The Ara Pacis Museum belongs to the System of Museums in the Municipality of Rome; it contains the Ara Pacis of Augustus, inaugurated on January 30, 9 BC. In 2006 it replaced the previous display case of the architect Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, erected in the 1930s to protect the monument.
„When I returned to Rome from Gaul and from Spain, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quintilio, having brought to a satisfactory finish my works in these provinces, the Senate decreed that there should be consecrated in the Field of Mars an altar to the Augustan Peace and ordered that the officials, priests and vestal virgins should celebrate a sacrifice at it every year.“
It is with these words that Augustus, in his spiritual testimony, the Res Gestae, tells us of the Senate’s decision to construct an altar to Peace, following the conclusion of his labours North of the Alps from 16 to 13 B.C., subjecting the Reti and the Vindelici, establishing definitive control over the Alpine passes, and visiting Spain, finally at peace, founding new colonies and imposing new tributes.
The ceremonial dedication of the Altar of Peace, took place on the 30th January in the year 9 B.C. It seems, according to the evidence provided by the historian Cassius Dione (LIV, 25.3), that at first the Senate had planned to build an altar within their own building, the Curia, but the idea was not followed through and the northernmost part of the Field of Mars, which had recently been urbanised, was chosen instead. The altar dedicated to peace came, therefore, and not by chance, to be built in the middle of a vast plain, on which, traditionally, the manoeuvres of the infantry and the cavalry took place, and, in more recent times, the gymnastic exercises of the Roman youth.
The Ara Pacis in the Field of Mars
The Altar was constructed, by Augustus‘ own decision, in the northern part of the Field of Mars, in a zone near to the sacred confines of the city (the pomerium), where fifteen years earlier Octavian had wanted to build his Mausoleum, a dynastic tomb. Now, with the title of Augustus, he hastened to construct, at the same time as the Ara Pacis, a huge solar clock, which was to take its name from him, and be called the Sundial of Augustus.
Strabo, a greek writer, has left us an admiring account of Augustan Rome, which in those days extended between the Via Lata, now the Via del Corso, and the sweeping curve of Tiber. After describing the verdant plain, shaded by sacred groves, and the porticoes, circuses, gymnasia, theatres and temples, which were being built there, Strabo goes on to talk about the sacred area of the northern part of the Field of Mars, sacred precisely because of the existence of the Mausoleum and the ustrinum, in which, in 14 A.D. Augustus‘ mortal remains were burnt. Between the Mausoleum and the ustrinum there was a sacred grove, full of charming walks. To the south-east, about 300 metres distant from the Mausoleum, rose the Sundial and the Ara Pacis – themselves in fact not described by Strabo – which delimited the area of the plain given over to Augustus‘ memory.
The ideological urban planning used in the northern part of the Field of Mars only lasted for a short time and within a few decades the integrity of the Sundial was compromised. The level of the land rose relentlessly throughout the area, largely due to the inundations of the Tiber; there were efforts to protect the Ara Pacis by building a wall to halt the process by which the ground level was rising, but obviously these precautions were ineffective in the face of the continual filling in of the entire area. The destiny of the Ara Pacis was therefore sealed and its obliteration irreversible. For more than a millennium silence fell on the Ara Pacis, and the monument was lost even to memory.
The recovery of the Ara Pacis began in the sixteenth century, and finished four centuries later, after many chance discoveries and amazing excavations, with the recomposition of the monument in 1938.
The first sign of the resurgence of the altar from the foundations of the Palace of the Via di Lucina (successively owned by the Peretti, then the Fiano, then the Almagià families) came from an engraving made by Agostino Veneziano some time before 1536, which represented a swan with spread wings along with a sizeable piece of spiralled frieze. This is a clear sign that at that date the corresponding plaster-work of the Ara Pacis was already known. A subsequent recovery attempttook place in 1566, the year in which the cardinal Giovanni Ricci di Montepulciano acquired 9 large blocks of carved marble, which came from the Altar.
