Skinning Alive Frescos Is What We’d Been Forced to Do

Work In Progress
I met Professor Dan Mohanu, head of the Restoration Department at the Art Institute of Bucharest in the summer of 2011. I was to interview him about the Urşi wooden church icons' restoration, part of 60 Churches project. Perhaps it would be better if you read that story first? It is posted under The Lessons of Rescuing Centuries-Old, Wondrously Painted, Wooden Churches from Decay title. He kindly showed me around their restoration workshop and explained to me patiently the fresco restoration process, along with some of the tragic stories of historical monuments demolished during the horrible systematization period launched by the Romanian dictator Ceauşescu in the ‘80s. I was stunned then, as I’ve been again now, while I’ve processed the material two years later, about the murderous cruelty that so much beauty created along centuries was pulverized by the communist demolition iron ball. I’m also petrified by my own way of functioning, of blocking out, of numbing. I lived in Bucharest in the ‘80s and witnessed the uglification, the destruction, but either I didn’t have the necessary education and information to fully understand its magnitude, or I knew too well it was one more dangerous thing we were powerless about. I probably was too damaged in my struggle to survive to feel the deep sorrow of my older friends, sculptors and theater set designers and architects, who while they were getting smashed with hard liquor would chat at times embittered about one more church being bulldozed off.
But now, as I went thru the material, and researched various details on the Internet to ensure the precision of my translation, while navigating the web of art history, with its ramification in the darkness of centuries, from cave paintings, to Byzantium, to medieval Romanian kings and noblemen who built these churches to praise God for rescuing them from death and illness, who employed wonderful builders and painters, now I viscerally felt my own fingers typing turning into deep tree roots that anchored me in the land of Romania, and that abruptly these roots were severed in one chop by an ogre’s sharp axe. Perhaps this feeling comes closer to what Mr. Mohanu and other Romanians felt when old Bucharest was demolished, and it still lingers unhealed under nowadays chaos that still reigns in Romania.
On the other hand during research I found many sites talking about their restoration work both here and in Europe, and somehow I hope this material, late as it is, will connect Romanian specialists with their international kinfolk.
Here follow Professor Mohanu’s words as recorded in his restoration laboratory.

Dan Mohanu: Church painters learned how to paint by apprenticing under an older, experienced fresco painter. The older painter himself had been the apprentice of an older painter, so it was a knowledge chain, which was an extraordinary way of handing it down thru centuries. Also usually the apprentice received paint recipes. Plus there were the very canonical, very strict, confining requirements, religious, canonical blueprints gathered in a religious body of manuscripts called erminia that contained explications and general guide lines painters had to follow. At the same time they had freedom, so it was a beautiful thing, freedom within certain confinement. I mean, the requirements of the canonical blue prints and at the same time freedom of expression where no one would constrict him.
They painted following the models of Byzantine tradition. These models were something different than the text, the erminia itself, because the models contained drawings. So they drew like us nowadays. They had sketches. They used painter copybooks after which they copied what those before them drew. The painters followed the models of Panselin or Teofan, famous painters, so they created a vein/lineage and it was very important to preserve it.
So, on one hand there was this Byzantine tradition vein/lineage, and on the other hand there was the local creative element, mysterious in a way, that sprang from the ancestral, that came from old, old times, and manifested itself in their good taste, the artistic taste, the style of the place. You’ve seen that peasants have a certain style that puts its stamp/imprint on their artwork, a configuration that belongs only to that place, only to them. If you go to Maramureş, or somewhere else, and you look at their folk costumes and houses, everything is united by something, by a unifying chromatic/color style, by a way of expression, by an encompassing way of talking.
These things are diffused and hard to determine, but they have to be taken into consideration during an overall evaluation, so that one can show/point out why in the end this icon looks in this particular way. This is the most extraordinary and most vital part because it doesn’t have a history, you can’t determine where it comes from, it can be very new and very old at the same time, like in Eliade’s myth of returning, who describes this phenomenon: we believe at times about a myth that is very old and we discover it is actually only a few decades old, half a century. This happens because the mythicization process, a fact becoming a myth, happens relatively fast, under conditions that what is new and what is old exist at the same time. So, it’s very hard to establish the history, to give the precise date, year of conception, but it belongs to the character, the style of a place, of a people, which is very beautiful. It’s something vital about them, as you’ve seen, that’s why these icons are extraordinary, and you liked them, because they have something vital, hard to describe. Vitality can’t be found in the same high amount in the educated/taught icon art, which was beautifully drawn, the technique was impeccable, but something was missing from what the other kind had.
