A particularly important heritage held by the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant is made up of ceramic objects.
Practised for centuries mainly in village centres, a small number of which continue to exist today, the pottery craft is represented in the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant by approximately 14,000 pieces. These constitute one of the most important collections of ceramic objects (both in terms of number and value) preserved in the country’s museums. The initiator of this collection was Alexandru Tzigara Samurcaș, who in 1906 laid the foundations of the Museum on the Road. Inaugurated under the patronage of King Carol I (Charles I), the institution benefited from the royal support from the very beginning. The royal family’s interest in reviving and supporting this craft made it possible to organise national pottery competitions. These were organised on the initiative of the Domnița Maria Society and were held twice, in 1908 and 1910. A significant number of the most valuable pieces resulting from the competition were donated or purchased for the Museum. Among these were the winners, whose authors were awarded various sums of money (100 lei for the first prize, for example). They joined the other pieces already in the museum’s collection, including some vases from the Anniversary Exhibition of the 40th anniversary of the reign of King Carol I, held in 1906 in Carol Park.
The collection of ceramics was thus built up under favourable auspices and gradually enriched, reaching a total of approx. 3000 pieces at the time of the installation of ethnographer Tancred Bănățeanu at the head of the institution in 1953. Forced to restrict their exhibition activities due to the relocation of the institution’s headquarters to a less suitable space, the museum’s specialists concentrated on other aspects of their profession over the next 25 years. Taking place at a time of profound changes in Romanian society in the process of modernization, the campaign to hoard ethnographic pieces destined inevitably to disappear took on the connotations of a large-scale rescue operation. As old traditional ceramic centres were disappearing, unable to cope with the changes in society, and as factory production gradually penetrated the villages, replacing the pieces used in the past, many of these objects found their way to the museum for the benefit of the country’s cultural heritage.
Pots and pans used in the hearth for preparing food, ewers, jugs, mugs, bowls, dishes, plates, tiles and ladles, these are some of the categories of vessels used in peasant households, which are well represented in the museum’s collection, both in the traditional village and today. They bear witness to the fact that an indestructible relationship has always existed between the craft and art of clay, between the utilitarian and decorative functions of ceramics.
Through their shape, proportions, decoration and colour, pots of all types have, in addition to their practical functions, also possessed artistic virtues deriving from the knowledge, inventiveness and imagination of the craftsman, from his mastery of techniques and craftsmanship. The pieces included in this collection participate in decorating the interior, fulfilling rites of passage and highlighting social hierarchies.
The collection contains objects from almost 300 production centres. Together with these, there is also a complete inventory of pottery workshops from Hunedoara and Vâlcea, dating from the last century, which can help us to outline a complex representation of this craft. Thus, the main stages in the preparation of the clay before firing (cleaning, dosing, kneading, shaping, drying, ornamentation) are suggested by the tools used: troaca (a sort of pail), mezdreaua, cuțitoaia (a big two-handled knife), the potter’s wheel, făchieșul (a wooden instrument used to polish the exterior side of the pot) and plotogul (a piece of rough leather used to smooth the edge), cornul (the cow horn that helps decorate the pots) and gaița (a thin brush made of pig hair). There is also the hand mill – the grinder used to finely grind the lead oxides and the sand or stone that went into the composition of the enamel applied to the pots between two firings in the kiln. The presence of this instrument in the museum is becoming more and more important as today, the grinding machine tends to replace all those preparatory stages of modelling, to which we can add the spread of the electrically driven potter’s wheel or electric kiln.
In the collection are well represented the centres producing black pottery: Marginea (Suceava), Dănești, Mădăraș (Harghita), Poiana Deleni (Iași), Șimian (Mehedinți). The common element in these cases is the firing of the pots only once, and in the absence of oxygen they take on a black, metallic colour.
From the wide range of pots modelled here we mention: pots for sarmale (traditional stuffed cabbage), pots for milk, pots for boiling marmalade, pans or pots for roasting, cake moulds, jugs of various sizes for water. Ornamentation is fairly basic, with production focusing mainly on household pots.