After this rediscovery, we hear nothing more about the altar until 1859, when the Peretti Palace, which had by now become the property of the Duke of Fiano, needed structural work, during which the base of the altar was seen, and numerous other sculpted fragments, not all of which were extracted „due to the narrowness of the site and fear of endangering the walls of the palace“. Numerous fragments of the spiralled frieze were recovered on this occasion, but it was only in 1903, following Friedrich von Duhn’s recognition of what the Altar was, that a request was sent to the Ministry of Public Education to continue the excavations. Their success was made possible by the generosity of Edoardo Almagià, who, as well as giving his permission for the exploration, donated in advance whatever should be discovered underneath the palace and made an ongoing financial contribution to the expenses of the excavation.
In July 1903, after the work had been started, it quickly became obvious that the conditions were extremely difficult and that the stability of the palace might well be compromised in the long-term. Therefore, when about half the monument had been examined and 53 fragments recovered, the excavation was called to a halt. In February 1937, the Italian Cabinet decreed that, as it was the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Augustus, the excavations should recommence, using the most advanced technology.
Between June and September 1938, as the excavations continued, work also began on the pavilion intended to house the Ara Pacis by the banks of the Tiber. On the 23rd September, the date on which the Augustan year ended, Mussolini inaugurated the monument.
The twentieth century pavilion
On the 20th of January 1937 an investigation was begun into the possibility of reconstructing the altar. As the idea of recreating the altar in its original position had been rejected from the moment at which it became clear that this would involve the destruction of the Fiano-Almagià palace, various alternatives were proposed: reconstruction in the Museum of the Baths, the building of a subterranean museum under the Augusteum, or the reconstruction of the Ara Pacis on the Via dell’Impero.
But it was Mussolini who decided to reconstruct the Altar near to the Augusteum, „under a colonnaded building“ between the Via di Ripetta, and doing it in less than a year and a half. The final design, presented to the Governorship in November 1937, was not entirely respected during the building works, probably because of the serious delays that accumulated during the work. In fact, Ditta Vaselli, who had won the competition to make the building, was only given the site a few months before the 23rd September, the date fixed for the inauguration of the Altar of Peace. Morpurgo, the pavilion’s designer, never came to terms with the ways in which the design had been simplified: cement and fake porphyry were used instead of travertine and precious marble, while the rhythm and course of the pilasters, both on the sides and the façade, had been changed.
Behind these compromises was an unwritten agreement between the architect and the Governorship, to build only on a provisional basis and to return the building gradually to its original design after the inauguration. However the sums of money required, the uncertainty of the time-scale and the war hanging over the entire project, meant that this was never accomplished.
During the years of conflict, the glass was removed and the monument was protected with sandbags, subsequently replaced by an anti-shrapnel wall. It was only in 1970 that the building was cleaned up.
Designed by the American architect Richard Meier and built in steel, travertine, glass and plaster, the museum is the first great architectural and urban intervention in the historic centre of Rome since the Fascist era. It is a structure with a triumphal nature, clearly alluding to the style of imperial Rome. Wide glazed surfaces allow the viewer to admire the Ara Pacis with uniform lighting conditions.
The white colour is the trademark of Richard Meier, while the travertine plates decorating part of the building are a consequence of in-progress changes (aluminum surfaces were initially planned), after a design review following controversies with some nostalgia for the previous pavilion that was built in 1938 by the architect Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo.
The challenging design of Meier wants to assert itself in the very hearth of the town, becoming a nerve and transit centre. The complex was intended to include a crosswalk with an underpass linking the museum to the Tiber river; presently the underpass design seems to have been abandoned completely.
The fence is placed on a large marble basement, almost entirely restored, and is divided into two decorative registers: the lower plant register, the upper figured one, with representation of mythical scenes on the sides of the two entrances and with a procession of characters on the other sides. Among them is a separation band with a swastika motif, widely rebuilt.
On the North and South sides, two crowded groups of characters are represented, moving from left to right; among them appear priests, assistants to worship, magistrates, men, women and children, whose historical identity can only be reconstructed hypothetically. The action performed by the procession is not entirely certain: in fact, according to some, the scene represents the reditus of Augustus, that is, the welcoming ceremony given to the princeps upon returning from his long stay in Gaul and Spain; according to others, it represents the inauguration of the Ara Pacis itself, that is the ceremony during which, in 13 BC, the space on which the altar would rise was delimited and consecrated. The cortege, on both sides of the fence, is opened by lictors, followed by members of the highest priestly colleges and perhaps by consules. Immediately afterwards the members of Augustus‘ family begin to parade.
