The Portrait of Dimitrie Cantemir

C 725
Modern History
17th - 18th Century
oil on canvas
101x81 cm


    Texts: Raluca Velicu, Florin Georgescu

    Photo: George Nica 

    Author: Anonymous (attributed to Jean-Baptiste van Mour, 1671 - 1737)

    Provenience: The Fine Arts Museum of Rouen, France

    File author: Dana Crișan

    Description: Male with long, curly hair, depicted 3/4, semi-profile to the right, forward gaze, yellow and red brocade coat, white collar with red bow, red and white belt, white turban with black egret and jewels; right hand on hip, left hand holding a black handle. I n the year 1975, thanks to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and that of the Romanian Embassy in Paris, this painting was added to our museum’s collection, coming from the Museum of Fine Arts in Rouen, France, who received in exchange a modern painting by painter Georgeta Năpăruş. In all likelihood, the painting depicting Moldavia’s ruler, Dimitrie Cantemir, was identified during the inter-war era, at the Fine Arts Museum in Rouen, by our great historian Nicolae Iorga.



    He was born in Iaşi on October 26th 1673. His father, the Moldavian ruler Constantin Cantemir (1685-1683), at the time a “serdar” (army commander, especially in the cavalry), had fought in the war against the Poles, thus earning some degree of repute at the ruler’s court. Dimitrie Cantemir was christened by Moldavia’s ruler, Dumitraşcu-vodă Cantacuzino (1673-1674, 1674-1675, 1684-1685) himself. Unlike his brother, Antioh, since childhood he had an inclination toward study. His love of learning was inherited from his mother, Ana, the third wife of Constantin Cantemir, a very cultured woman. He was encouraged in this direction by his father as well, who, from what is said, could not read or right very well. Thus, wishing for his son to avoid the humiliations which he had endured due to his illiteracy, he exploited his inclinations, sparing no expenses in order to give him a thorough education. În 1688, Cantemir the father brought Ieremia Cacavela to Iaşi, to see to the education of his children. Crete-born Greek theologist, Ieremia Cacavela, an erudite of the times, became Dimitrie Cantemir’s mentor. Cacavela studied in Lipsca, then in Viena, where he devoted himself to theology. He was especially preoccupied with issues of religious politics. At the same time, he was attracted to the theoretical aspects of culture, logic, the study of languages “living and dead”, as well as the history of the times. He knew several languages: ancient Greek, Byzantine Greek – which he preferred – latina, Romanian, and Italian. His many writings comprise rich studies in various fields. This scholar was extremely valued by the Cantemir family, and Dimitrie Cantemir was to remain influenced by his teacher’s ideas until late in his life. In 1688, at15 years old,ani, his family sent him as hostage to Ţarigrad. In old Romanian, Constantinople was called Țarigrad, meaning “city of the Emperor” or of the “Caesar”, referring to the fact that up until 1453, Constantinople had been the residence of the Eastern Roman Empire. At the time, the custom was that rulers must send their children hostages to the Ottoman Empire as a guarantee of their loyalty to the great vizier and the sultan. Cantemir thus continued his studies in Fanar, at the Academy of the Orthodox Patriarchy (Great School) where, instructed by illustrious teachers, he studied Arabic, Persian and Turkish, Western languages (Italian, German and French), and assimilated Byzantine and Islamic culture and literature, as well as Ottoman music. During his time in Constantinople, he established connections with diplomatic, scientific, and religious personalities of the city. In 1691 he returned to Moldavia, where he stayed until the year 1693 when, following the death of his father, he is enthroned by the nobility as the new ruler of Moldavia. It was a short reign, of only twenty days, as Ottomans preferred Constantin Duca. Consequently, Dimitrie Cantemir once again left for Constantinople to study. Since 1696, when his brother, Antioh, became the ruler of Moldavia, Dimitrie Cantemir became his diplomatic representative at the Porte. Here, aside from study, he also gained military experience, when the Ottoman army besieged a Serbian city in 1697. Between 1700 and 1710, he composed music and played tambourine at the feasts of the Ottoman nobility.


