Among the most representative monuments built in that period are the Black Church in Braşov, Bran Castle or Huniad Castle. The big, fortified churches and castles will later on acquire a less-militarized aspect, due to the inclusion of Renaissance ornaments.
In Wallachia, during the reign of Constantin Brâncoveanu (1654-1714), an architectural style of a remarkable unity developed. The Brâncovenesc style integrated Baroque and Oriental features into the local tradition, the most exquisite examples being Horezu Monastery or Mogoşoaia Palace.
For many centuries, the language of the church and of culture was Slavonic. A prayer book produced in Wallachia in 1508 is considered to be the first printed book, while the first written literary texts in Romanian were 16th century translations of the Gospels. Until the 18th century, written culture mainly consisted of historical, moral, religious and legal writings, the authors being scientists rather than writers. Prince Dimitrie Cantemir (1673-1723) was an outstanding scholar and author of his time, member of the Academy of Berlin. His work “The Rise and Fall of the Ottoman Empire” was printed in English, French and German, and was a very important piece of literature in European science and culture until the 19th century.
Byzantine music with local influences and religious music were the main predominant during the 15th-17th centuries.
The Modern Era
The cultural development which started in the 18th century overlapped with the country’s economic growth and process of liberalization and westernization.
While the 18th century advanced, urbanization also accelerated. The French model adopted for Bucharest’s architectural development, visible in buildings such as the Romanian Athenaeum, faced the drive to revive the Romanian traditional elements. Ion Mincu (1852-1912) was the promoter of the Neo-Romanian trend and the founder of the Romanian national school of architecture, adapting the Brâncovenesc style to the needs of his times.
The first half of the 19th century was the period when a true national literature was created. The writers of the 1848 Generation, such as Vasile Alecsandri, pleaded for a creative literature, drawing inspiration from folklore. In what regards the folk literature, the Romanian sensibility is best expressed through a popular ballad that emerged in that period, “Mioriţa”, describing the profound harmony between man and the universe.
The second half of the century brought the classics of the Romanian literature: poet Mihai Eminescu, playwright Ion Luca Caragiale and storyteller Ion Creangă. Eminescu (1850-1889), our national poet, was a great admirer of folklore, myths and Romanian history, even though he was familiar with both Western and Oriental philosophies. He brought the Romanian Romanticism to its highest development stage. Caragiale (1852-1912) wrote very popular and sour plays, a merciless satire of the Romanian society of his time. Creangă (1837-1889) recreated stories from the lives of Moldavian peasants by using a joyful style, often filled with local dialect which makes his works very difficult to translate.
In the 19th century, Romanian painting was brought to light and aligned to the European modern art trend with the works of Nicolae Grigorescu. After he made his debut as a religious painter, Grigorescu transposed French impressionism into his paintings, which celebrate mainly the Romanian peasantry. Many of his works can be found at the Romanian National Art Museum.
The Period between the two World Wars
The decades between the two World Wars saw an unprecedented effervescence of culture and the arts, producing remarkable names in historiography, sociology, philosophy, literature and the fine arts.
Literature flourished and produced successful innovations. Lucian Blaga’s philosophy and expressionism, George Bacovia’s symbolism or Ion Barbu’s hermeticism are only some of the directions in which the poetry of that time spread. Prose supplied numerous writers who brought to higher levels different genres or styles. Liviu Rebreanu opened the way for the much-appreciated realistic and psychological novel, while Camil Petrescu was an innovator in the field of drama. Mihail Sadoveanu’s stories, infused with traditional wisdom, are unique in the Romanian literature. Avant-garde writers moved away from the traditional poetic techniques, founding new literary currents. The best example is Tristan Tzara, founder of Dadaism, who started his work in Romania and continued it abroad. Literary criticism rose to the same high level of poetry and prose writing due to George Călinescu, author of a monumental History of Romanian Literature.
