Literacy campaign. Image credit: Constanta City Council

History revived on the Black Sea

In Constanta, a Romanian city perched on the Black Sea, the search for the ghost of an ancient poet is rekindling the love of reading and history. Founded around 600 BC, the city was initially called Tomis and later renamed Constantia after Roman Emperor Constantine the Great’s (274-337) half-sister.  The local administration is working to bring attention to this multicultural history through its monuments, ancient ruins, religious buildings, museums and activities with a new cultural strategy.

The soul of the poet

Latin poet Ovid

Several of the poems of the famous Latin writer Ovid talk about his life in Tomis. Cristian Vasile, Foreign Affairs Officer at Constanta City Hall, explains that “Ovid was born in Sulmona, Italy, and exiled here by the emperor Augustus,” where he remained until his death.

He was buried with great pomp by the inhabitants of the Citadel in front of the city’s great gate in the year 17 or 18 A.D. However, the tomb was never found. The search for his grave presents a permanent adventure and a significant challenge: a project included in the new cultural strategy proposes the search for Ovid’s tomb through his books. This adventure will gather the efforts of experts in the field from all over the world.

Perhaps we will not find the place of Ovid’s tomb looking in the books of the Citadel, but we will certainly rediscover the therapeutic functions of reading, its enormous strength, its thaumaturgical capacity
— Constanta City Council

“Perhaps we will not find the place of Ovid’s tomb looking in the books of the Citadel, in the books of Tomis, in the poetry of Ovid’s Tomis, in the libraries of Rome and Sulmona, in our local archives; but we will certainly rediscover the therapeutic functions of reading, its enormous strength, its thaumaturgical capacity. Searching for Ovid’s lost tomb, we will rediscover the functions of reading,” the municipality states in the description of the activity.

To praise his literature and his life, Constanța City Hall will build the House of Ovid, a new cultural building dedicated to reading and books in the form of a memorial house dedicated to the poet. Cristian explains it’ll be “a place where both locals and tourists can enter and find more about Ovid, how he ended up here. The reason behind his story.” One of the more significant participative events planned will focus on deciding what will be inside the house.

The architectural design of the house in which Ovid lived between 8-17 A.D. will inspire the construction of the new building for museum visits and cultural activities. Construction will begin in 2022 and be completed by April 2024 with Sulmona as the leading partner in the project.

Between the Italian city and Constanta, there have been twinning relationships for over 53 years, since 1968. In the two cities, there are sister statues of the Latin poet. Sulmona City Hall will participate in the project through scientific advice and logistical support. A second partner is Ovidiu, located near Constanta – the only city in the world named after the poet.

Reviving (hi)stories

Suppose there is something more inspiring than reading poetry, that’d be reading poetry by the sea. The strategy will include activities and events focused on the lyric of the sea in the universal literature, such as sea lyric festivals, reading workshops, creative camps, collective public readings, and so on.

The symbolic public spaces of Constanta that are close to the sea the Casino, the beaches, the seafront, the port will provide substantial added value to the project. The main event will be the International Lyric Festival of the Sea, which will take place at the Casino.

There is a considerable effort going on to enhance the city’s immense cultural resources by extending its material cultural heritage. But there is also a promotion of intangible culture. Vasile explains that Constanta has also implemented an “extensive programme to prevent school abandonment and literacy. The promotion of reading among students.”

Literacy Campaign. Image credit: Constanta City Council

With the slogan “Take the book out of the drawer”, the council plans to launch a local impact information campaign addressed primarily to young people, prioritising the dusting off of forgotten books on their shelves.

To encourage reading, Constanta City Hall will appoint 27 book ambassadors among personalities of the cultural life in Romania. They will co-organise cultural programmes such as debates with young people, artistic readings interpreting famous actors, multilingual reading evenings, and the like.

We’re looking at a decade from now and trying to assess the current situation from a culture point of view
— Cristian Vasile

Apart from locals, tourists are welcome to get involved. Each tourist will bring a new book that they will leave at the hotel upon check-in and will receive, in return, a book that they can borrow and read during their entire stay in the city and the resort. This will create a significant circulation of books and stimulate the act of reading through the tourist circuits. The books donated to hotels and other accommodation will be collected and donated again to the disadvantaged communities in Constanta.

This relation with books made Constanta the first Romanian city to submit its candidacy to the UNESCO World Book Capital 2023. The presented project consisted of 150 cultural events that they would have organised to promote written culture and reading by involving diaspora and marginal communities.

Image credit: Constanta city council

Despite not taking the award this time around, the city learned a lot from the application process. “We’re proud to be able to submit this candidacy because it’s not easy to achieve. You must have a very rigorous plan. They’ve got expectations, you have to follow certain regulations. It was demanding but pleasant because we discussed our city, our history. We had a lot of things to talk about regarding history,” says Cristian Vasile.

Constanta received local, national, and international support for this candidature. All these levels would have taken part in the plan and doubtless eventually will. For now, there is one plan that is definitely going ahead, and that is the city’s new cultural strategy, of which the reawakening of Ovid’s ghost is a part.

A decade of cultural strategy

“We’re looking at a decade from now and trying to assess the current situation from a culture point of view. We implement several actions to revitalise the cultural life of Costanta. It’s an enormous challenge for us, but we’re very eager to do it,” says Cristian. “It’s an ambitious project that aims to change the local, national and, why not, international cultural perspective.”

One of the cultural activities. Image credit: Constanta City Council

Mr Dorin Popescu, the Mayor’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs and Culture, will implement the ten-year strategy based on a multicultural point of view. “We’ve got 18 different minorities, and we’ve always lived in harmony. The multicultural and multiconfessional aspects have always been strong in Constanta,” says Cristian Vasile.

We’ve got 18 different minorities, and we’ve always lived in harmony. The multicultural and multiconfessional aspects have always been strong in Constanta
— Cristian Vasile

The local cohesion between citizens and the city council’s team inform about the activities and involve the population, cultural experts and organisations by requesting feedback. According to Cristian: “It’s still under discussion with local citizens to know what aspects they’re interested in, how can they contribute. And as soon as this process finalises, more ideas will be integrated into the plan.” For that reason, they started a debate on the municipal Facebook page, aiming to gather the citizens’ opinions regarding this plan.

The strategy aims to revive heritage, but the city also has to work to restore the strategy, as more than a year of Covid-19 restrictions have meant that a lot of its initial content was not able to go ahead as planned. Cristian explains that they’re expecting the fourth wave, so many activities may move online.

The jewel of the crown

The 2021-2031 plan will focus on the Peninsula, the old area of Constanta, where lots of diverse ruins and different Roman edifices remain nowadays. Secondly, the focus will be on developing cultural infrastructure.

There is an ongoing process the municipality has just started to reevaluate and better highlight its monuments in the public sphere. One of the projects consists of renovating and restructuring the old area to give a more appealing look that will be attractive to tourists.

Casino of Constanta. Image credit: Odette Ion via Unsplash

“The main vestige and a relevant example of all beyond any doubt is our casino, landmark of the city,” says Cristian. The Casino of Constanta is currently under a vast renovation process. “It’ll be the jewel of the crown. Apart from being the most important and beautiful building in Constanta, and attracting a lot of cultures, it attracts many tourists. Once it is done, it’ll be part of a multicultural centre with cinema, restaurants, conference rooms. I’m eager to see the result.”

This tasteful combination of old and new, a historic Casino with an array of modern facilities, is emblematic of the new approach that Constanta is taking to its cultural heritage. It was Ovid that said, “Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these.” Now the city that hosted him in his exile is striking a balance by enriching its own time with all that the past has to offer.

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer