So how did these marble reliefs that had been scattered around Italy and beyond come to be reassembled and displayed in a custom-built museum off an alley-like stretch of Via di Ripetta?
To be fair, the location is fitting. The Via di Ripetta (road of the little bank) has followed the Tiber here for about as long as the altar has been in existence, and also gives access to the Mausoleum of Augustus (sadly closed for renovation when I was there) just opposite the Ara Pacis.
Despite this there is controversy surrounding the Ara. Quite literally in fact.
Those remains of the altar that had not been collected by the most influential remained buried not far away beneath the Cinema Nuova Olimpia just off the Via del Corso until it was suggested in 1937 that they be excavated and restored to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus. Not a bad reason per se, but of course this was during the regime of a man who saw himself as a modern-day Roman emperor; Benito Mussolini. The term fascist derives from
fasces, the bundle of rods that was a symbol of legal authority for the ancient Romans, and before them the Etruscans. Interestingly it’s a symbol used internationally since to represent justice – and features on the Golden State Coach used by the British Royal Family. Mussolini sought to inherit that authority and the glories of Rome by association but in doing so created new meanings. Just as Augustus had built the altar as an act of symbolism, so Il Duce restored it. Rome had a new Augustus who once again sought to demonstrate power through association with important things.
Aiming to create a park dedicated to ancient Rome (what was wrong with the Forum?) Mussolini commissioned the rationalist architect Vittorio Morpurgo to design a pavilion which was built around the Ara, resulting in the demolition of many buildings to accommodate it. Damaged by shrapnel and filled with sandbags during the WWII the pavilion was subject to proposals and counter proposals for its future for decades thereafter. (This is Italy after all!)
Finally the Fascist structure was demolished in 2006 but the controversy wasn’t over. American architect Richard Meier‘s replacement is seen as unsympathetic to the surrounding buildings (the baroque church of San Rocco for example, and of course the Roman ruins of the mausoleum), but for me it’s just a bad building that isn’t fit for purpose.
In November 2013 the roof leaked!
At its opening protestors filled the fountains with green dye, and though that was long gone when I was there, the spray from those same fountains made the marble of the steps slick and slippery with black ice on a December morning.
I know the light is lower in the sky during the winter months, but is it acceptable that there are some months when your view of the Ara is striated with bands of blinding light contrasting with deep shadows cast by the structure of the building itself? It’s as if the artefact has been painted in dazzle camouflage, a technique that deliberately makes things hard to see.
In an odd, but nevertheless welcome piece of juxtaposition the building was also hosting a fantastic exhibition of the work of Hokusai, including his iconic Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and so I bought a combined ticket at the entrance. Once I’d had my fill of Roman art I spent some time looking for the stairway that would take me to the Japanese. Silly me expecting it to be within the building. Instead I had to leave and return to the Via di Ripetta where another entrance existed beneath the main structure.
Schoolboy errors or Praecipua?