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The Romanian Atheneum is one of the most beautiful historical attractions and cultural venues in Bucharest. It’s also one of the best-known images of the Romanian capital. If you’ve ever searched for photos of Bucharest online, it’s very likely you’ve stumbled upon the Greek temple image of the Atheneum, a monumental 41 meters tall construction with six 12 meters columns.
The construction of the Romanian Atheneum started in 1886, close to the Royal Palace, on the existing foundations of an equestrian center. The idea of a venue for classical music concerts existed for decades, the local elites being very enthusiastic about art and culture in their efforts to modernize the country.
The lack of financial resources postponed for a long time the actual construction although it was seen as a fundamental need for the cultural life of the capital. It was the generous donation of a local aristocrat and a popular public fundraising campaign known as ‘Dati un leu pentru Ateneu’ translated as ‘Give one Leu (Romanian money) for the Atheneum’ that contributed decisively to the start of its construction.
French architect Albert Galleron worked with a Romanian team of the best engineers and architects to build the most important cultural venue in the capital. The Atheneum was inaugurated in 1888 although it was only partially finalized.
The construction continued until 1897 when the impressive interior spiral staircases were added and the Atheneum enlarged. The 75 meters long circular fresco from the main concert hall was only completed in 1937. It took many years to find the artist, Costin Petrescu, and the composition that was the perfect match for the ambitious goal of painting almost 2,000 years of history in just 25 scenes.
After miraculously escaping the destruction of the First World War when Bucharest was under German occupation, the Atheneum was not spared the horrors of the Second World War. It was almost destroyed by the 1944 Nazi bombardments that hit the area of the Royal Palace, the University, and Victoriei Avenue.
The Atheneum was renovated again through public fundraising but soon began the dark period of the communist regime that had no passion for culture and art outside the glorifying of its proletarian values.
During the communist period, the park of the monument was transformed almost completely into a parking place. The statues from the park were all destroyed but that of national poet Mihai Eminescu. Even more daunting, the circular fresco was covered for almost 20 years with red velvet. The communists who gathered here for important party meetings were not keen to see the images of the royal family after they had forced King Michael the 1st to abdicate in 1947.
While the communists did not close down the Romanian Atheneum, they didn’t take care of it either. There are many stories of concerts taking place at freezing temperatures, the fresco also being severely damaged by the lack of maintenance. Luckily, the monument was renovated and is once again the most iconic image of historical Bucharest. Even if you’re not planning to attend a recital, you can still visit the Atheneum daily. It’s a place you’ll always remember when you’ll think of your time in Bucharest.
The price of a ticket to visit the Atheneum is 10 RON.
You can check the schedule on www.fge.org.ro.
The International Festival George Enescu takes place here every two years.