National Theatre in Belgrade

One of the richest and largest palaces in Belgrade in the second half of the nineteenth century - National Theatre - is located at the corner of Vasina and Francuska Street.

By Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Building – detail (1869) by National theatre in BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

With the raising of this building as well as with the implementation of the Regulations Plan of Town in Trench by Josimović from 1867, the conditions were made for the formation of today’s main Republic Square in Belgrade. Built back in 1868, the National Theatre, following the fate of its own people and the country, went through different phases of the architectural and artistic development, surviving as a symbol of Serbian culture, tradition and spirituality.

Building – detail (1869) by National theatre in BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

The first idea of a permanent theater in Belgrade, appeared in 1851. Until then, there were no professional acting companies nor appropriate theater buildings for performance of plays. The first plays were performed in reconstructed buildings and spaces, such as former Customs House (Djumrukana), hotel “At the Deer”, Great pub, hotel “Serbian Crown” or tavern “At the Queen of England.”

Building – detail (1869) by National theatre in BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Through the efforts of the Board “Admirers of National Education” and the Theatre Board, the collection of charitable contributions was organized: Prince Aleksandar Karadjordjević contributed 1000 and Captain Miša Anastasijević 500 ducats, while the Government of the Principality of Serbia donated land in Zeleni venac and the amount of 2,000 ducats.

Building – detail (1869) by National theatre in BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Although the Theater Building in Zeleni venac began to be built in 1852 after the design by Italian architect Joseph Cassano, this intention was abandoned because of the underwater nature of the soil. This architectural failure delayed the establishment of the first Serbian theater for nearly two decades.  With engagement of Theatre Council and the Prince Mihailo Obrenović, there was an official establishment of the National Theater, which from the very beginning had a professional ensemble, educated managers (like Jovan Djordjević and Branislav Nušić) and varied repertoire.

Building – detail (1869) by National theatre in BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Finally, in 1868 the decision was made on a new position for the Theater Building. An area around the former Stambol Gate, a symbol of centuries of Turkish rule over the Serbian people, was elected. Simultaneously with set future Theatre Building, the first play of the newly founded National Theatre was held with performance of pieces from the national repertoire “Djuradj Branković” on the stage of tavern “At the Queen of England.”

Building – detail (1869) by National theatre in BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Unfortunately, Prince Mihailo Obrenović, with whose personal commitment and material resources the the idea of National Theater became a reality, did not live long enough to witness the start of the construction of the palace. However, the grateful citizens of Belgrade showed their respect to the monarch with play “Posthumous Fame of Prince Mihailo” by Djordje Maletić, which was played first in the newly built theater on October 30, 1869.

The monumental theater building was built in just one year, ac cording to the concept of Aleksandar Bugarski, one of the most important Serbian architects of the time, who developed previously the adaptation design of the hall “At the Queen of England.” At the time of construction it was, together with Captain Miša’s Edifice, the largest and most representative palace of Belgrade and Serbia. Special symbolic for site selection for its construction was further emphasized by incorporating parts of the demolished Stambol Gate in the foundations of the Theater Building.

National Theatre in Belgrade - Building – detail (1869) by Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of Serbia - BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

The fact that the entire square in front of it was named Theatre Square, taking over from former Great Market (today’s Student Square) the meaning of the main Belgrade square, testifies to the importance that the construction of this building had in the perception of the  the Serbian nation. The National Theatre was conceived and executed as an representative edifice on which the author demonstrated a high knowledge of the principles of that time governing academism.

With weight ratio, horizontal and vertical division of facades, as well as with selection of construction and decorative elements, the general appearance of the building suggested the similarities with the famous theater La Scala from Milan, which was built two decades earlier. Architect Bugarski paid special attention to the facade turned towards the square. Central risalit of the main facade ended in the triangular tympanum in the area of the roof, while the horizontal division was achieved with emphasized dividing cornices.

National theatre in Belgrade - Building (1869) by Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of Serbia - BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

On the ground floor there was a porch, above which, on the level of the first floor, there was a terrace with a decorative fence. The interior of the first building was realized by indirectly accepted Italian models, according to which the greatest attention was paid to organization and comfort of the auditorium. The special importance was given to the decoration of the royal box with draperies, crown and throne procured in Vienna’s art workshops.

Main stage (1869) by National theatre in BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

The ceilings and parapets of the boxes were covered with rich plaster decoration with gilding, while to the solemn atmosphere  f the audience contributed the light of the ”chandelier with hundreds of candles.” Painted stage curtains, made according to the designs of renowned local artists, which themselves were a kind of artwork, represented a special segment of the theatrical decor.