On the left side of the front of the fence, the panel with the representation of the myth of the foundation of Rome is preserved: Romulus and Remus are suckled by the she-wolf in the presence of Faustolus, the shepherd who will adopt and raise the twins, and of Mars, the god who he had created them by joining with the vestal Rea Silvia.
At the center of the composition is the rumen fig, under which the twins were nursed. On the tree one can distinguish the claws of a bird, completed in 1938 as an eagle, but perhaps a woodpecker which, like the she-wolf, is sacred to Mars. The god is represented in his warrior clothes, equipped with a spear, crested helmet adorned with a griffin and armor on which the head of a Gorgon stands out.
On the right of the front of the fence, the relief depicting Aeneas, already over the years, which sacrifices to the Penates and is therefore portrayed in a priestly garment with his head covered, in the act of making an offer on a rustic altar. The final part of the right arm was lost, but almost certainly supported a patera, a ritual cup, as suggests by the presence of a young assistant to the rite (camillus) who carries a tray with fruit and bread and a jug in his right hand. A second rite assistant pushes a sow towards the sacrifice, probably on the very place where the city of Lavinium will be foundedif you interpret the scene in the light of the VIII book of the Aeneid. Recently, however, it has been hypothesized that the person who sacrifices is Numa Pompilio, the second of the seven kings of Rome, who celebrated a sacrifice in harmony with the Sabines and the Romans in the Campo Marzio, during which a sow was sacrificed.
To the left of the east side of the fence is the panel with the depiction of Tellus, the Mother Earth, or, according to a different interpretation, Venus, divine mother of Aeneas and progenitor of the Gens Iulia, to which Augustus himself belongs. A further reading interprets this central figure as the Pax Augusta, the Peace, from which the altar takes its name.
The goddess sits on the rocks, dressed in a light chiton. On the veiled head, a wreath of flowers and fruit. At his feet, an ox and a sheep. The goddess holds two putti on her sides, one of which draws her gaze by offering her a pommel. In his womb, a bunch of grapes and pomegranates complete the portrait of the parent deity, thanks to which men, animals and vegetation thrive. On the sides of the panel two young women, the Aurae velificantes, one sitting on a sea dragon, the other on a swan, symbol respectively of the beneficial winds of sea and land.
On the right panel there is a fragment of the relief of the goddess Roma. The represented figure was completed „scratching“ on mortar. In view of the fact that she is sitting on a trophy of weapons, it can only be the goddess Rome, whose presence must be read in close relation to that of Venus- Tellus, as prosperity and peace are guaranteed by victorious Rome. The goddess is represented as an Amazon: the head encircled by the helmet, the naked breast denuded, the shoulder Balteus holding a short sword, a shaft in the right hand. Most likely the personifications of Honos and Virtus were part of the scene, placed on the sides of the goddess, in the guise of two young male divinities.
On the South side, Augustus himself, crowned with laurel, the four flamines maiores, priests with the characteristic headdress surmounted by a metal tip, Agrippa, depicted with the head covered by the flap of the robe and with a roll of parchment in the right hand and finally the little Gaius Caesar, his son, holding on to his father’s clothes. Agrippa is the strong man of the empire, friend and son-in-law of Augustus, whose daughter Giulia he married at second marriage. He is also the father of Gaius and Lucio Cesari, adopted by his grandfather and destined to succeed him in command.
Gaius is turned towards the female figure who follows him, in which Livia, the prince’s bride, is usually recognized, represented with the veiled head and the laurel wreath that make it a figure of high rank. According to a more recent interpretation, this figure should instead be identified with Giulia, who would appear here following her husband and her eldest son Gaius. In the male figure below, Tiberius is generally recognized, although this identification must be questioned in consideration of the fact that the character wears plebeian shoes, a detail that does not suit Tiberius, descendant of one of the most noble Roman families. The so-called Tiberius is followed by a family group, probably formed by Antonia Minore, grandson of Augustus, by her husband Druso and by their Germanic son. Drusus is the only portrait in military clothes, with the characteristic military dress, the paludamentum: in fact in 13 BC he found himself engaged in fighting the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine.
A second family group follows, probably formed by Antonia Maggiore, grandson of Augustus, by her husband Lucio Domizio Enobarbo, consul in 16 BC, and by their children Domizia and Gneo Domizio Enobarbo, Nero’s future father.
