A crackling sound and the smell of burnt wood: Ottoman braziers and the Romanian countries – Author: Roxana Coman

A crackling sound and the smell of burnt wood: Ottoman braziers and the Romanian countries

Author: Roxana Coman

30 April 2021

Brazier, brass, early 20th century, possibly
Süleymaniye, İstanbul workshop, Bucharest
Municipality Museum collection

Ottoman material culture in Romania underwent significant paradigm changes with many symbolical implications during the 18th and 19th centuries, most notably if we take into consideration the westernization and nation building processes. Insofar, the study of the aromatic Ottoman universe either focuses on the palatial customs of Topkapı Palace and those of Ottoman high-ranking officials, or, like a recent line of inquiry, examines the shared Byzantine-Ottoman legacy in the development and uses of censers (Ergin 2014). Therefore, a discussion on the presence and uses of Ottoman censers and braziers in the Romanian countries during the 18th and early 19th century would follow multiple directions. Firstly, their current uses in a curatorial context intended to illustrate daily life during the aforementioned centuries, even with pieces that can be dated to the second half of the 19th century (and even the beginning of the 20th), a systematic inventory of these types of artefacts, and the use of various written sources in tracing their initial context.

The aromatic universe of the beginning of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century tends to have a particular place in first-person literature written in the second half of the 19th century. An eloquent example is that of the former Ottoman official, Romanian politician, and writer Ion Ghica (1816-97). In a chapter dedicated to a Phanariot ruler at the beginning of the 19th century, Din vremea lui Caragea (‘From Caragea’s time’), the sensory context is divided between the pestilence of the 1813 plague and the floral and oriental fragrances of wedding preparations at the end of the epidemic:

“On the eve of the wedding, sometime in the afternoon, the women from the bride’s retinue (călțunărese) would depart, all of them ladies of high ranking chosen from the groom’s most beautiful kin, in carriages driven by prized stallions. The first maid of honour (călțunăreasă) would enter in the bride’s room carrying a silver incense burner (cățuie) with gilded flowers, from which arose a smoke of agarwood and curse; she would also carry a sprinkler from which would sprinkle rosewater, a sign of cleanliness and the wish for the bride to always be washed and perfumed. A second maid of honour would bring on a silver tray the flowers for the bride’s nuptial crown (cununii). The third maid of honour would bring the tray with tinsel (peteală), a sign of wealth. Behind them came the other maids, with ten to twelve trays loaded with all kinds of gifts: shawls, jewellery, expensive textiles, money, pastries, etc.” (Ghica 2014: 62)

The women from the bride’s retinue (călțunăreasa) would carry a silver censer or cățuie, with gilded flowers that used agarwood (udagaci), a silver sprinkler with rosewater, and flowers for the bride’s head ornaments, the cununii. This sensory context would also feature silk shawls, expensive textiles, soft to the touch, and the aroma of sweets and pastries.

Another 19th century take of an 18th century household is the one of Alexandru Odobescu (1941). The houses of Ienăchiță Văcărescu (1740-97), a high ranking Phanariot feudal lord (boyar), are described in a very hedonistic manner, outlining the Ottoman Oriental traits. In the large guest hall, the eyes of Bishop Grigorie of Râmnic, the oral source of the description, are said to have been pierced by the light coming from the flames of tombac mangals (‘braziers’). The smell of burnt wood also has a visual element, the strong light produced by flames. What is indeed particular to this description is the appeal to the other senses: sight, sound (the pleasant sound of voices and musical instruments), and touch (the dresses and clothes worn by the women of the household):

“There my eyes were pierced by the light of the flames from gilded tombac braziers (mangal); a pleasant sound of voices, neys, tamburs, mixed with women’s voices, sweet and penetrating, charmed me and appeared to bound my hands and feet in iron […], nymphs and dancers (baiaderă) with dresses of shawls and hair, with gossamer blouses and sewn with silk.” (Odobescu 1941)

As a nationalist, Odobescu’s take could be viewed as a subjective gaze into what an 18th century household might have looked, smelled and sounded like. His use of an oral description by a clergyman, one that was erroneously identified by Odobescu, can undermine the veridicity of the scenes described. However, given the life of Ienăchiță Văcărescu, as a boyar with expensive taste and as a bit of a fashion icon, and according to the items listed in his testament, the presence of tombac mangals is not entirely implausible. However, those mangals are not explicitly mentioned in his will (Urechia 1894).

Another argument for braziers as items used in rather wealthy families is the cost of fuel. At the end of the 18th century, we find coals used for the braziers to be the subject of legal dispositions for fixed prices, an Ottoman custom that was also used in the Romanian countries for commodities that were considered to be essential and as a means to eliminate unfair prices. Therefore, according to the pitac (‘resolution’) of Nicolae Mavrogheni (1735-90) in 1787, there were two different types of coals: “mangal coals, a hundred kg (sută de oca) – golden coin (pol)-30 and gipsy coals – kg (oca)- bani- 10”.

