Praecipua (Part two)

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?

Mausoleum of Augustus
Mausoleum of Augustus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?



Praecipua* (Part One)

My Latin education ended over 40 years ago apologies if my usage or translations in this piece don’t quite cut it, but I was looking for a title that meant status symbol or something similar.  I ended up with things of importance which while not quite the same will have to do.

One of the “things” that was new to me on my most recent visit to Rome was an altar.  Not a holy table in any of the churches I entered, but if not Christian in origin, nevertheless something from the Christian epoch.  Ara Pacis was not open to visitors on my school trip here, nor when I spent my honeymoon here years later, and so I was oblivious to its existence when I passed on the way to my hotel.  Nevertheless a newspaper article that I’d read in preparation for my trip did mention the possibility of including a marble altar on my route between the Caravaggio’s of Piazza Popolo and Piazza San Luigi dei Francesi.

I was surprised therefore when I made the detour for this marble was more than a table.  It was the size of a small house, which to my modern eyes made it something of a statement.  It’s entirely possible that this was more typical in classical times; and my daughter who has a Classics degree might no more.  No matter, because whether the size was an important factor or not, this was a statement piece.

Ara Pacis Augustae is the fuller description of the structure; the Augustan Altar of Peace.  After nearly 500 years as a republic Julius Caesar had been assassinated for his attempt at dictatorship, yet the aftermath of that act resulted in the creation of the Roman Empire, and with it a succession of such dictators, though they were dignified with the title of Emperor.

Head of Augustus, Musei Vaticani

The first of these was Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son Augustus who of course needed to be a master propagandist to make this change stick and remain in power for 40 years.


National treasure Mary Beard says of autocracy that it

does not just operate through political reform or by military power, important as they may be. It works by inscribing the autocrat indelibly into the world of his or her subjects.

The altar is a perfect example of this.  The magnificent decoration combines symbols of victory and subsequent peace, control over nature, images of the emperor and his family and scenes from Roman history.  Thus it establishes the legitimacy and value of the new ruler.  It was one of many acts of self aggrandisement that included Augustus’ own autobiography Res Gestae (Things Achieved).

In the centuries that followed its inauguration it was buried by silts from Tiber flooding and forgotten until the Renaissance when of course all things classical were admired and replicated.  Ownership of artefacts from the period became status symbols and so fragments of the altar were acquired by the rich and powerful.    The Vatican, the Medici Villa, the Louvre and the Uffizi became homes to marble pieces while more remained buried, but there’s a second phase to this story of self promotion.  I’ll tell that in my next post.  Meanwhile, Trump has his tower and Boris wants a bridge.