Beginning the reading from the left, Lucio Cesare, the second son of Agrippa and Giulia, also adopted by Augustus, was recognized among the parades. Here he is depicted as the youngest of children, led by the hand. The veiled female figure that follows could be that of the mother Giulia, towards whom the looks of those around are converging. Many however believe that Giulia should be recognized on the other side of the parade, in place of Livia who would then replace her on this side.
The matronal figure placed behind Giulia / Livia is generally recognized as Ottavia Minore, Augustus‘ sister. Between the two women stands out the figure of a young man, recognized as the third son of Agrippa and his first wife Marcella Maggiore. Behind Octavia, little Giulia Minore is clearly visible and, as Augustus‘ grandson, enjoys the right to appear first among the girls present at the ceremony. Instead, the identity of the figures behind the little Giulia remains very uncertain.
The lower register of the fence is decorated with a vegetable frieze made up of spirals that start from a luxuriant acanthus head; a vegetable candlestick rises vertically from the center of the acanthus. Ivy, laurel and vine leaves develop from the spirals of the acanthus, tendrils and palmettes depart, and where the stems thin, spiraling, flowers of all varieties bloom. The dense vegetation is home to small animals and twenty swans with spread wings, which mark the rhythm of the composition.
This vegetable relief has often been referred to the IV Ecloga of Virgil, where the seculum aureum, the return of the happy and peaceful age is announced with the copious and spontaneous production of fruits and crops. Beyond the generic appeal to fertility and abundance, following the return of the golden age, the frieze can also be read as an image of the pax deorum, of the reconciliation of the divine forces that govern the entire universe, made possible by the advent of Augustus.
The interior of the fence is, like the exterior, divided into two overlapping areas and separated by a band decorated with palmettes. In the lower register the simplified decoration seems to reproduce the motif of the planks of the wooden fence that delimited the sacred space; the upper register instead is enriched by a motif of festoons and bucrani (animal skulls) interspersed with paterae or ritual cups.
The Ara Pacis, composed of a fence that encloses the altar itself, reproduces the forms of a templum minus, as described by Festo: „The templa minora“ are created by the Auguri (priests) by enclosing the chosen places with wooden boards or with drapes, so that they do not have more than one entrance, and delimiting the space with established formulas. So the temple is the fenced and consecrated place so as to remain open on one side and have corners well fixed on the ground „.
If an exception is made for the entrances, which in the case of the Ara Pacis are two, this description fits particularly well with this monument and its internal decoration which, in the lower part, represents the wooden plank which, in the archaic temples, delimited the „inaugurated“ space with sacred formulas.
The motif of festoons and bucrani (animal skulls) interspersed with paterae or ritual cups refers to the decoration that was placed above the wooden fence, in this case adorned with extraordinarily laden wreaths of ears, berries and fruit of every season, both cultivated and spontaneous, fixed to the supports by vittae, or sacred bandages.
The Ara Pacis is composed of an enclosure that encloses the canteen, the altar itself, on which the animal remains and wine were offered. The canteen occupies almost entirely the space inside the enclosure, from which it is separated by a narrow corridor whose floor is slightly inclined towards the outside, in such a way as to favor the escape of the waters, both rainwater and the wash-basin following the sacrifices, through drain channels open along the perimeter.
The altar consists of a podium of four steps on which a base rests, which has four other steps on the forehead alone. Above them stands the canteen, squeezed between two lateral forepart.
The two lateral sides present acroters with vegetal volutes and winged lions. Most likely, the fragments of the altar frieze refer to a sacrifice, perhaps the same one at the Pax Augusta that the Senate had decreed to be celebrated every year, on January 30th, on the anniversary of the consecration of the altar.
Left side rail
On the inside of the left bank there are the Vestals, six in all, represented with their heads covered: they are the virgines named by the pontifex maximus, the highest priestly office, chosen from the aristocratic girls between six and ten years of age, who they remained keepers of the sacred fire for 30 years. Here we see them during the ceremony accompanied by helpers.
The frieze facing that of the Vestals, there remains only a fragment with two figures, the first of which represents a priest, more exactly a flamen, while in the following character we wanted to recognize the stasso Augusto, perhaps represented in the role of pontifex maximus, a position he took on in 12 BC, just as the Ara Pacis was under construction.
