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October 18, 2021

Oltenia fortified manors, the surviving conveyors of traditional architecture diversity

There is a particular type of small tower-shaped fortified manor specific for the area stretching between the Danube, the Carpathians and the right bank of the Olt river; designed to defend the wealthier families against the raids of plunderers, this thick-walled residence called ‘cula’ in the local idiom is the most original and picturesque type of dwelling in Oltenia, according to Agerpres. These less or better known architectural monuments are proof of Romania’s ancient culture that earned the nation a well-deserved place in universal civilization.
Because of the lack of material evidence, researchers have been unable to pinpoint the moment or even the period when the ‘cula’ appeared in Oltenia. Teohari Antonescu, an archeology Professor at the University of Iasi, was arguing back in 1907 that this construction is Romania-specific and its origins get lost in the mists of time. Beginning with the eighteenth century, the construction of such fortified manors spreads particularly among the minor landed gentry, because as increasingly more large landowners settle in Bucharest and Craiova, leaving their estates in the care of tenant farmers or proxies, the gentry must preserve the old life style.
‘The Oltenia-specific ‘cula’ is a prismatic building consisting of ground floor and usually two or three upper floors, with a square, or almost square rectangular layout. The stone or brick walls between 0.7 and 1.00 m thick are pierced in spots by long and extremely narrow openings, like some sort of ramparts. A wooden staircase – always inside – connects the floors (except for the Foisor and Radomir cula-type manors). Besides the staircase, each floor comprises up to three rooms, with their number depending on the size and purpose of the building. The rooms are relatively low – some 2.50 m high. The floors are made of thick oak plank and joists or vaults. The last level has a pillared gallery and quite often the top floor is fitted out like an observation tower. The entrance to the manor is usually through a single sturdy door built of oak planks, with an ingenious latching system, and often flanked by ramparts from where guns could be fired. The shape of Oltenia ‘cula’ manors evolved in step with the social and historical realities, reaching a peak in the second half of the eighteenth century. These architectural forms, the richness of the arches and of the decorative elements (the hemstitch-like stone decorations of the ground floor windows, the blind niches, arches, etc.) make the cula-type manor one of the most interesting and most characteristic examples of Oltenia vernacular architecture,’ wrote architects Iancu Anastasescu and Valeriu Grama in 1974 in their book ‘Oltenia Culas.’
According to excerpts from historical accounts, after the town of Craiova was repeatedly set on fire by the Turks in the early nineteenth century, several members of the gentry who had fled the town during the pillage decided to build observation towers and cula-type manors to deflect further attacks by raiders. Later on, in the nineteenth century, on the estates of the new landowners raised from among peasants and merchants (farmer tenants, tavern owners, or cattle traders) cula-type manors emerge, now fulfilling an emblematic rather than a defensive role.
Currently, in Romania there are 25 such tower-shaped fortified manors, 16 of which are located in Oltenia. Most of them have been subjected to a long and complex dilapidation process.
‘Alongside churches, the ‘culas’ are among the oldest constructions on Romanian soil. There have been quite many of them, as many as were necessary, but only few remained, although they would have been important for our culture. The ones preserved are only surviving now, but judging by their aspect today, it’s uncertain how long they’ll be able to make it on their own. The new post-Revolution owners practically left these monuments prey to total destruction, completely indifferent to the history of Romania. They urgently need to be brought back into shape, in a professional approach and not with destructive interventions, and then included in an educational tourist circuit,’ said architect Pavel Popescu, president of the South West Oltenia Euroregional Branch of the Union of Romanian Architects, quoted by Agerpres.
Romanian architects and the members of the National Alliance of Romania’s Creators Unions (ANUC) last year launched an online petition for the salvaging of the ‘cula’ manors, alerting all the country’s institutions that a project needs to be started, in full competence and as soon as possible, to save these monuments.
According to Pavel Popescu, only one ‘cula’ in Oltenia, the one in Bujoreni – Valcea County is impeccable in terms of ‘operation and existence.’ In contrast to that, the ‘cula’ in Runcurel village – Matasari commune (Gorj County) is beyond rescue.
There are three ‘cula’ manors in Dolj County in Almaj, Cernatesti and Brabova, all listed as assets of the national cultural heritage. The one that is in the best state of preservation is the ‘Barbu Poenaru’ ‘cula’ in Almaj, which also underwent repair and maintenance works funded from the local budget, because it serves as a school.    The Izvoranu-Geblescu ‘cula’ manor in Brabova is now in an advanced state of degradation due to earthquakes and water seepage; the building was claimed in court by the heirs of the former owner. At the initiative of the Dolj County Council the Cernatesti ‘cula’ was transferred under the administration of the Oltenia Museum for restoration and reinforcement.
Oltenia’s ‘cula’ manors could successfully make an international tourist attraction if they were properly restored and included in sightseeing circuits.

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