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Forgotten Gardens: Magosoaia

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania (Dorothy Parker, 1937)

When I think of Romania I think of Ceausescu. And orphans.  But there was a time when the idea of 'Romania' conjured visions both regal and exotic, an explosive combination, when Matisse painted La Blouse Romaine and Marie of Romania glittered across America via luxury train--the Royal Romanian--with an entourage of 85 and jewels in abundance. 

La Blouse Roumaine by Matisse, 1940
Marthe Bibesco (1911) by Giovanni Boldini, via wikimedia commons

And throughout the 1920s and 1930s Marthe Bibesco, friend to Jean Cocteau, Rainer Marie Rilke and Winston Churchill, attracted so many world leaders to her 17th century castle outside of Bucharest  that it was called a second League of Nations. 

Her guests strolled after dinner in new terraced Italianate gardens leading down to a Venetian-style boat landing; appropriate for a building style that blended Ottoman and Byzantine influences in an architectural style known not as Romanian, but as Brancovan, for the famed Prince of Wallachia who built it and whose empire would eventually become one of a crazy quilt of royal principalities (Moldavia, Bukovina, Bessarabia, Transylvania) stitched into our modern 'Romania'. 

Prince Constantin Brancoveanu constructed the palace in 1698-1702 as a summer residence, and along with it an oak-paved road stretching all the way to his city home in the center of Bucharest (and conveniently, over the estates of his rivals).  The road, the Podul Mogoşoaiei,  not so much the castle, was one of the wonders of its time and even well into the nineteenth century, when it was lit by candlelight.

Bucharest Brancoveanu Palace, 1708 [source]
But Mogosoaia, the house, was by then already in a state of protracted disrepair that began with a plundering at the end of Constantin's reign in 1714 and from which it would not emerge until the 1870s when Niculae Bibesco, then reigning Prince of Wallachia, renovated the estate.  He retained the French gardeners Rohan and Montigny (disappointing, that) to 'replant the park', though I could find precious little information about either Rohan and Montigny or this phase of the landscape's life, and it is likely that it was simply a tree-planted plain similar to that shown at the city palace above, though Montigny *may* have been a rosarian and it would have been entirely appropriate for the time period to have added rose gardens around the house.  

But it was Marthe, with a privileged upbringing that included an old Romanian peasant woman retained to teach her the folk tales and traditions of her country, who valued the palace and park enough to save it for future generations.  The task of renovation was largely accomplished by George Matei Cantacuzino, an unjustly forgotten Romanian architect who restored the house and brought the landscape into its present form which he hoped would symbolize all of Romania:

"The idea was to surround this luminous architecture with a landscape at once vast and intimate, rich and calm, possessed of lively contrasts of sunlight and shade, or warmth and cool, of field and water, to evoke the country as a whole, to represent and contain in the way Versailles represents France, the Escorial Spain, and the gardens of Isfahan all the oases of Persia."
[from Cantacuzino's essay "Mogosoaia:  A Palace, A Garden and a Landscape"  (which I haven't been able to find in English) as quoted in Romanian Modernism by Scoffham and Machedon (which is in English)].

A 1932 visitor described it as "an outside marvel, an inside marvel, a marvel around – a marvel from the secret little Florentine garden, in which the rowan grows amid stone slabs along the beautiful and haughty rose, hanging on the vaults extending the old Brancovan kitchen, to the flowered terraces, whose steps are soaked by the foul waters of the lake, on which mirror surface large water lily leaves sprawl. Everything is harmony in this work without dissonances: no broken line, no empty space troubles the eye."

[from the present day website of the Magosoaia palace]

"Mogosoaia is not only a princely residence, a lonely landscape or a great estate. Mogosoaia is a sphere, an entire part of a country, a landscape taken from reminiscence, founded by the creative ambition of a series of generations that organized their lives for the functioning of their principles and their aspirations…. Mogosoaia is not only the image of the past, but also the expression of a live present, the testimony of a becoming. This is why Mogosoaia occupies such a special place among the historical monuments of Romania”

When George Cantacuzino wrote those words, he could not have imagined Mogosoaia's future or his own:  that he would be imprisoned by the communists and his beloved landscape would become a site for hosting homages to a dictator, the orchards cut down, and the garden left to ruin.

But after that long darkness, the restored landscape has absorbed another part of Romania:  it is where they brought the toppled statues of Lenin and former prime minister Petru Groza after the dictators finally fell.   

Iosif Kiraly, Reconstruction (Mogosoaia, Lenin and Groza, 4), 2007-2009, from the exhibit Territories of The In/Human“ (April 30 – August 1, 2010, Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart

I first learned of  Magosoaia after randomly stumbling on the next to last photo shown, a 1932 photogravure of the landscape that is part of a set for sale on amazon.   

The other period images are from a dissertation on Romanian architect G.M. Cantacuzino by Dan Teodorovici, available online but in German.  

 Information on Queen Marie's American tour is available at historylink:  see her visit to Seattle, and her dedication of the Maryhill Museum.  See a video of her visit at youtube.

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Anonymous said...

Driving up the Columbia Gorge, it is always a bit of a surprise to glance north across the river and see Maryhill gleaming down from the cliffs. It's a fascinating museum, perhaps the more so because of its poignance. And the gardens, at least as I remember (we've lived a number of years in Colorado) are lovely.

The Garden Wanderer said...

Thank you so much for this post! It was really interesting for me to read as I'm of Romanian background. The Brancovan style is something close to my heart, and always brings back strong memories of home. I have heard of Magosoaia, but never visited. Will definitely do so next time!

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