    Not many know that Dimitrie Cantemir was the inventor of Turkish musical notes! Today, in Turkey, it is believed that musical notes were the invention of Cantemiroglu, Cantemir’s son! The notes invented by Cantemir were in fact the letters of the Turkish alphabet, and this made an echo throughout the entire Oriental world. Writer Jean Baptist Toderini relates: “Turks owe their musical notes to Cantemir, who was the first to apply them to Turkish songs, and for this purpose wrote a small, very rare book.” His in-depth study of Turkish music theory determined Cantemir to write a treatise for students and for lovers of music. On this topic, he relates the following: “I have made a small book in the Turkish language on the art of music, and I have dedicated it to Ahmed II Sultan now reigning. As I have understood, lovers of music make use to this day of the rules I placed in this little book.” During his stay in Constantinople, Cantemir composed a number of pieces of Turkish music, some vocal, called Beste or Pestade, others instrumental, called Peşrevuri or Pestrefuri. Among Cantemir’s music-related works, there is one titled Introduction into Turkish Music Written in the Moldavian Language. In his work, History of the Ottoman Empire, Dimitrie Cantemir makes the following confession: “I can affirm that Turkish music, through rhythm and word proportion, is much more perfect than many of the European ones.”


    We must note the fact that Dimitrie Cantemir completed his strictly philosophical writings in his younger days, although general theoretical preoccupations did not leave him in his mature years. His first work of philosophy was: “The Divan or the Wise Man’s Quarrel with the World or the Judgement of Soul with Body”. The work was written in 1698 and printed at the court’s press in Iaşi at the behest of ruler Antioh-vodă and under the supervision of Ieremia Cacavela. The latter deemed this work: “embellished with rhetorical skill, deep and rich, in the proof of old and new scriptures”. Cantemir’s Divan constitutes a guide for laymen who lose themselves in easy pleasures and must be redirected upon the path of wisdom. It is a critique of worldly morals. It invokes the example of the ordinary Christian, poor and observant of virtues, in opposition with the greedy rich nobleman. The prince’s second philosophical work was titled Sacrosanctae scientiae indepingibilis imago (The Unpaintable Icon of the Holy Science). The author discusses issues related to the world’s genesis and history, natural phenomena, and our power of knowing. The work written in Latin is presented in the form of a conversation between two characters: a main one, representing the maker of the world, a wise old man, and a secondary one, who is the author himself. The old man bears on his chest a mirror in which we may gaze on things we would not normally be able to see, and which in fact represent the holy science (sacrosancta scientia). Another one of the philosophical works written in his young days is his small treatise on logic, titled Compendiolum universae logices institutiones (Small compendium of general logic). It was written around the year 1700 and contains a short presentation of classical formal logic, a simple memorandum conceived for personal use. Although in the preface the author dedicates this manuscript to beginner readers, the work is not a masterpiece of Dimitrie Cantemir, it only presents the main themes of current logic. He integrates here elements of general philosophy, some borrowed from his teacher, Ieremia Cacavela, from the work titled Institutio logices as well as from an anonymous short treatise of Pseudo-Porfir, Isagoge in veritas cognitionem. Cantemir has the merit of being the first Romanian philosopher to write a treatise on logic.


