On Saturday, November 16, we visited the Ara Pacis Augustae, a marble altar consecrated in 9 BC and dedicated to the Roman goddess Peace. On Tuesday, November 19, torrential rains damaged the roof of the building, causing leaks in the museum. I walked past the museum two days ago, and everything seemed fine, thank goodness, but if the damage had been extensive, we might have missed seeing the altar, since construction projects in Rome sometimes languish for years. (Refurbishing of just the lobby of the building we live in began in May 2012 and is STILL ongoing, but I digress.)
A sacrificial altar considered to be a masterpiece, the Ara Pacis honors the victories of Augustus in 13 BC, which brought peace to the Roman Empire. The altar was originally located on the northern outskirts of Rome, and the constant flooding of the Tevere (Tiber) eventually buried the altar in silt. Excavation of the altar began in the early 20th century. Benito Mussolini ordered the construction of a building to protect the ancient monument and moved the Ara Pacis into the building (next to the mausoleum of Augustus) in 1938. The new building also was located next to the Tevere and one of Rome’s major streets, the Lungotevere. When traffic, exhaust fumes, overheating, humidity, and greasy and acidic dust began taking their toll, a new building was designed, and it opened on the same site in 2006. This ultramodern structure is the only civic building constructed in central Rome since the 1930s. The building, which was designed by an American, Richard Meier, was highly controversial (and probably still is for some Romans).
The Ara Pacis is enormous and beautiful, but the museum is confusing and poorly signed. Some of the altar is original and other parts are reconstructions, but it wasn’t easy to determine which is which. My favorite part of the museum was a lovely Impressionist exhibition of 68 works from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., mounted in the exhibit space in the basement of the museum.
If you’re planning a brief trip to Rome, don’t put the Ara Pacis on your must-see list unless you’re an avid student of ancient Rome or you happen by chance to pass it. Rome has better treasures to offer.