Well, these things are the first ones to disappear, which is painful. This is what happened at Urşi. This is what happens in the tens, hundreds of churches in the country that disappear. They are considered outside of the main road of history. I put it this way, because I’m actually quoting a colleague who specializes in Byzantine lore, and when he was asked, ‘Are you still focusing on (the)19th century Romanian primitive painters?’ he answered, ‘No, I’m focusing on the wide road of history.’ By the wide road he meant the national road, the high traffic road of Byzantium/ Byzantine Empire, and he excluded Romanian icon painters, as outsider of Byzantium, even outsiders of post-Byzantine culture.
In my opinion it’s a huge difference between the post-Byzantine icons in Brîncoveanu style and what we have here. Here we find something else that is outside the canonical lineage, and which belongs to/is caused by the peasant vitality, by their a-historical creative capacity, always present in the spirit/style of a place.
Unfortunately we have to preserve/protect/safeguard with heightened attention these artifacts that belong to all of us fully, since they characterize our community, our entire nation, but which disappear the first ones, out of lack of status in the eyes of villagers, and then they are despised. Under the present chaotic conditions, the peasants themselves lost their connection/ties with their own culture. We now have to fight with them to make them understand what belongs to them, which is most painful, to make people recognize their own children, in a way, recognize their parents, recognize/acknowledge their ancestors.
Ella Veres: How did this happen?
D.M.: I’m not in a position to analyze in-depth this situation, but I can digress, to gloss over/construe on this topic. First of all we raised the question of what civilization is and if this is a civilization. Some said that these things were lost in the moment that peasant people got civilized, educated. They crossed into a different mode of conceiving their existence, a different way of thinking about their lives. They started to aspire to a certain comfort/amenities, they started to have different professions, they moved from village to town, their imagery was totally overturned, all their values switched. They replaced the glass icon with shoddily printed chromolithography, with images in a totally different style, without even knowing, or caring where it was made. They replaced the icon with religious paintings, they made no distinction between Mater Dolorosa, the icon of Western origins, and, let’s say, the Byzantine Hodigitria, that they had inherited thru certain icons.
So as their values change, people don’t acknowledge/affiliate with the old ones, and they start to slowly build a totally different kind of existence/life. It’s a different kind of existence/life though it can be in the same geographical place. I remember, once I asked a peasant, ‘Why don’t you build your own house, with clapboard roof, with white beautiful wall painting, in the tradition that you’ve inherited?’ He answered me abruptly, ‘I can’t do it because I’d be the laughing stock of the village.’ The village is the Supreme Court’s judgment for them, the ultimate one, and you cannot replace this court’s judgment. Therefore if the village turns into an abstraction, if they bring in urban values, if some start to build two-floor houses, introducing a certain level of amenities, they all categorically have to follow this new way. It’s harsh/unfeeling, but true.
So their rural values are returning to them thru us, professional carriers of culture actually, not thru a real authentic/organic experience. We come back to them with the icons and wooden churches, but we do it thru culture, not thru their own existence. It’s not them who return to the old modest small spaces, to their old traditional houses, which nowadays we’d call ecological houses, to the civilization before electric power and TV and many other amenities that come with modern comforts.
It’s we who returns to them thru culture and suggests them to build traditional adobe houses and learn back their old traditional crafts, professions, redevelop/revitalize working with fundamental elements like clay, wood, water, and all the things that in the past were part of their customary work.
E.V.: Are you welcome?
D.M.: It’s hard to tell, because we have no illusions that the peasant, the villager shows us his sincere reactions. Actually, I don’t know if we are any different anymore, the urban dweller too dissimulates his reactions, he accepts you, puts up with you, receives you well if you come with a certain status, social position, otherwise without any status you have no chance of being accepted. But if you come with a certain higher status then he accepts you politely, but doesn’t necessarily accept what you suggest/propose/offer him. At the end he goes back to what he believes.
So it’s rather painful, because on one hand you can’t deny their access to comforts. Everybody wants it. European Union demands asphalt/bitumen paved roads, not the old clay paths and dirt roads, wants us to have traffic signs, not gravel streets with stones from the river, or mile stone mounds, like in the old times that marked the boundaries between various territories. No. They don’t want dug water wells, with traditional well poles, sweeps and water buckets, but insist on filtered water, that makes sure there’s no biological hazards, and it tastes good. So all these risks that go with the so called primitive way of life can’t be avoided unless they implement a certain type of civilization, certain amenities that have to filter everything. There’s no other way, it’s unacceptable, so then the compromise between these two life styles ensues, ‘Do we have to accept the asphalted road instead of the gravel one, or not?’
Of course now we try to avoid as much as possible this excess of processed materials, this excess of so-called civilization brought about by the new European Union rule, but it’s very hard. Why is it very hard? Because meanwhile the craftsmen disappeared and their old professions vanished. It’s easy to tell the peasant today, ‘I want to see your traditional clapboard roof again.’ Because he’d answer you, ‘We don’t have any roofer who can do that. Clapboard roofers.’ There’s no more blacksmiths who could forge for you like in the old times the hinges or whatever object you wanted.