    Cantemir’s works of historiography appear in his days of maturity. He par în perioada maturităţii lui. He took up the cult for antique Greek-Roman from his humanist contemporaries and not only. His humanism emerges as an affirmation of patriotic sentiment, of political knowledge regarding the unity of the Romanian people. In his works, he brings up the topic of his people’s unity and Latin origins, for the inhabitants of the three countries belonged to the same people. An extremely important work was the one titled Hieroglyphic History, written in 1705. It was written in Constantinople, in Romanian. It has an allegorical, fable-like character. Cantemir defines the hieroglyph as a word of Greek origin for “shapes of birds, animals and other creatures and beasts, with which the ancients used instead of letters”. The secret of the work is revealed at the end, when we learn that the bees represent the diligent peasants, while the flies embody the vulgarians, the nobility’s servants”, and the drones are the privileged peasants who, in exchange for certain services to the lords, were exempted of their feudal obligations. The gadflies represent the courtiers bound to the lordship, yeomans with certain military duties. We realize, from all the above, that Dimitrie Cantemir is thus showing us various social classes in the Romanian classes, especially the peasants, of whom the prince had a remarkable fondness. The four-legged animals represented the Moldavian nobility, and the birds did the Walachian ones, led by ravens, the rulers of Walachia. The author gives a codified representation of the brothers Antioh and Dimitrie Cantemir, as the elephant and unicorn, and even the teacher Cacavela, in the guise of a nightingale. The Hieroglyphic History is a very ample writing, structured into 12 parts, reminiscent of a political pamphlet, and yet containing original social and political ideas of the author. Another greatly resonant work of Dimitrie Cantemir is Descriptio Moldaviae. It is presumed to have been conceived and written during his time as a ruler. It is a work of geography, but what predominates is a human geography, of peoples and their ways. Part one is dedicated to physical geography and also contains an introduction about the old natives, and the Latin origin of the people, and about the founding of Moldavia. The second part has as its topic state organization, it describes the rituals of choosing a ruler, of enthronement, of endorsement by the Sultan, of dismissing a ruler from the throne, it describes the customs of the princely court, noblemen’s administrative functions, nobility ranks, and the traditions of the Romanian people. The third part speaks about religion and schools, and touches more directly upon the issue of the Romanian people’s Latin origins. The theses upheld by Cantemir in Descriptio Moldaviae were considered ahead of their time. History of the Ottoman Empire is one of Cantemir’s works that made a strong echo throughout its century and beyond. Victor Hugo wrote that “the barbarity of Islamism stands out in relief with Cantemir …” The work was written in Latin during his stay in Russia. The main issue it discusses is in fact a personal theory regarding the cycles of an Empire, namely the rise, followed by a fall. The one who appreciated this work the most was Voltaire, who states the following: “I reckon that Demetrius Cantemir has echoed forth quite a few outdated stories, but he could not have been wrong when he spoke of the modern monuments he saw with his eyes and of the Academy in which he was raised.” J. Hammer, the 19th century author of a History of the Ottoman Empire, makes the following statement: “…Prince Cantemir’s Ottoman History ranked first among the works which have so far overturned the name of Ottoman history in Europe, and it was an authority in all that concerns historical events, the ways and the language of the Turks. Not only in Russia, where it was written, was this book treated like an oracle, but in Germany too, and France, and even England”. Cantemir’s preoccupation with the Muslim world led him to write, during the final years of his life, a few complex works on Oriental culture. In the year 1722, he accompanies the Tsar to Caucasus, in an expedition led by Peter the Great against Persia. The day before his departure, his work The System of the Mohammedan Religion was published. Again during his time as a refugee in Russia, Dimitrie Cantemir brings a great cultural contribution to his native country through the Romanian language work titled Chronicle of the Romanian-Moldavian-Walachian Ancient Past. The Chronicle... is a critical and systematic treatise on the history of the Romanian people from its origins to the country’s foundation, analyzing events chronologically, but within a central theme of the Romanian people’s continuity in Dacia. The work is made up of two tomes. . The first contains a long introduction titled Predoslovia, divided into three parts. structurată în trei părţi. The first one is dedicated to the period when Dacia was a Roman province, the second one to the Byzantine period, and the third one to the relations between Romanians and nomadic peoples and the states they created, various Slavic states. The second great chapter discusses the era of the founding of Walachia and Moldavia, up until the author’s time. Dimitrie Cantemir does not refer solely to Moldavia in this great work, but also seeks to present all territories inhabited by Romanians as a whole. Cantemir’s general historical conception was based on the idea that the history of a people is a part of universal history and cannot otherwise be understood.