Right side rail
On the external right bank there is a procession with three animals, two cattle and a sheep, led to the sacrifice by twelve employees (victimarii). In their hands the tools of sacrifice: the trays, the knife, the mace and the laurel branch for sprinkling. They are preceded by a togato (or perhaps a priest) accompanied by helpers and assistants to the cult.
The first attempts at restoration of the Ara Pacis and the pavilion on the banks of the Tiber, in which it was displayed, date from the beginning of 1950, when the Municipality decided to free the structure from the protective wall in which was enclosed, repair the entablature of the altar which had been damaged by anti air raid protection, and to construct between the pilasters, in place of the glass which had been removed during the war, a wall 4.5 metres in height. The real refurbishment of the pavilion only took place in 1970 when the new crystal panes put in place.
During the Eighties, the first systematic restoration work began on the Altar. It was dismantled and several of the iron pivots supporting the projecting parts of the reliefs were substituted; fractures in the mortar were repaired, the restoration work that had already taken place was consolidated, the non-original parts were recoloured, and, naturally, the dust and deposits that had collected over the years were removed. It was during this work that the head now recognised as belonging to Honour, which had been mistakenly inserted into the Aeneas panel, was removed.
Although the refurbished glass did not adequately isolate the monument, it was hoped that the work done in the Eighties would be sufficient for effective long term conservation of the monument. However by the mid-Nineties problems were already becoming apparent: the ranges of temperature and humidity were too wide and the changes too sudden, causing a series of microfractures to open up again in the mortar; humidity was also causing those of the iron pivots which it had not been possible to replace to expand, thus fracturing the inside of the marble; a survey done of the state of the huge panes gave the worrying result that they were becoming detached from the supporting wall; and finally a layer of greasy and acidic dust had been deposited with astonishing rapidity over all of the surface of the altar, a result of the uncontrolled increase in traffic pollution and heating. The precarious conditions of the monument, and the impossibility resolving them by transforming the existing building, led the Municipality of Rome, in 1995, to start thinking about instead replacing the pavilion.
The Ara Pacis has been restored to the public after a long period of inaccessibility, while vital works were carried out to create conditions suitable for conserving the monument over a long period.
An study done in the Nineties showed the altar to be in such an alarming condition that the Municipal Administration decided to undertake very significant changes and to substitute the container, which had been constructed from an design by Morpurgo in 1938 and was proving entirely inadequate to protect the most precious monument of the Augustan age from dust, exhaust gases, vibrations, changes in temperature and humidity, with a museum complex built in accordance with the most up to date conservation criteria.
The museum space was designed by the architectural studio of the American architect Richard Meier. It modulates around the contrast of light and shade: the first two parts of the building, particularly, are governed by this concept: visitors pass through the access gallery, an area in shadow, to reach the central pavilion which holds the Ara Pacis in full natural light filtered through 500 square metres of crystal panels. This expanse creates an uninterrupted continuity with the outside world, and also helps to create the silence necessary to enjoy the monument in full. In the tranquillity of the acoustic isolation, it is possible to appreciate the calm rhythms of the decorative motifs; to attend to the procession passing along the sides of the enclosure of the Altar, made up of the massed priests of the Augustan age and of members of the imperial family, guided by Augustus himself; to revisit the founding myths of Rome and the Augustan glory that brought the empire the enjoyment of such contented times that the period came to be called the Age of Gold.
The Meier project
The new museum complex for the Ara Pacis was designed by Richard Meier & Partners Architects, an architectural studio in the United States, which has been responsible for several of the most notable museums of the second half of the twentieth century. The building work for the project was awarded to the Italian company Marie Engineering and was overseen, for the Municipal Administration, by the Government Office of Cultural Assets and the Office of the Historic City. The building, which remains substantially unaltered, was designed to be permeable and transparent in the midst of an urban environment, without compromising the safety of the monument. The structure follows a linear course, which develops along the principal north-south axis and is articulated by its covered areas, an environment completely closed in and in a closed area, but visually open to the penetration of light.
