Those walking down through the Third Gate of Alba Iulia fortress will notice a stone obelisk whose height might astound them first. Few will realise that they are in front of the most important public-space monument of twentieth-century Romania.
Who built it? The name of its sculptor, Iosif Fekete, is almost forgotten today. In spite of this, for connoisseurs he is rated most definitely alongside Dimitrie Paciurea, who was his professor, Corneliu Medrea and, why not, Constantin Brâncuși. The main collaborator of Iosif Fekete in the construction of the obelisk, the architect Octavian Mihălțan, has largely fallen into oblivion.
This monument was primarily the product of a certain mindset. Until early in the twentieth century, Romanians represented only a minority among the population of Transylvanian cities. After 1918, as Romanians migrated in significant numbers from villages or towns to cities, they found themselves in places whose monumental art and architecture were not alluring to them. They attempted to compensate for this situation with mixed results. The first attempt was the building of the Cathedral of the Coronation in Alba Iulia (1922), followed by several churches in the neo-Byzantine style in Cluj (1930), Târgu Mureș (1934), Mediaș (1935) and Sighișoara (1937).
This mindset re-emerged in Alba Iulia in the early 1930s. The initiative to build a monument belonged to the Alba County branch of “Astra”, which intended to celebrate 150 years since the great peasant uprising led by Horea. The monument had to have dimensions and artistic qualities to match the importance of the commemorated event.
Fulfilling this ambitious initiative was however a difficult task. The Astra cultural society was profuse in initiatives, but one cannot affirm the same with regard to its financial backing. Starting in 1933, the ad-hoc committee for the construction of the monument began a feverish fund-raising campaign. In order to load their gesture with a symbolic weight, they tried to connect the cause for which they toiled with the contribution of the young generation of the country. Using the newspapers and the school inspectorates, they attempted to raise awareness amongst teachers, professors and pupils, or rather amongst their parents. Remote schools, such as those in Ismail (Bessarabia) and Durostor (Cadrilater) Counties, sent funds to Alba Iulia. Although the school contributions were modest, this was compensated for by the importance assigned to this action. Iuliu Vuia, a teacher in Caransebeș, was an outstanding fundraiser. He succeeded in raising 150,000 lei. Unfortunately, Iuliu Vuia died in 1933, before seeing the monument for which he worked so hard.
The fundraisers succeeded in attracting on their campaign the most diverse professional corporations, from priests, professors and teachers to politicians. After the publication of a statement signed by Octavian Goga, Ion Mihalache and Pan Halippa, among others, the members of the Deputies Assembly donated their allowances for one day, which amounted to 260,000 lei, for the construction of Horea’s monument.
Although the donations collected by Astra neared 700,000 lei, this sum fell far short of covering the estimated costs. The government covered the difference up to 3,000,000 lei in order to prevent the failure of a national project, which had benefitted from an immense advertising campaign.
A boost for the supporters of the project resulted from the commemoration of 150 years since the execution of Horea and Cloșca in Alba Iulia, on 28 February 1935. The emotional pressure produced by the evocation of the torture by breaking wheel had effects on public opinion as well as among well-off individuals.
An equally difficult problem was the selection of a sculptor whose artistic sensibility resonated with the idea supporting the project. The first to offer his qualities was Corneliu Medrea, but he could not reach an agreement with the committee from Alba Iulia, neither concerning the sum, nor with regard to the shape of the monument.
Finally, the work was entrusted to the team of Iosif Fekete and Octavian Mihălțan. The latter contributed to the artistic concept, but dealt mainly with the architectural aspect and the technical management of the construction.
In the 1930s, Iosif Fekete (1903-1979) was well known in the Romanian plastic arts. His destiny had already been changed by good fortune. In 1919, he was an apprentice in metallurgy in Hunedoara, and two years later he became a student at Belle Arts in Bucharest. After earning several prizes awarded by the Official Salon of Sculpture, Fekete reached the peak of his success in 1935, when his major work, the Monument of Air Forces’ Heroes, was inaugurated in Bucharest. This success was probably the decisive factor that recommended him to the Alba Iulia committee.
What has not so far been said clearly enough is that this work is a defining expression of the introduction of Art Deco style in Romania. Created around 1900 in France, Art Deco dominated architecture, sculpture and decorative arts all over the world for half a century. Briefly put, Art Deco combines geometrical and floral motifs with the elegant line of the human body. One can affirm convincingly that the Monument of Air Forces’ Heroes and the Obelisk of Horea, Cloșca and Crișan are characteristic of Art Deco style. The genius of the artist succeeded in harmonising historical ideas with high emotional tension and modernism in art, avoiding any ostentation that might have offended public opinion.
The collaboration of Fekete and Mihălțan resulted in an obelisk of 22,5 m in height, positioned on a terrace which makes it visible from distances of tens of kilometres. The three vertical bands on its western façade strengthen its silhouette, making it seem taller. On the same façade, the alto-relievo displaying the three leaders before the peasants appears in a frame bordered by floral elements that outline the map of Greater Romania. This sculptural solution is so subtle that it escaped the vigilance of authorities in a time when to affirm or to display anything about Bessarabia as part of Romania was forbidden.
On the western façade, the monument has a sculpted representation of the goddess of victory, winged, bearing in the right hand a laurel wreath offered to the three martyr heroes. The “Victory” of Alba Iulia combines feminine elegance with the force of the idea, which justified the construction of the monument.
At the end of this brief account, it is necessary to evoke the Pietroasa Society’s contribution, which offered both the Banpotoc limestone used for the construction of the monument and the trachyte, the harder stone used for building its base. The Pietroasa Society participated in the building of the Mausoleum of Mărășești concomitantly with its contribution to this construction in Alba Iulia.
The inauguration ceremony of the “Horea, Cloșca and Crișan” Obelisk, on 14 October 1937, was celebrated like a national feast. The ceremony was attended by King Carol II and Prince Mihai, Great Voivode of Alba Iulia (a title that in the future should have passed to all heirs of Romania’s throne). Seldom were so many full dress uniforms, medals, highest-ranking politicians, generals and prelates seen together. The black and white photos allow our imaginations to fill with colour the scenes of that event. The ceremony possessed a splendour to which one could ascribe all the merits and shortcomings of an official ceremony. However, what carries on after decades is the almost anonymous merit of the creators, who gave the monument the austere majesty of the adjacent Apuseni Mountains. (V.M.)