Constantin Brâncuşi (1876-1957) is considered to be the founder of modern sculpture and the greatest sculptor of the 20th century. The Endless Column, the Table of Silence and the Gate of the Kiss in Târgu Jiu represent one of the most impressive open-air ensembles of sculptures in the world.
Nicolae Tonitza and Theodor Pallady are the most representative and well known painters of their times. The latter was considered by many as the most original Romanian painter. Friend of Matisse, he made a preference for dead natures and feminine nudes.
In the field of music, Romania was successfully represented by names such as the soprano Haricleea Darclee, composer Ciprian Porumbescu, pianist Dinu Lipatti and conductor Sergiu Celibidache. The overwhelming figure of George Enescu (1881-1955), composer, violinist, pianist, conductor and teacher, raised the Romanian music to fame. His Romanian Rhapsodies and opera Oedipe are considered to be masterpieces of the classical music.
The Communist dictatorship
During communism, the freedom of expression was constantly restricted, and literature and arts were used as means for communist propaganda. However, there were several artists who managed to avoid the communist teachings from their works, which gained them the appreciation both of the critics and of the public. Writers such as Marin Preda, Nichita Stănescu or Marin Sorescu are only some of the names that influenced and shaped the artistic phenomenon of the era with innovative creations. Stănescu and Sorescu were allegedly nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature in the 1970s. Some of them emigrated, enriching the list of reputed Romanian names in Diaspora. The most famous examples are Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), renowned historian of religion, fiction writer, philosopher and professor at the University of Chicago, Eugene Ionesco (1909-1994), playwright of the absurd and member of the French Academy, or Emil Cioran (1911-1995), pessimist essayist and philosopher.
This restriction of imagination was also visible in what regards the architectural development. The grey Soviet-style blocks of flats infested all the country, being created in order to receive the thousands of peasant brought to work in the urban industries. Ceauşescu tried to build a “new Bucharest” in a monumental architectural style, the most representative example being the Palace of the Parliament.
The Post-Communist Years
The post-communist years have been a period of both tests and difficulties, as people’s interest switched to the TV shows, politics or cheap magazines. However, the cultural crisis has not eliminated creativity. The great value of the cultural productions brought the number of consumers (readers, theatregoers, moviegoers etc) back on the right track. The Romanian art and culture became internationally acclaimed, thanks to its exceptional quality. Prestigious cultural events, such as George Enescu International Festival, brought participants and visitors from abroad.
After the fall of the communist regime, the Romanian writers acquired the freedom of expression that they lacked. They started rejecting almost everything that belonged to the past, their anticommunist attitude resulting in denying the entire literature produced before 1989. Most of the literary works written until the 2000s was characterized by the influence and impact of the communist repression against the writer. Gradually, new types of literature start to emerge, such as the much appreciated literary journal. The literary works of Mircea Cărtărescu (born 1956) won major literary awards, bringing him among the favourites to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 2011.
In the last years, cinematography faced a rapid emergence of a new generation of filmmakers, rewarded with international renowned distinctions. “The Death of Mister Lăzărescu”, the 2005 movie of young film director Cristi Puiu won the “Un certain regard” distinction at Cannes Film Festival in 2005 and the Jury’s Special Prize at Chicago International Film Festival in 2006. “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”, a 2007 Romanian film written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, won the Palme d’Or Award at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Florin Şerban’s 2010 “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle” was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival and won the Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear.
Century-old folk music is still in high esteem, especially among the older generations. Doina is a vocal or instrumental creation specific to the Romanian people. It expresses feelings of “dor” (missing someone), love, pain or regret and, due to its accomplishment, was included on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The traditional Romanian folk instruments were revived by Gheorghe Zamfir (born 1941), also known as the Pan Flute Master.
The more youthful genres of music, such as pop, dance, rock, hip-hop, R&B, trance or alternative wave are very much appreciated both in the country and abroad. Inna, Alexandra Stan or Dan Bălan are only some of the Romanian artists who conquered the international charts with their songs.