The new museum complex, which ricompone la quinta edilizia to the west of the Tridente area, is subdivided into three principle sections. The first section, a gallery closed off from natural light, is reached through a staircase which negotiates the disparate levels of the Via di Ripetta and the bank of the Tiber, and links the new construction to the pre-existing neoclassical church. The staircase makes use of two elements which connect it to the past: a fountain, a relic of the Ripetta Gate which remained in the area, and a column, which is placed at the same distance from the Altar as, in the age of Augustus, it stood from the great sundial’s obelisk. The Gallery, which contains the entrance areas, performs the double function of introducing the visitor to the monument and „screening“ the Altar from the sundial. After the shade of this section, comes the central Pavilion, where by day the Altar is bathed in light diffused by skylights and by wide panels of filtering crystal. This was achieved by mounting more than 1500 square metres of tempered glass, in plates of up to three by five metres each, so as to prevent the Pavilion from having a cage-like appearance and to guarantee the greatest possibility visibility.
The third section, to the north, contains a Conference Hall, laid out over two floors and provided with an area for restoration work. Above the hall stands a spacious terrace facing onto the Mausoleum of Augustus and open to the public. Profiting from the disparate levels of the Lungotevere and the Via di Ripetta, a vast semi-underground floor has also been dug out, flanked on either side by the Wall of the Res Gestae, the only element of the old pavilion that has been preserved. A library will be built in this space, as well as staff offices and two large and artificially lit rooms, where those fragments of the altar which were not part of the 1938 reconstruction will be displayed, as well as other important reliefs from the so-called Altar of Piety. These spaces will also be used for temporary exhibitions. It will be possible to access them either internally or by two independent entrances at the North and South of the Via di Ripetta.
The materials and technologies
The design of the new museum is of the highest quality, as are the first class materials that were used to build it. The materials were chosen with a view to integrating the building with its surroundings: the travertine gives continuity in the colour scheme, the plaster and glass, which create a two-way transition between the interior and exterior, give a contemporary effect of volume and transparency, simultaneously full and empty.
The travertine comes from the same quarry as the stone that was used to build the Piazza of the Emperor Augustus in the Thirties; it was also, more recently, used by Richard Meier for the Getty Centre in Los Angeles and other important architectural works. It has been worked in a ‚cracked‘ fashion, which, in conjunction with the characteristics of the stone itself make it a unique material; the technique the produced it was honed by Meier himself. The lighting, both internal and external, uses reflectors with anti-dazzle accessories during both the night and day, filters to enhance the colour and lenses which restrict and modulate the distribution of the light rays in relation to the characteristics of the objects on display.
The white Sto-Verotec plaster, already a material in traditional use, is here employed on panels of recycled glass of dimensions never previously used in Italy. It is characterised by its extremely polished nature, obtained by applying seven layers to a glass net, and by its self-cleaning reaction with atmospheric agents. The tempered glass which encloses the altar is composed of two layers, each of 12mm, separated by an cavity filled argon gas and provided with an ionic layer of a noble metal to filter the light rays.
The building’s technology, designed to obtain the ideal relationship between aesthetic effect, transparency, absorbance of sound, heat isolation and light filtration, pushes current technology to its limits. The internal microclimate is governed by a complex conditioning plant, which fulfils two essential requirements: to intrude as little as possible on the surrounding architecture and swiftly to readjust any worrying heat or humidity conditions. A series of nozzles create a curtain of air, which flows over the windows, preventing condensation from forming and stabilising the temperature. A dense polythene web underneath the floor can carry hot or cold water, when necessary, to create ideal climatic conditions. The large hall in which the Altar stands is additionally includes a sophisticated design which would allow the air to circulate with a raised level of filtering sufficient for crowds of twice the predicted levels.
The building has attracted conflicting opinions. The New York Times judged it a flop, while the famous art critic and polemicist Vittorio Sgarbi called it, „A Texas gas station in the very earth of one of the most important urban centres in the world“, and the first step towards an „internationalisation“ of the city of Rome. Nonetheless, opinion was not unanimous at all and, for instance, Achille Bonito Oliva praised Meier’s design.
However, the judgment was by no means unanimous. The critic Achille Bonito Oliva for example showed appreciation for Meier’s project, and the Capitoline architect Antonino Saggio also expressed a positive opinion: „the opening of a construction site in the center of Rome represents an event for the city, now characterized by temporary interventions and a tendency towards museum display ».