On the other hand there’s the problem of surrogates. The planet is overloaded with surrogates that can’t be recycled, they’re overwhelming Terra. The imitations are usually made of plastic, that have a fantastic durability, incredibly indestructible by time. We shall find them intact over centuries in archeological diggings, being nonperishable/bio degradable. And often the perishable materials are replaced by surrogates. Clapboard/shingles at a certain moment was replaced by asbestos cement, a material that today is outlawed/banned. Nowadays the roofing tile is replaced with much stronger materials, true, but it is made of cement! And I could add many other things. The surrogate is a danger.
I give you an example: they realized at a certain moment that they could use for house façade decorations polystyrene, a material that is both extremely light and extremely breakable/friable. Well, they made these façade decorations out of polystyrene because they can be made very fast, and they can be mounted very easily, one doesn’t need to know the mastery of stucco work and so an entire manufacturing industry was born relying on replacement materials.
So in this climate it is gradually natural to have these enormous losses. How could peasants return to their traditional village life, it’s very hard to tell. You need an entire strategy. Right now only thru culture, but other more efficient modalities need to be thought out to raise the interest of the countryside people, because countryside people are pragmatic.
E.V.: Agro tourism. Agrarian tourism.
D.M.: Sure, agro tourism is a modality, only this too needs to be carefully conducted. Agro tourism is one of the greatest sources of falsification in the culture of a place. Usually agro tourism targets people that come to the countryside, without any knowledge of the specificity of the place. Let alone that it’s counterfeited often, without any respect for the local tradition, to give the impression that you are in an authentic place. This lack of authenticity is often driven by agro tourism or other commercialization enterprises. Midtown Bucharest is in such a stage now. It’s an effervescence, filled with bars and coffee houses.
E.V.: On Lipscani?
D.M.: Lipscani, but other streets too, on Smîrdani, on Şelari, where the houses were sacrificed, reshaped with the kind of surrogates I’ve mentioned, without taking into consideration their real identity. It survived on the surface but in reality they are so mutilated that they have nothing original in them. Or this is essential. This is what the village/countryside people should understand too. When you restore a church you have to return it in its original shape. This is the extraordinary thing that we managed to do. But it’s an uphill battle.
E.V.: Let’s get back to what you’ve explained to me that the ladies were doing in the laboratory, as they restore frescos. This is rather metaphorical. I’m not sure yet what metaphor, but it’s a metaphor. [Laughs uneasy.] What about Cotroceni.
D.M.: First let’s clarify what you’ve seen: two categories of fragments. Both originate from demolished historical monuments during the communist regime, in 1985 exactly. I know because I was working at the removal and detaching/extraction/removal of the paintings from Văcăreşti. It was a horrible moment, Văcăreşti demolition was a tragic moment. These extracts/detached fragments present a very hard conservation problem. First of all because the extraction in itself is difficult. It’s like pulling off the skin from a human body, like an écorché, a skinning alive, flaying a body. The connection/tie between painting and wall is so strong that the detaching, dislocation from the wall is difficult both technically and also that they are entering in a totally different life regime, a way of existence. In a church the mural painting lives together with the wall. It’s said that it breathes with it, and indeed there is a degree of humidity transfer, of mineral salts, it’s a symbiosis. In the moment that you separate them, the painting is left only with its painting layer and you attach it, as you’ve seen, on that facing, for extraction.
E.V.: Like burlap cloth.
D.M.: Yes, it’s like a sandwich. So after extraction they have to immediately be attached to a new support, otherwise the cycle of tension between the painted layer and the facing, support layer, leads very fast to its degradation, the color layer peels/flakes off. The mural painting stops being a mural, so you have to quickly set things in motion so that it sees the light again.
Or this didn’t happen with any of our fragments. Even worse, back then they were extracted under dire conditions, under an ultimatum threat, under the siege of the regime that didn’t want anything to get out, though it already was common knowledge that the Văcăreşti complex was under demolition. Văcăreşti and Cotroceni.
But we took over the fragments late, about 10 years after the extraction moment, and this matters very much. So our work is now doubled, on one hand we try to bring back into the light the mural painting, take off the facing, on the other hand we have to paste/reattach the color stratum onto its support.
What you’ve seen here is the final stage, the happy one, when everything is back in place. But at the beginning there is a hard work period, a lengthy period that no one sees, which is the re-attaching of the color layer that was attached on the facing, to an underlying support. Then this is transpositioned on a new support, a kind of sandwich that contains a structure in the shape of bee honeycombs, and then a layer of fiber glass, which stiffens the fragment.