An important place in the ceramic collection is held by objects from Săcel (Maramureș), the only centre in the country where unglazed red pots are still polished with stone (like black pottery). If the ornamental design and shapes of this centre are reminiscent of Dacian ceramics, its firing installation is linked to the tradition of Roman kilns. Săcel pottery was produced in a multitude of forms: jugs, milk pots, jugs for the feast of Moși, three-legged colanders, large dishes. These were polished with stone, the decorative effect being given by the zigzagged stripes and veined, light brown brush-painted lines.
Among the numerous categories of pieces worked in the Criș Valley, we mention: cruses, the “sieve-mouthed” jar to prevent impurities from entering the vessel, large platters and bowls, containers for storing grain and unglazed stove tiles decorated with plant motifs.
Other centres producing unglazed pottery, present in the museum’s collection, are those of Găleșoaia (Dâmbovița), Curtea de Argeș, Calvini (Buzău), etc.
Glazed ceramics are represented in the collection by the products of a large number of ceramic centres.
In this context, the collection also includes the sgraffito ceramics of Byzantine tradition, which was produced in Bucovina in the 18th and 19th centuries, known in the literature as “Kuty ceramics”, after the famous Galitian centre founded by Armenian potters from Moldavia. The bowls, pitchers, plates, jugs and tiles made in the centres of Bukovina by the Hutsul craftsmen are notable both for their incised decoration and technique (champeléve).
In the last century this type of pottery was produced in the old centre of Rădăuți. The Colibaba family of potters (in particular, the incomparable Constantin Colibaba) played a major role in the revival of this type of pottery in the first half of the 20th century.
The museum’s heritage is honoured with vessels of various shapes and functions from one of the most famous centres of glazed pottery – Vama Oas, which has now disappeared after several centuries of existence. According to tradition, the craft was brought to the area by Slovak potters and taken over by Romanians and Hungarians, who continued it, leaving their own specific mark. The pottery made here was used for interior decoration as well as for everyday use: plates, milk jugs, large cooking pots, pots for carrying food to the fields, table tops, straight pots for boiling imitating factory production, but also oluri, which are groomsman’s pots, with a special status.
These white jugs with their specific shape (extremely domed body, directly linked to the trilobed mouth) are an essential element of an ancient custom governing the relationship between the newlyweds and their spiritual parents, the wedding godparents. According to tradition, the wedding godchildren (the newlyweds) had to give such a jug to their spiritual parents every Easter. Hanging from the beam of the godfather’s house, the vessels would announce to passers-by how many pairs of wedding godchildren the family had married.
A wide range of pieces made in Horezu completes the collection with new shapes, techniques and decorative motifs used by the potters. The centre, which appeared towards the end of the 18th century, initially specialised in the manufacture of dishes and plates, diversified its production with the later introduction of mugs, jugs, flower pots and lard jars. Elegant pieces reflecting oriental influences, Horezu vases were often destined for use by noble families. The centre, which focused on the production of glazed pottery, became famous for its plates decorated with a decoration obtained by jirăvire (the drip of colors from the edges of the pot towards the middle with the help of gaița, a pig hair brush, and a cow horn). In this technique, the dishes were ’embellished’ with ‘feathered’ or ‘teardrop’ motifs of great finesse, resembling a spider’s web. To make them, the craftsman drew a series of coloured lines on the dry plate with the horn from which he slowly dripped the paint, then, using the aforementioned gaița, he intervened by moving the still wet colour a little without breaking the thread of the drawing. Usually grouped in concentric circles around the edges of the plate, the swirled decoration surrounded a central motif: fish, sun, rooster, spiral, church. Other ornaments widely used in Horezu were vegetal (fir, clover, vines) or geometric (zigzag, dots, lines). For the more complicated designs, cardboard printing was used to draw the outlines in pencil. On a white background, rarely green (especially on old pieces), brown, red or green ornaments created images of a particular chromatic and decorative harmony.
The Museum’s collection also includes pieces of Haban origin of great artistic and documentary value. The most important of these is a guild vessel that belonged to the collector Virgil Demetrescu Duval, dated 1632 and representing the oldest ceramic object in the Museum’s collection. In fact, it was quite common practice for representatives of the various guilds to contact the Haban potters to order vases of various shapes, with the insignia of the respective guild as a mark of identity. An Anabaptist sect persecuted by the Habsburgs, the Habans, after a stay of about a century in Poland, took refuge in Transylvania, where they settled between 1621 and 1623. Their settlement in Vințu de Jos was a turning point in the history and economy of the area, boosting the development of pottery because they were already producing a luxury earthenware, influenced by that of Delft. They used their own recipes to make it, one of which was the preparation of opaque pewter glaze. From Vințu de Jos the cobalt blue glazed pottery spread to other secondary centres. In addition to enriching the ornamental and morphological repertoire, the Habans also gave the ceramic object a new function, that of an interior decorative element.
And as a result of these impulses, in the 18th century, Saxon ceramics reached its peak, both in terms of quality and quantity. The spectacular flowering of this craft can be traced through the development of Saxon ceramic centres such as Saschiz, Chirpăr, Drăușeni in the 18th century.
A special note in the context of the Saxon ceramics mentioned is given by the Chirpăr tiles (cahle), mugs and jugs with spherical bellies, long and straight necks, forms of obvious oriental influence. The decorative motifs, subject to the same oriental influences, take the form of palmettes, hearts and fantastic flowers outlined in blue. To these are added horizontal raised bands painted in yellow.
The Saxon centres mentioned above, plus the one in Bistrita, whose characteristic element is the use of Byzantine-style sgrafitto decoration in combinations of green and yellow on a white or blue background, were also producers of tiles. The museum’s collection contains more than 800 of these pieces, from the most varied centres and periods, an important segment being the glazed stove tiles produced in Bistrita (rectangular and small).
Alongside the ceramics produced in the Saxon centres, there is also a production of Hungarian ceramics. Numerous earthenware pots and plates made in the local but “Gyor-type” manner, decorated on a white background with specific motifs (mainly floral and vegetal), are in the museum’s collection. The collection also includes the carved jugs, inspired by the Hungarian model but produced locally in the urban centres of Cluj or Gherla.
We cannot conclude the presentation of the collection without mentioning the wedding jugs, which represent the production of 15 ceramic centres, among which those from Oboga and Româna (Olt), Curtea de Argeș (Argeș) stand out. Created in most cases a century ago for the most important moment in man’s life, that of the founding of a family, the wedding jugs bear the imprint of an archaic symbolism.
The range of symbols invoked in support of the newlyweds was completed by stylisations of the frog, snake, ram, rooster, horse, eagle and plant ornaments (bouquet, flowering vine). The cross, an attribute of divinity, was not omitted from this collection of beneficial symbols. Emphasising the idea of the union of married couples, the jugs from the Româna and Oboga centres often take the form of androgynous figures combining male and female features.
One of the few elements of traditional architecture made in the pottery centres are the house pins (sharp tipped carved pillars which fastened the roof rafters). Represented in the collection by pieces made at Vâlsănești (Argeș), Calvini and Mânzălești (Buzău) or Tansa (Iași), they date mainly from the second half of the 19th century. Since then they have replaced, over time, in certain areas of Oltenia, Moldavia and Muntenia the wooden stakes around which the large roof rafters were gathered. However, apart from their practical role of protection against water infiltration, the pins also had a decorative role, depending on the ornamental motifs and their role of protecting the house and family from possible intrusions by evil forces, which explains the variety of shapes and ornamental motifs that characterise these pieces.
We cannot conclude the presentation of the collection without mentioning a special segment of it made up of apparently minor objects, clay toys and miniatures. The more than 1000 pieces are representative of the production of this kind in centres such as: Vlădești (Vâlcea), Pisc (Ilfov), Oboga (Olt) at the end of the 19th century. Alongside the anthropomorphic or zoomorphic whistles, the collection includes a series of miniatures based on household vessels: mugs, pots, jugs, baskets inspired by the traditional kitchen tools of Baia Sprie and Baia Mare, modelled in the first half of the 20th century.