CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Virgil Constantinescu at CODART VIER

Opening address by Virgil N. Constantinescu

Ambassador of Romania to Belgium
Former President of the Romanian Academy

It is a real privilege and a pleasure for me, as a Romanian who represents my country in Belgium, to welcome the initiative of CODART, the International Council of Curators of Dutch and Flemish Art, to organize the present congress and study trip dedicated to the spread of this art in Romania. The importance of the cultural network you are representing is most significant, particularly today, on the eve of the enlargement of the European Union. This development will lead to the unification or better the re-unification of our continent, a fact of apparent historical importance. At the same time, your purpose, to see how the art and generally the culture of one area of Europe is spread into the other part of the continent, lies at the basis of the specificity of European civilization, namely its cultural diversity.

The Low Countries lie rather a long way, over 2000 kilometers, from Romania. Yet, historical similarities and almost continuous ties can be pointed out. Certain similarities actually date from more than 2000 years ago. In Belgium, I have found out, children learn in school that the Roman Julius Caesar said that “Belgians are the most courageous among theGauls”. In my country, everybody knows the statement by the famous Greek historian Herodotus: “The Dacians are the most courageous people among the Thracians”. In both areas the Roman Empire succeeded in conquering only a part of their territory: the northern part of Flanders and the northeast of present Romania remained outside the Roman Empire. As a result, the native population of the north of Transylvania were called “free Dacians.” Later on, history had a different fate in store for the emerging Romanian population. For a thousand years, it suffered the vicissitudes of invasions of people coming from Asia to settle in present-day Europe. During this insecure era, the “free Dacians” saw themselves forced to join the Romanized groups and adopt the Latin language. The native language practically disappeared.

In the Middle Ages, despite the distance between us, continuous ties between our so distant populations can nonetheless be traced. Historians are growing more and more interested in the peoples from northwestern Germany and Flanders who settled in Transylvania from the 12th century on. This process followed upon the incursion into the Pannonian plain of Hungarian settlers as early as the 10th centuryr the following three centuries they conquered some adjacent areas, including Transylvania. In doing so, they did however expel the local population, the Romanians. They continued, as they do to this day, to constitute the majority of the population of the region.

In order to consolidate the hegemony of the newly conquered territories, successive Hungarian kings appealed to Western European populations to come and settle there. The first to come were groups of Teutonic Knights, followed by Knights of St. John and eventually by simple inhabitants of the overpopulated areas of northwestern Germany. All these peoples were called “Saxons,” perhaps because the German territories from which some of them came belonged to the first Dukedom of Saxe. Actually, not all of them were Germans; they also came from Flanders and Luxembourg. Sometimes they were called “Teutonices,” “Latini” and even “Flandrenses.”

The beginning of the immigration is attributed by some historians to King Geza II, who in 1156 addressed an appeal to the Germans to come and settle in this underpopulated region. The legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin seems to be linked to this campaign. The “rats” of this story were the poor people who followed a certain Sigismond acting on behalf of the king of Hungary. In this way, a series of Germanic towns, called often even today the Siebenburgen, emerged in the southern and eastern parts of Transylvania. These colonists maintained ties with their countries of origin, particularly in the form of an import trade of the famous textiles of Brugge and Ieper. I would like to mention in this context that there is a word in the present Romanian language, meaning a coat made out of a cloth so good and used for so long that it is worn until it falls to pieces. This word is “fleandura,” in my opinion of obvious etymology.

I would also like to note that beer was produced in Transylvania starting in 1366. In addition to trade and craftsmanship techniques, another element of continuity were the “mercenaries” hired by Austria and Hungary but also by princes ruling the Romanian provinces Moldova and Walachia. Incidentally, the word Walachia itself derives from “Walachians”, “Walachs” or “Wlachs,” designations that originally referred to citizens of the Roman Empire and later came to mean “foreigner” in several European languages. The old German word “walch,” for example, meant “Roman” or “romanized Gaul.” Some groups who speak a kind of Romanian dialect in the Balkans, as far south as Thessaloniki, call themselves “Wlachs.” The name entered the Hungarian language as “Olah”. A man who served for a time in Hungary as the private secretary of Mary of Hungary and who left a valuable correspondence with Erasmus of Rotterdam, was named Nicolas Olahus. In Hungarian Olaszok means Italian and Olahok Romanian. In Polish Wlochi means Italian, while the word for Romanian is Woloszi.

An indirect indication of the interest of early Romanian men of culture and erudition for pre-eminent Dutch and Flemish personalities is the example of the Romanian prince Dimitri Cantemir (1673-1723).This member of the Academy of Berlin was the author of many historical and scientific works, among them a book entitled Joanis Baptistae van Helmont, 1580-1684. Encomium in auctarem et virtuem doctrinae ejus, a treatise on mechanics and movement dedicated to the well-known Flemish physician and chemist Jan Batist Van Helmont. It is also worth mentioning that Western European maps always included the Romanian provinces Walachia, Moldavia and Transylvania.

In the 19th century numerous new ties developed, first via trade bureaus and consulates and, later on, at full diplomatic level. Officially, the newly independent country, Romania, established diplomatic relations with both the Netherlands and Belgium 121 years ago, in 1880.

Not being a specialist, I do not dare to tackle the main topic of your reunion. Besides, in the next days, you will hear presentations concerning Dutch and Flemish art pieces in Romania and some of you will visit the National Museum of Arts of Bucharest, the Brukenthal Museum in Sibiu (the Latin name for which is Cibinum, the German one Hermannstadt), and Peles Castle in Sinaia. At the lectures and visits you will also make the acquaintance of some masterpieces from private collections.

I would like to name in particular one place you will visit next week, namely the Library of the Romanian Academy, the largest institution of this type in Romania. It contains approximately 10.5 million objects, including manuscripts, books, newspapers and periodicals, engravings, wood prints, paintings, drawings etc. Some Dutch and Flemish drawings will be shown to you there next Thursday morning.

Finally, I would like to mention a personal experience, namely the privilege I had during my four-year term as elected President of the Romanian Academy, starting in 1994. On the wall of my office I admired every day one of the apprximately 20 originals and copies by the Antwerp painterFrans Franken II. It was a depiction of Croesus showing his riches to Solon, a painting that I hope you will see during your stay in Bucharest. Actually, the real subejct of the painting is the Imperial Court of Rudolf II of Austria around 1600, and one of the personages in the audience is the Romanian prince Michel the Brave. It was he who, for a short time, succeeded in 1601 in uniting the three countries populated by Romanians: Walachia, Moldova and Transylvania.

To conclude, I would like to express my conviction that your congress and trip to Romania will constitute a valuable and pleasant opportunity to see that part of Central Europe, to become acquainted with Romanian culture and, last but not least, to enhance the present relations among the citizens of Europe. Indeed, the future united Europe will be built not only through the political will of the member states but basically and primarily by the will of the citizens of the continent.