We managed to finalize this process with the Cotroceni fragments. We didn’t succeed with the ones from Văcăreşti. Văcăreşti had a sad fate, both when it was extracted and when it was transposed. First, it got demolished, then the fragments started on a journey like the wandering people, to find their fate. But they didn’t find it even today. These fragments have navigated from one place to another trying to find a home for the last 25 years. Now they are in the cellar of the Mogoşoaia Lapidarium, the only place that could shelter them in Romania now. Along the years it was debated the rebuilding of the demolished buildings, or making a memorial site to shelter them, a lot of debating, but nothing was concretely done to shelter whatever is left from Văcăreşti. The stones still exist, and they are impressive in themselves, besides the mural painting.

With Cotroceni we obtained a rare thing. Immediately after ’89 there was a desire to rebuild the church on the original spot, inside the Presidential Palace. Now the church is included in the National Museum circuit, and can be visited. Initially it was built only partially, without the altar, but later on was rebuilt entirely, evidently a pastiche, it doesn’t replicate accurately the original church, but it was reconstructed.
Such memorial endeavors have been made around the world, like the Polish people, the Germans, where there was the need to preserve the memories of a place thru reconstruction. So it was a similar endeavor here. We decided to replant the fragments in situ, so the fragments found again their place, in a similar space with the original one. It allows you to perceive the mural painting not as an estranged separate art object, displayed out of its context, but in its own initial placement.
So now, as we gradually restore the fragments in our laboratory, with scrupulous meticulously, addressing all the problems I mentioned earlier, we take them back to Cotroceni and put them on the wall. But we avoid making a pastiche ourselves. We thought that the most honest display would be to mount them visibly detached from the wall, not incased in the mortar, not make them part of the wall. We put them on the wall leaving a bit of a space and mobility, so that the onlooker can perceive that they are not embedded/encased irrevocably/permanently. This was a welcomed effect, first of all for the onlooker that peruses reads/gazes at these fragments, and secondly for us, since we were put in a difficult situation. The reconstructed church didn’t have the original dimensions, the architect didn’t respect, keep in mind certain details, so the paintings couldn’t fit in. We had to move things about so that the painting could stay on the walls. We managed to do this alternative. It’s a new method.
It gave cause to many discussions, if it was good or bad that we took this step. The discussion involved the Cotroceni Church reconstruction at large and the bringing back of several authentic objects, since the new building is only a reconstruction, it’s not an authentic building. So several purist voices said that nothing authentic should be placed back in this building, which should be only a symbol of reconstruction and nothing else, so that one shouldn’t believe that a reconstruction can substitute the original, like a warning for the future, that demolishing doesn’t guarantee that we can rebuilt what we destroyed. That is, a historical monument demolished is forever destroyed.
I agree totally with this idea, that the original substance has to be contained by the object that is declared a patrimony item, but in this case the way we mounted the frescos it clearly delineates that they don’t belong to the new place. And for us it was salvation because we didn’t have to repeat the wanderings of the Văcăreşti frescos, which we have nowhere to place them, they’ve navigated from one cellar to another, no one ever saw them and they went thru a degradation process.
It’s a long term effort. The work we put into it is much harder than the one we’d do in situ, at the original site.
E.V.: Could you tell me how did the demolition of Văcăreşti occur?
D.M.: Yes. I was an active part of it. In ’85 I had just come back from Italy where I attended a specialization training. I was very happy that I saw this Noah’s Ark of Europe, that Italy is, but…
E.V.: Why do you call it this way?
D.M.: Because Italy gathers/concentrates all that is most beautiful in European civilization. Maybe not what is most beautiful, but what is most significant. Noah’s Ark had to bring on board a sample from each species to preserve it. So in a similar way Italy samples everything. You can see authentic Greek art at Paestum. You can see Roman art, Byzantine art, you can see the Gothic up North, the Renaissance like nowhere else. It’s a wonderful place from this point of view and their restoration tradition is very developed. They are, so to speak, the parents of this field, this is the truth, though most people now want to go rather to Getty than to Italy, but Italy is a coveted place by all the restaurateurs that want to become more educated/learned/skillful. The Italians have a solid/sound school system, they have tradition, they have good taste, which is essential. From the little I traveled in other parts of the world, these were my observations about Italy.
So I’d just arrived from Italy when I was confronted with what was going on here, which was a Bucharest in full-swing demolition. But not only Bucharest, the systematization, as Ceauşescu called it overtook several cities.
E.V.: But what did he want to do?