Main stage – detail of auditorium (1869) by National theatre in BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

The lighting of the stage and of the entire theater was provided by a gas station - gasara, located in an abandoned Kara Mosque at the corner of Dositejeva and Braće Jugovića Street. Permanent needs for “beautification” of the most popular building in Belgrade of that period, were realized through numerous modifications and processing of the original interior.

National theatre in Belgrade - Main stage – auditorium (1869) by Cultural Heritage Preservation Institute of BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Thus, as early as 1905, a new decorative painting on the stage, auditorium and  the foyer was executed. According to the plans of Dragutin Inkiostri Medenjak, first Serbian decorative painter, who used his skills to decorate numerous palaces in Belgrade, decorations inspired by motifs from folk art, ornament and traditions were made. 

Main stage – auditorium (1869) by National theatre in BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

However, insufficiently large area of the stage, and a series of technical difficulties, contributed to the commencement of the reconstruction of the building, already in 1912, which, due to the outbreak of World War I, lasted up to 1921. According to the idea of the architect Josif Bukavac, purity and harmony of the original building was replaced with emphasized Neo-Baroque facades, whose entry point was accentuated by two corner towers for the staircases.

Main stage – ceiling detail – Bacchae by S.F. Kolesnikov, National theatre in Belgrade, 1869, From the collection of: Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia
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Main stage – ceiling, National theatre in Belgrade, 1869, From the collection of: Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia
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Main stage – ceiling detail – Thalia by S.F. Kolesnikov, National theatre in Belgrade, 1869, From the collection of: Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia
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Main stage – view, National theatre in Belgrade, 1869, From the collection of: Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia
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National theatre in Belgrade - Main stage – ceiling, Cultural Heritage Preservation Institute of Belgrade, 1869, From the collection of: Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia
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Main stage – auditorium wide, National theatre in Belgrade, 1869, From the collection of: Ministry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia
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On this occasion the building interior was further embellished with decorative and plaster works on the walls of the auditorium and the entrance hall, as well as with painted decorations on the ceiling which were carried out by a Russian painter Stjepan Fjodorovič Kolesnikov. It is interesting that the artist, though brought up in the tradition of Russian academic realism, opted for composition based on the principles of Baroque decorative art. With rich colors and distinctive meticulousness in the realization, Kolesnikov decorated the ceiling of the auditorium with ancient classical themes - “Thalia in Quadriga” and “Bahanal, Mythological Fantasies” that celebrate theater as a temple of art.

Main stage – detail (1869) by National theatre in BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

The next reconstruction of the Theater Building was in 1940, but due to the destruction of the auditorium and stage in the April bombing of Belgrade in 1941, the realization came at the end of the year. According to the ideas of architects Gojko Todić and Dragan Gudović, the building changed the appearance completely. All former decorative plastics were removed from the main façade except for profiled roof cornice.

1st gallery foyer (1869) by National theatre in BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

The theater retained this appearance during subsequent reconstruction in 1965, when the entrance hall, auditorium and orchestra space were renovated under the management of the architect Nikola Šercer. Certainly the most interesting and important reconstruction of the National Theater Building, performed in the period between 1986 and 1989, opened a debate between experts and the general public on the issue whether the building should restore the original appearance or contours from 1922.

Main stage foyer with bust of Prince Mihajlo Obrenovic (1869) by National theatre in BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

However, appearance of the building from the period of its first reconstruction was renovated and glazed technical annex was added to the rear of the building after the designs by architects Ljubomir Drinjaković and Slobodan Zdravković. During this reconstruction, according to the concept of architect Milan Pališaški, authentic interior ambience was rebuilt completely in order to confirm visual and symbolic values of the old theater.

Main stage foyer – bust of Prince Mihajlo Obrenovic (1869) by National theatre in BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

The bust of Prince Mihailo, work of Italian sculptor Enrico Pazzi from 1872, was placed in the vestibule and the painted composition of Kolesnjikov on the ceiling was reconstructed based on surviving original designs. Fighting the tumultuous historical events that marked the Serbian history for decades, the National Theatre survived as a testimony to the preservation of Serbian culture and tradition, but also as a real “Beacon of Serbian Spirituality” in the future.

Main stage foyer – founder plaque (1869) by National theatre in BelgradeMinistry of Culture and Media of the Republic of Serbia

Due to its cultural, historic, architectural, urban, artistic and aesthetic values, in 1983 the National Theatre in Belgrade was established a cultural monument of great value. Today, under its roof, there are three artistic ensembles - Opera, Drama and Ballet.

Credits: Story

Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of Serbia - Belgrade
Cultural Heritage Preservation Institute of Belgrade
National Theatre in Belgrade

The narration was provided by Cultural Heritage Preservation Institute of Belgrade.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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