The Diploma of the Royal Free City of Timișoara / The History of Romania in One Object
Updated: Apr 12
Photo 1: The Diploma of the Royal Free City of Timișoara, detail
The Peace Treaty of Passarowitz (1718) represented a major turning point in the history of Banat. After 164 years of Ottoman rule the region became part of the Habsburg Empire with Timișoara as its capital. General Claude Florimund Mercy d’Argenteau, appointed the newly conquered province’s first Governor, initiated a period of economic development through the establishment of booming manufacturing and commercial companies, thereby putting the city firmly on the imperial map.
Photo 2: The map of Imperial Banat after the Peace Treaty of Passarowitz (1718)
The Governor’s first challenge was draining the sprawling swamps which had long plagued the city and its population; the success of this major undertaking transformed the agricultural potential of the region, catapulting it to the forefront of imperial production and earning it the epithet of “the granary of the Empire” in the 19th century. Simultaneously, sanitary conditions in Timișoara and the surrounding area greatly improved.
A major feat of engineering was the construction of the Bega channel, which began in 1728. Upon its completion, this bustling trade and transport route linked the local economy of the province with the interior of the Empire, further strengthening the trajectory of growth already underway in Banat. The increasing importance and development of this region, particularly in terms of public health, during the 18th century was likewise epitomized by the opening of the first municipal hospital in the whole of South-East Europe in Timișoara in 1745.
Photo 3: The fortified walls of Timișoara, post card, beginning of the 20th century
Attracted by the increasing economic appeal of the region and incentivized by an imperial administration hoping to increase the local tax income, a wave of settlers began arriving in Timișoara throughout the 18th century during a period of so-called colonization. These settlers came to Banat from all over the Empire but were primarily German-speaking and brought with them a self-confident work ethic and valuable experience in agriculture and mining. Perhaps even more significantly, they injected another layer of cultural diversity into the region, enriching the multinational and multicultural heritage of Banat.
Photo 4: The Dome Square with the Counties’ House, post card, beginning of the 20th century
As a consequence of this mass colonization, local authorities established two separate town halls (or magistrates) in the regional capital of Timișoara; one for the German-speaking population and one (the so-called Rascian magistrate) for the city’s Romanian and Serbian populations.
Photo 5: The Dome Square with the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, post card, beginning of the 20th century
Photo 6: The Dome Square with the Catholic Dome, post card, beginning of the 20th century
This regional diversity was, however, not only reflected politically, but religiously too. Much like the two town halls, two separate churches were built in the central Dome Square (now Union Square) of Timișoara in the 18th century, one Catholic and one Orthodox. Moreover, a number of churches serving a variety of other persuasions sprung up across the city. The rich variety of religious denominations was not confined to the cities; most villages throughout Banat were served by at least two different churches, one for each of the region’s principal faiths.
Photo 7: Timișoara Fortress and Huniade Castle, engraving, 17th century
The 18th century saw a sustained and successful campaign of modernization in the Banat region. The old fortress of Timișoara, which had suffered heavy damage during the Habsburg taking of the city, was duly rebuilt in the Vauban style; the first cornerstone was laid in 1723 and the construction was finally completed in 1765. Although this vast undertaking was meant to secure the city in case of a potential Ottoman attack, the brand-new fortress was put to the test only once, and this much later, during the 1848-1849 Revolution when Timișoara was besieged by the Hungarian revolutionary army.
Photo 8: Huniade Castle, lithography, 19th century
Photo 9: The Liberty Square, lithography, 19th century
Photo 10: The Transylvanian Barracks, post card, beginning of the 20th century
Photo 11: The Liberty Square with the Old Townhall, post card, beginning of the 20th century
Timișoara’s modernization was not only physical, but cultural and social too, and spanned the whole of the city, emanating from the center all the way through to the peripheries. A significant leap was made in terms of education; shortly after the Austrian conquest of Timișoara, the first elementary school was founded, and in the following years the pedagogical offer was enriched by the Jesuits, who opened the region’s first secondary school, the “Schola Latina”.
The cultural and intellectual life of the city quickly came to encompass a theatrical society, dating back to 1753. Actors initially held their performances in the building of the Rascian magistrate, until the second half of the 19th century when a proper theatre and an opera house were added to the city’s patrimony.
As well as theatre performances, the people of Timișoara were likewise treated to the first newspaper to be published on the territory of what is modern-day Romania. The Temeswarer Nachrichten was set up by Matthäus Joseph Heimerl on 18th April 1771, two years after he had opened the city’s first typography. Soon after Heimerl’s efforts bore fruit, in 1778, the Imperial province of Banat ceased to exist; the region was annexed by the Hungarian half of the Hapsburg Empire and divided into three separate counties: Timiș, Torontal, and Caraș. The military border remained under imperial administration until its dissolution in 1872.
Photo 12: The Diploma of the Royal Free City of Timișoara
One of the better things to come out of this dismembering was the Royal Free City Diploma granted to Timișoara in 1781, allowing it to enjoy a special status among the towns of the monarchy. The Diploma, now part of the collection of the National Museum of Banat, was granted by the Habsburg emperor Joseph II, who thus fulfilled a promise made by his late mother, the empress Maria Theresa, and issued on the 21st of December 1781 by the Imperial Chancellery of the Habsburg Empire; it was later renewed by the emperors Leopold II and Francis II. Following a period of negotiations between the administration of the city and that of the empire, the issue was finally settled in April 1782, and on December 16th of that year Timișoara was officially proclaimed a royal free city, a moment marked by special festivities.
Photo 13: The seal of the Diploma
Photo 14: Habsburg emperor Joseph II
Photo 15: Detail of the Diploma
The Diploma consists of 24 sheets and is accompanied by a great imperial seal. While the first and last sheets are made of paper, the rest of the document was written on parchment. Besides the text and various decorative motifs, it contains a round medallion with a circular inscription on its edge, which reads: “Sigill. Liber. et Regiae Civitatis Temesvarien”, and the city’s coat of arms depicted in the center.
The impact of Timișoara’s new status affected the very top of its administration, resulting in the unification of the two magistrates into a single town hall and allowing the city the right to send two deputies to the Hungarian parliament. Moreover, change trickled down, influencing the city’s wider social make-up and organization. The Royal free city status, and the privileges this denoted, drew a large number of craftsmen, merchants, and investors to Timișoara, triggering another economic boom. This development was likewise fed by the removal of many external constraints, particularly in the economic and financial sectors, as Timișoara was freed from the authority of the county administration.
In effect, Timișoara’s new status unleashed the city’s potential and transformed it into the most important industrial center of the Southern, Hungary-controlled part of the Habsburg Empire at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, and set it firmly on a path towards the future.
Text and video presentation by historian and curator CIPRIAN GLĂVAN of The National Museum of Banat. A film by ANA TUDOR and ADRIAN TUDOR.
The third season of THE HISTORY OF ROMANIA IN ONE OBJECT, our online program that evokes decisive epochs in Romania's past starting from objects with powerful symbolic and representative value, is developed in partnership with The National Museum of Banat in Timișoara and Timiș County Council.