D.M.: Practically historic Bucharest was menaced, it still is today, unfortunately, but as one can see the entire historical center was sacrificed for a new urban vision. The center, the axis mundi was the Palace, the present day Parliament Palace that was designed to be the People’s Palace, as you well know. At Văcăreşti the plan was to build an immense sports complex, if I remember exactly. Anyway, after the demolition they build enormous foundations that still exists I think, on which this new complex was to be constructed. The monastic ensemble Văcăreşti at that point was under restoration. It was a well thought out restoration work and it was done very well so far. Oh, were you to see the arched galleries already restored from the Large Hall, they were magnificent. Imagine it like a second Hurezi, much more spread horizontally, with the entire eastern wing falling in a rhythm, so to speak, in sync with these galleries that made the passage on one way to the Casa Domnească/Kingly Mansion, and on the other to the Stăreţie/Abbot’s Chambers/House. In the middle there was a paraclis/chapel, slender and very beautiful. And then the large church that tried to overdo what Brîncoveanu built in his time, both as size and complexity of vision.

A more eclectic vision that tried to gather/concentrate/amass all the medieval builders’ experience/knowledge from Ţara Românească/Valachia, the South region of Romania. For example the largest columns in pronaos/narthex were in Greek style. The triconc/trichonch/three-apse was magnificent, so were the pronaos/narthex and the altar. The church porch was very svelte, slender and daring that had not only three cupolas, like at Hurezi, but also two slender steeples, all covered in mural painting, from one end to the other.
Well, in 1985, after various attempts of opposition/resistance from this and that side, and attempts of evasiveness/procrastination/delaying, the demolition started nevertheless. It was a demolition that started despotically, high handed, acting on its own authority, without any approvals from specialists. They simply started demolishing, and when it was clear that there was no possibility of negotiation I realized that the mural painting extraction couldn’t be delayed anymore. Deadlines were announced, everything was an ultimatum, so several rescue teams were constituted at the Art University, where we are now. There were other people that already got their specialization in Italy, not just me who had barely returned from there, Professor Constantin Blendea too. Anyway, these teams of students lead by professors were organized and we started to extract the mural paintings.
These extractions were conducted also under ultimatum pressure, and as such improvisation. I, who just came back from Rome, knew too well how things should be done technically, but we lacked many of the materials at that time. Romania’s isolation stopped access to professional, specialized art shops, and specialized art supplies, so I didn’t have any of the materials that could have allowed me to make a decent extraction. But we handled it somehow.  So using the recipes that I knew for extraction I proceeded, being under the siege of the demolition institution that was feverishly destroying Bucharest in the name of systematization. ICRAL was the name of this organization. They swiftly made the wooden support surfaces that you saw upstairs, and we got out the paintings off the wall, the best we could. The scaffolding was improvised; a side of the church was already demolished. As I told you, they’d menaced us by successively demolishing parts of the architectural complex. They started with the Casa Domnească/Kingly Mansion, and the Stăreţie/Abbot’s Chambers/Chapter House, then took down a side of the church and the pronaos/narthex steeples. Well, at that instant I realized there was nothing else to do. Unfortunately they did these very brutal actions, they created gaps in the wall in the naos/nave and the pronaos/narthex of the church, so we were working under the menace of walls collapsing on us. We couldn’t put scaffoldings everywhere. We raised them only where it was possible, so we extracted selectively, whatever we could. 80 square meters out of over 2,000 square meters, so very little.
But in spite of that the fragments that still exist are very precious/valuable, and they could constitute a museum in themselves, but we couldn’t find a permanent home for them, their destiny. After we extracted them they navigated from one place to another. For a while, they stayed incredibly crammed up in a small house in Bucharest, the very beautiful Theodor Pallady Museum, Casa Mellik, a very old house. From there they migrated provisory to the Romanian Peasant Museum. Each moving was a trauma. You can imagine, everything is very breakable in such situations, plus they were heavy. The transportation in itself of art works is an entire science, whereas we did everything by improvisation, you can imagine. Their transportation meant dislocation, loss, huge vibrations, so more losses added up to it, and deterioration. In the end, after ’89, we managed to negotiate with the Museum of Bucharest. They were very welcoming and understanding. For 10 years it was excellent, but lately their funding has disappeared. It’s getting harder and harder. We have only a few more fragments that have financing, so we’re doing volunteering work. But the issue is where they will survive after that.
So that’s how we started our restoration on the Văcăreşti fragments, thru an agreement with the Museum of Bucharest.
E.V.: Could you describe me, so I can visually imagine it, how the demolition went on? They’d bulldoze the walls? And the steeples? Zboing!? They shattered them?
D.M.: Let me explain: meanwhile we were trying to negotiate the problem. As it is well known here, because lots of ink has flown about Văcăreşti, Professor
Dinu Giurescu’s books, and Architect Gheorghe Leahu
wrote a book about Văcăreşti, and articles in the written press, that clarify how this had happened administratively.
So, we were trying to negotiate the problem. Public personalities of that time tried to persuade Ceauşescu to give up on this project, but they didn’t succeed, obviously, but meanwhile we tried to stand our ground on a different way too, we were trying to explain to them that technically we didn’t have what was needed and that meant they were forcing us to sacrifice the frescos ourselves, ‘It’s as if a surgeon doesn’t have a scalpel and you force him to do what he can with a pocket knife!’ So the surgeon refuses, and we tried too to refuse doing this as professionals. Well, they put pressure on us, that they’d fire us, until they finally said, ‘If you don’t do anything about it, we shall demolish the church anyway.’ So they started with the pronaos/narthex steeples.