    At the beginning of November 1710, the Porte was in a state of effervescence. The Khan of Crimea, Devlet Ghirai, had arrived for the assembly of the great Divan. Among others, the issue of the Romanian territories was discussed, whose rulers were no longer fit for the times that were coming. Thus, the Khan proposed that, instead of Constantin Brâncoveanu, Dimitrie Cantemir should be appointed. The Sultan, heeding this advice, sent for Cantemir. Arriving before the Sultan, he is appointed the rule and is dressed with the great kaftan. The Porte’s intentions were communicated to him, namely that Dimitrie Cantemir was to obtain the throne of Walachia, his rule in Moldavia being just a maneuver so as not to give the Walachian ruler any reason for suspicion. At the right moment, Cantemir was to be sent into Walachia to apprehend Brâncoveanu and send him to Constantinople. Given no choice, Cantemir accepted, thinking that he would inform Brâncoveanu of it all. Dimitrie Cantemir knew how to choose his Counsel from among the noblemen loyal to his family, among whom there were chronicler Ion Neculce, Sword Bearer, or Nicolae Costin, son of Miron Costin, High Steward. His political agenda was to create an authoritative and hereditary rule, taking into account the throne of Walachia as well, feeling justified in taking it, as he was married to former ruler Şerban Cantacuzino’s daughter. This explains the presence, on his coat-of-arms, of the Moldavian bison together with the Walachian eagle, as arsenal of pretense. In what concerns foreign affairs, Dimitrie Cantemir was not very cunning. Harbouring great admiration towards Tsar Peter the great, he considered that Ottoman Empire, following its defeat at Zenta (Septembrie 1697) was definitively fallen, and that Russia would have been a more fit protector for Moldavia. Consequently, in the spring of 1711, at Luţk, a warrantee of his chosen from among the gentry, who were loyal to him, signs a treaty with the Tsar, aimed against the Porte. Shortly thereafter, the Russo-Turkish conflict emerged, in which Moldavia also became involved. The crucial battle was fought along the Prut, at Stănileşti, where the Ottomans claimed a vioctory. It might have been, as Professor Neagu Djuvara has pointed out, that Russia had won, the entirety of Moldavia would have had the same fate as Ukraine, Georgia, and Bessarabia. However, some of the high noblemen realized the recklessness of Dimitrie Cantemir’s politics, and simply sabotaged the prince’s initiative and the entire mission. To this effect, High Steward Lupu Costache, tasked with supplying the Russian army and the Moldavian contingent with food, impeded this action, so that the Russian and Moldavian troops capitulated at Stănileşti... out of sheer hunger! Dimitrie Cantemir, a traitor in the eyes of the Turks, would go to Russia, to live in Harkov, then Moscow, then St. Petersburg, where a beautiful palace was built for him.


    On May 12th 1713, Casandra Cantacuzino, Dimitrie Cantemir’s wife, passed away. She was a woman of vast knowledge, having superior qualities as a mother and wife. After her death, Cantemir lived a secluded life in Moscova, where, aside from his writings, he occupied himself with his children’s education. In 1714, as a token of recognition of his scholarly merits, he was received into the Berlin Academy, which considered him a “philosopher among Kings and a King among philosophers”. In 1721 he was named a personal advisor of the Tsar and member of the Government. In 1714, at the invitation of Tsar Peter the great, he goes to St. Petersburg with the children. Until the last moment of his life, the former ruler hoped to return to Moldavia, and kept in touch with Romanian emigrants or Moldavian noblemen. The Turkish-Austrian War (1714-1718) brought much suffering to Moldavia, and Cantemir asked the Tsar to enable the liberation of the Romanian people, so that they may not suffer. Between 1716 and 1718, Dimitrie Cantemir made lively attempts at regaining the Moldavian throne. He tries to convince the Tsar to start a war with Turkey over Moldova and Walachia. He saw in the Russians the only escape of the Romanian people. In 1719, the former ruler of Moldavia remarries with Anastasia Trubeţcaia, daughter of Prince Ivan Iurevici Trubeţcoi, a woman of rare beauty, and very well educated. Peter the Great was their godfather. Dimitrie Cantemir’s literary activity was to continue on Russian land. In 1716, the Tsar ordered that the Koran be translated and published, and Cantemir had the task of writing a piece on the Mohammedan religion. On this occasion, he writes The System of the Mohammedan Religion. Another work written in Russia was Monachorum Physica Examinatio, a politico-social treatise on monarchy. After the end of the great Nordic war (with Sweden), in 1721, Peter the Great sets out in the spring of 1722 on a military expedition, which our ruler joined as well. However, he contracted a disease which proved fatal. He had to stay at Astrahan for a few weeks, in the personal care of Policala, the Tsar’s physician. On the 21st of August 21 1723, Dimitrie Cantemir passed away. He was buried at the St. Constantine and Helena church in Moscow, next to his first wife. His personality and erudition sadly failed to make him famous in the Russian society of that time. Tsar Peter the Great wrote in his campaign log that Dimitrie Cantemir “was a very wise man, very capable of giving advice.” The Metropolitan Eugenie praised him in the “Dictionary of Russian Secular Writers” as follows: “This prince, aside from many military and political merits, also had remarkable qualities in the field of science. The Berlin Academy honored him with the title of member, and Emperor Charles VII made him prince of his empire.” In 1935, his remains are brought back into the country. Through his highly valuable works, Dimitrie Cantemir was an honorable representative of the integration of Romanian culture in modern European culture.