The most imposing of the buildings surrounding the Piaţa Revoluţiei is the former Palatul Regal (Royal Palace), which occupies most of the western side of the square. When the original single-storey dwelling burnt down in 1927, the king, Carol II, decided to replace it with something far more impressive. The surrounding dwellings were razed in order to build a new palace, with discreet side entrances to facilitate visits by Carol’s mistress, Magda Lupescu, and the shady financiers who formed the couple’s clique. However, the resultant sprawling brownstone edifice has no real claim to elegance and the palace was spurned as a residence by Romania’s postwar rulers, Ceauşescu preferring a villa in the northern suburbs pending the completion of his own palace in the Centru Civic.
Since 1950, the palace has housed the Muzeul Naţional de Artă (National Art Museum) in the Kretzulescu (south) wing. During the fighting in December 1989, this building was among the most seriously damaged of the city’s cultural institutions, and over a thousand pieces of work were destroyed or damaged by gunfire and vandals. After a massive reconstruction project, during which time many of the items were repaired, the museum reopened and now holds a marvellous collection of European and Romanian art. Before entering, take a look at the photographs hung along the rails, which graphically illustrate the damage sustained by the palace during both the 1927 fire and the revolution.
Gallery of Romanian Medieval Art
Comprising works from every region of the country, the museum’s exhaustive Gallery of Romanian Medieval Art is quite spectacular, and the one section to see if pushed for time. Highlights of the first few halls include a fresco of The Last Supper – a mid fourteenth-century composition retrieved from St Nicholas’s Church in Curtea de Argeş – and a carved oak door from 1453 with shallow figurative reliefs from the chapel of Snagov monastery (which no longer exists). The Monastery Church in Curtea de Argeş is represented by some remarkably well-preserved icons and fresco fragments, while there are also some quite beautiful Epitaphios, liturgical veils embroidered on silk or velvet which were usually used for religious processions. Among the most memorable pieces is a sumptuous gilded Kivotos (a vessel used for holding gifts) in the shape of an Orthodox church, which was presented to Horezu monastery by Constantin Brâncoveanu, and some exquisite miniature wood-carved processional crosses from Moldavia, chiefly remarkable for the astonishing detail contained within – typically, scenes from the life of Christ. The standout items from the latter halls are the church door and iconostasis retrieved from Cotroceni Palace, fresco fragments from Enei Church, and a wood-carved iconostasis by Brâncoveanu from Arnota monastery. Trumping both of these, however, is a 6m-high, nineteenth-century carved walnut iconostasis taken from the Prince Şerban Church in Bucharest, albeit without the icons. The workmanship is extraordinary, featuring, in the finest detail, angels and cherubs, double-headed eagles and warriors on horseback.
Gallery of Romanian Modern Art
Up on the second floor, the Gallery of Romanian Modern Art features the best of the country’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century painters, not least Romania’s greatest artist, Nicolae Grigorescu. Look out for his brilliant character paintings, The Turk, Jew with a Goose, Gypsy Girl from Ghergani and the dramatic The Spy. There are no less sizeable contributions from Aman and Andreescu, both of whom were heavily influenced by the Barbizon School. Pallady, meanwhile, is represented by a clutch of typically suggestive nudes.
There’s a terrific assemblage of sculpture, too, by the likes of Storck (Mystery) and Paciurea, whose grisly God of War is just one of several Chimeras. Most visitors, though, come to see the work of Constantin Brâncuşi, Romania’s one truly world-renowned artist. Using various media, Brâncuşi displayed his versatility in a sublime body of work, including the beautiful white marble head of a sleeping woman (Sleep), a bronze, weeping nude (The Prayer) and the limestone-carved Wisdom of the Earth.
European Art Gallery
Though not nearly as exciting as the Romanian galleries, the European Art Gallery (entrance A1) nevertheless contains an impressive array of work spanning the fourteenth to the twentieth centuries. Divided by schools, it has particularly fine paintings from Italian and Spanish artists, including Tintoretto’s The Annunciation and Cano’s beautifully mournful Christ at the Column. Among the line-up of predominantly lesser-known artists is a sprinkling of superstar names, including El Greco (three paintings, the pick of which is a colourful Adoration of the Shepherds), Rubens (Portrait of a Lady), Monet (Camille and Boats at Honfleur) and a painting apiece by Renoir (Landscape with House) and Sisley (The Church at Moret in Winter). Look out, too, for Pieter Bruegel’s spectacularly detailed and gruesome Massacre of the Innocents. The most prominent piece of sculpture is MeŠtrovíc’s superb bronze bust of King Carol I. No less impressive is the decorative art section, which contains one of the museum’s oldest items, the Reichsadlerhumpen Goblet from Bavaria, dating from 1596.