E.V.: It was blackmail. They’d send you the kidnapping victim’s cut finger.
D.M.: Yes, exactly. And after we saw the finger, we saw several fingers, we realized there was nothing else we could do and that they were really capable of taking the next step, if we didn’t take action. So that under this dilemma we said, ‘Better to have some memory of Văcăreşti than nothing,’ and I’d say it turned out alright.
Though at that time the situation was rather dramatic from moral point of view. Taking this step meant the demolition of Văcăreşti was decided, since extracting the fragments was as if we made way for the demolition. We became actors/agents of the demolition thru performing the extraction.
This was happening while Ceauşescu tried to give a different angle, thru all the personages that gave their support to the regime, saying that the church had been damaged by the earthquakes, especially the one in ‘77, and its structure was falling apart so it had to be demolished and all that we were doing was to take out the artistic elements so that they could be used later on. So, as if it was actually a rescuing mission ordered by him. The stones still exist at Mogoşoaia, in God only know what poor state, but there we were, his professional rescuing mission. This ambiguity was typical for dictatorships, for situations in which you want to say that you’re doing something different than what you really are doing.
But under this pressure we had to act.
E.V.: Back to the steeples. How were they doing it? With a huge iron ball, swinging a cudgel, boof!
D.M.: We had a very beautiful show in which we exhibited mural paintings, but we asked Eugen Ciocan, a photographer of that era, period, and of the present of course, a very talented photographer that managed to take pictures during demolition. I haven’t seen them doing it. In fact I refused to even walk that way after we made the extraction, because it was tragic. But he had the courage to go and photograph various instances of the destruction process. Besides bulldozers they had a crane with an enormous demolition ball mounted that stroke the building, until it collapsed. And he has a beautiful image of this ball foreground and in the background the monastery. I think there was an issue of Monument Historiques, a French magazine, a paper that folded in the end, I don’t know the exact year, in the ‘90s, but they published one special edition issue dedicated to Romania, and they published the half-demolished Văcăreşti. You could see the inside paintings. It was winter, probably November, December. One could see perfectly clear the state of destruction. That’s how it was.
E.V.: As if I heard once that they rolled a church on wheels and thus they could rescue it?
D.M.: Yes, there was such a feat that Romanian engineers proudly boasted about, since it was a novel technological innovation thru which they could move buildings. We’re speaking of Olari Church, they moved it 58 meters from Calea Moşilor behind the row of apartment buildings. It was thus moved out of sight. It’s also the case of Mihai Vodă Church.
E.V.: But how was this justified?
D.M.: It was justified that space was necessary. But the professional authorities were insisting on preserving them, so the regime allowed this option too, to hide them away, so they weren’t visible, behind apartment buildings. But this still often meant the demolition of many valuable architectural settlements. For example Mihai Vodă was the well-known home of the State Archives. They moved only the church but the rest of the monastery was demolished completely. Same thing happened to several historic monuments that were actually gatherings of monastic buildings, for example Schitul Maicilor. Therefore the wheeling away meant only the church not the entire premises, the whole building complex.
That’s how things were conducted.
E.V.: Idiots. Stupid people.
D.M.: Engineer Eugeniu Iordănescu was the one who conceived the wheeling system. I can’t describe it very well technically, but at any rate a flatbed structure was created that allowed the church to be pulled up by using a hydraulic system and then placed on wheels and transported.
E.V.: Thank you very much, now should we get back to Urşi, since this is why we met today [Laughs]
D.M.: Sure. I’ve just answered your questions. What would you like to know?
E.V.: How all this came about, and how you got involved.
D.M.: Alright. Well, it started a bit earlier, there was a flicker, a spark that ignited ever since I met Şerban Sturdza at the Presidential Report on Patrimony. We were discussing many serious problems, and we also raised the matter of the wooden churches. Şerban being very active at that time and very watchful and noticing things that others didn’t, was trying to set in motion a system of data collection concerning the churches. There were in Bucharest, and I assume not only here, very active youth organizations that gathered information to document what was going on. And I remember seeing in Şerban’s workshop/studio an entire series that his collaborators were working on regarding the situation of the decaying wooden churches.
We were discussing how it would be best to present the Presidential Report but also the issue of the wooden churches, and suddenly the key word came to us: SMURD, which it is emergency intervention. I raised the issue myself during the discussion, that we needed an emergency intervention, not a complete restoration planning/process. Just take an inventory and a minimal rescuing intervention to avoid imminent danger. And then, about two years ago, Şerban Sturdza initiated the famous project 60 Churches, an attempt to draw together under a large umbrella a project encompassing 60 endangered churches from Hunedoara and Vâlcea areas, if I’m not mistaken. The project wanted to bring into the public eye and alert the local authorities about the danger in which these historical monuments were placed.
The second purpose was to persuade the Romanian public to do volunteer work, which I think it’s missing here. It’s hard to ask a nation that is poor, that has basic existential problems, to volunteer, but it’s very necessary, even in this period of extreme hardships, it’s a salutary, a beneficial attitude in such moments, because it asks for solidarity, and at the same time responsibility. I applauded the initiative but I was a bit reluctant regarding its slightly adventurous touch, as I said to Şerban, its quixotic tilting at windmills, in the sense that when you start such a head-on action you have to have behind you professionals, there’s no way around it, that’s the only way, otherwise it’s impossible. The voluntarism is helpful to a certain point, but it can’t be allowed to overstep into professionalism’s grounds. You can’t take action only with amateurs because you risk creating damage, a secondary evil, not the evil produced by the initial negligence, abandon, but a secondary evil. I called his attention to that, and then we became allies since being both professionals we could monitor the volunteering efforts and do the right thing.
And that’s how we arrived at Urşi. This church has a special place comparatively with other churches in the project, because it has both tempera icons, painting al secco, as we call it, but also fresco on wood. There aren’t many cases like this, at least in Romania. It’s a special case. Usually on wood the painting is al secco, like it happens in Maramures, in the Northern areas where you can still see a lot of al secco painting made on a plaster supportive layer. While at Urşi it was pure fresco.
Then a second event occurred, a tragic one: while two architects were conducting the measuring survey, evaluating the project for restoration purposes, the altar apse collapsed right under their eyes. This made the situation more severe.
Then we created a partnership between us, the Art University Restoration Department, and the Architects’ Order. We created a team. Well, at the beginning of the academic year we proposed a collective thesis project, which was a novelty because usually the thesis is a competitive, individual choice, but I think we were successful with this new team-work concept. ‘You are separate, each of you has a mission, but you’re still together.’
This togetherness mattered very much in this project because it created a different state of mind than individualism. It was a one-person individualism that blended in a team individualism, so to speak. And this way we went in the field, we found very cooperating peasants, which it was a very special and rare occurrence. Usually, you come against mayors that are very pragmatic, very disconnected from patrimony issues. They have their own agenda, often they are the new rich of the village, and the dialogue is more difficult. But here at Urşi we found both a cooperating mayor and cooperating villagers. It was very interesting to see that there were villagers that reacted relatively quickly to these matters and they helped us with our rescuing efforts. We first made some supportive emergency construction in situ, for safety.
Usually we make prophylactic work for the mural painting, with Japanese paper, with a reversible adhesive, so that the dislocated area doesn’t further detach/come off/flake/peel off. The icons were taken out, though a few stayed because they weren’t detachable, but the ones we restored were taken out. The villagers helped us build some shelves and we stored them in the newly built masonry village church, and this is how we sheltered them. We also stored the fallen fresco fragments on shelves in a steeple nearby the church. That, as you know, is placed in a cemetery. So, first of all, we safeguarded the paintings. 


In the next stage we brought the student team, infused with the new spirit of togetherness, and we applied the first prophylactic procedures on the icons, then we packed them and brought them with our school van here. Then we followed our restoration steps and we launched the pre-thesis stage in which the students research and make tests and then discuss with the faculty what they intend to do, and then with our approval they proceed to the actual restoring. They worked until the last minute. Then we thought we should open it up to the public, so the people can look at them, though it might have been better to have more time and a larger space to exhibit them, and in a more popular location, because the bookstore is quite popular, but people go there for books, not so much to see exhibitions, but we found a beautiful space that matched perfectly the church space where the icons came from.
But if you go up on metal stairs, right under the bookstore roof structure, in its attic, in a garret made of wood and somewhat evoked the wooden church. So this is what we achieved with the icons. On the other hand the church was sheltered, after the roof was taken off, it being the main danger. Its well-preserved parts were stored, and the church building was incased in another house, built by another volunteer, an engineer that Şerban found, a good builder. The structure made of wood was covered in a cloth that allowed ventilation, so it survived another winter waiting for the next stage, in which we’ll have a combination of volunteers and professionals. They will remake the structure that holds the building together, and put it on its own feet again, even more so that now it’s half dislocated, it shifted places, so we’ll see what will happen.
I have only one disappointment, that I tried to convince the state institution that deals with the national restoration planning to include Urşi and I didn’t succeed. State involvement would have been necessary to solve the structure building issue.
E.V.: One more question: I understand there are no more blacksmiths, no more roofers, so I assume there are no wooden church builders, so who is rebuilding them? University schooled engineers, or who?