Brazier, brass, end of 19th century, possibly
Süleymaniye, İstanbul workshop, Bucharest
Municipality Museum collection

The ones used in braziers were significantly more expensive and continued to be sold at a high price even in the first decades of the 19th century.

Aside from a domestic environment, documents attest to a more public context for braziers, namely in hamams. In 1826, the former bath of the Bucharest old princely court was leased to a merchant of Greek-origin for three years. The contract between the purveyor to the court (clucer) Nicolae Trăsnea and the merchant Gheorghe Constantin set the terms of the transaction and outlined the current state of the bath, which came supplied with all the necessities in terms of equipment, textiles, and furnishings. Among the items declared in the annexed inventory (catagrafie), three mangals are mentioned that were made from brass with iron handles.

“Three big copper braziers (mangal) with two iron handles and with its iron inside, and one with only one handle and without the iron.” (Potra 1975)

The braziers are mentioned alongside recipients for camphor oil or rizmă (an unidentified aromatic substance; perhaps referring to mint?), lemon wood fruit juices, and utensils for wood chopping.

In the process of the 19th century progressive westernization, Romania attempted on a discursive and concrete level to eliminate the Ottoman –labelled as Oriental– heritage, especially from domestic, public, and political contexts. However, the second half of the 19th century witnessed a comeback for certain Ottoman pieces, such as clothing or items that were seen as exotic. Therefore, artists such as Theodor Aman (1831-91), Carol Popp de Szathmary (1812-87) collected Oriental artefacts used as props in their oriental-themed paintings; a few boyars kept a Phanariot room in their modernized houses; but most importantly, the so-called “Oriental room” became fashionable amongst collectors such as Alexandru Bellu (1850–1921) or Marcu Beza (1882–1949).


Ergin, Nina. “The Fragrance of the Divine: Ottoman Incense Burners and Their Context”. The Art Bulletin 96/1 (2014), 70–97.

Ghica, Ion. Scrisori către V. Alecsandri. București: Humanitas 2014.

Merișescu, Dimitrie Foti. Tinerețile unui ciocoiaș: Viața lui Dimitrie Foti Merișescu de la Colentina scrisă de el însuși la 1817. București: Humanitas 2019.

Odobescu, Alexandru. Opere alese. Vol. 2: Istorice, filologice, arheologice etc. Ed. Alexandru Iordan. București: Cugetarea – Georgescu Delafras 1941.

Potra, George. Documente privitoare la istoria orașului București (1821–1848). București: Ed Academiei Republicii Populare Române 1975.

Urechia, V. A. Istoria românoloru. Cursu făcutu la Facultatea de Litere din Bucuresci dupe documente inedite. Vol. V: 1786–1800. București: Tipografia și fonderia de litere Thoma Basilescu 1894.

Vintilă-Ghițulescu, Constanta. Using Luxury and Fashion for Constructing a Social Status. The Case of Ianache Văcărescu. Working Paper, ERC-CoG-2014 Grant no. 646489 LuxFaSS. (See http://luxfass.nec.ro/publications/working-papers/, last retrieved 26 April 2021.)

Roxana Coman, (PhD, University of Bucharest, 2015) is a curator at the Bucharest Municipality Museum. Her research focuses on analyzing different approaches observed in oriental representations. In her doctoral thesis, Coman analyzed oriental representations within the Romanian framework during the long second half of 19th century. Her publications have focused on the place of oriental representations in Romanian art in relation to an orientalist approach: `Theodor Aman și ispita orientală`, in Imaginarul. Teorii și aplicații, 2011; `Oriental Representations in Carol Popp de Szathmari’s Watercolours: Documents from a Western Perspective?` in 2015; `Romanian Travelers to the East between the Quest for the Exotic and Diplomatic Mission` in 2014; `Noi și Ceilalți. Călători români din a doua jumătate a secolului al XIX-lea în Orient` in 2016. Her most recent exhibition project was ‘Oriental Art in the Balkans’, May-November 2017, at the Sofia City Art Gallery, as a member of team of the Bucharest Municipality Museums. In 2020 Roxana Coman was a participant in the Transregional Academy ‘Shadows of Empire’ of the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Foundation.

Citation: Coman, Roxana. “A crackling sound and the smell of burnt wood: Ottoman braziers and the Romanian countries,” Orient-Institut Istanbul Blog, 30 April 2021. https://www.oiist.org/a-crackling-sound-and-the-smell-of-burnt-wood-ottoman-braziers-and-the-romanian-countries/