D.M.: No, no, there still are master builders in the countryside that still know how to work with wood. In Maramureş for example there are teams of builders that have experience with working in wood and wooden churches. They still build wooden churches there. The problem is that they should be more numerous and able to teach their skills to future generations. But it’s hard to ask them to work for free, since it’s very hard at present, and also to organize the work in the field. So this involves two things: on one hand training for a new generation so the skill is not lost and on the other hand the financing of those that do this profession, otherwise us, who have these professions will succumb. This is the problem.
E.V.: I don’t know what happens to this country. As if it’s on a suicidal bent, which lasts since when?! Already from last century...
D.M.: It only looks like that. It’s rather like when a person doesn’t know very well what he’s doing, it’s rather irresponsibility. I say this because unfortunately there is a social layer in Romania that is very rich. There are people who have a stronghold of the finances of this country. There are resources, Romania is not void of resources, but there is a combination of bad investments and of selfish concern that directs everything against the country’s best interests and it is completely unproductive.
Not even speaking of the cynicism this terrible disconnectedness creates, witnessing cynically how the work force, people, the supreme value disappears. We’ve arrived at aberrant situations. We are at times reproached that we don’t act quickly enough. Yes, but how to take action in such dire conditions?
I’m all for creating projects to apply for financial support, but in order to create these projects a large part of my work time goes on paperwork, when I’m a person that executes, does real work, and it’s very difficult to divide my time between papers and what I really do. Our system lacks flexibility, is plagued by an immense bureaucracy that requests endless paperwork for you to access funding. It makes you give up on applying for it, which renders you ineligible or even bankrupt!
We realized that lately the requirements to gain funding for certain projects or win bidding contests request that you have a certain amount of business capital. Without it, you won’t succeed. Or in Romania success in business doesn’t mean go hand in hand with professionalism. It merely means shoddy production, loads of jobs finished overnight, in an infernal rhythm to make a lot of money, but such a work style is incompatible with restoration work. Incompatible. The detailed work you’ve seen upstairs can’t be achieved without fair pay, so that people can survive. And if at the same time you ask this person to also write project proposals and grant applications, it means to leave aside his work and deal with paperwork for a large portion of his time!
In institutions that deal with patrimony work we should have individuals that deal only with grant writing, with garnering funding and use us for what we are trained. As it is now, enormous quantities of money are spent on all kinds of bogus projects, that have no practical application, that have no continuity.
Or this lack of synergy is a terrible loss.
For example until yesterday I worked on an absolutely extraordinary project, named Corbii de piatră/The Stone Ravens. It’s a project meant for an absolutely magnificent location of major importance for Romanians. It’s a cave painting, a rupestrian church in Arges area, on the Doamnei River Valley, that contains rupestral paintings of extraordinary value. The painting is for sure from the 14th Century, if not even older, maybe even the oldest at this time in Ţara Românească, the Southern of Romania.
It’s in a very hard situation because its microclimate is uncommon due to being in a cave, and the geological situ is uncommon. We created an interdisciplinary project. We rallied geologists, chemists, physicists, people who can evaluate what is actually there. Under normal circumstances when you put together such a project and you realize its magnitude someone needs to meet you half way to ensure continuity, but this doesn’t exist here.
In fact it often happens that you show them what needs to be done, but they do a totally different thing. Money is funneled from European Union. The mayor receives an European grant and they build exactly what is not needed, in total lack of synergy. What can one do? The Orthodox Church also became so utterly autonomous that thinks of itself as the owner of its endowments and thinks it can do whatever they see fit, based on their own criteria, there’s no collaboration anymore, no synergy of these forces. Proof: in vain we initiated Urşi and there was so much talk about it, Sturdza is dealing with this right now, if the Ministry of Culture doesn’t meet him midway, to extend help. Same with the Corbii de Piatră project. The Ministry just doesn’t want to extend help to include that monument in the budget planning to move the work onto the next stage!
So this is how things are, this is why it looks like a long drawn suicide, due to lack of synergy. Things are disconnected, disjointed. It’s hard.
E.V.: Thank you.
I touched base last week with Professor Mohanu and he wrote me, “The battle for Urşi continues, even though we have no support from the Ministry of Culture and other authorities. We tried unsuccessfully to get funding for Urşi restoration. By now I rely solely on the good Lord and my students.” As I said in Mr. Sturdza’s posting, I searched the internet for volunteer organizations that do international work, museums that have restoration departments, and magazines that might be interested in publishing this interview, hoping maybe some help shows up from somewhere for their efforts, but it would be great if you, dear reader, also do something.
Thanks go to Dr. Nicholas Andronesco for his kind advice.

New York
  May 8th, 2013
Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, witnessing democracy, freedom of speech and faith, and engineering social change thru art being one of them, I’d be grateful.

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