Every so often, I hear comments on how ugly the Museo dell’Ara Pacis is. I’ve heard the Richard Meier-designed museum called a mistake, an eyesore and an incongruous box that has nothing to do with Rome. Blah blah blah. The modernist monument Ara Pacis Museum has not ruined the landscape – it’s a flatbed roof building, hidden far below Rome’s domes. If anything it’s invigorated the cityscape. And it’s a not-to-miss museum.
Augustus’s Temple of Peace
The Ara Pacis museum was designed as renewed setting for the Ara Pacis, aka Temple of Peace, a sacrificial altar dating to 9 B.C. built by Augustus Caesar to celebrate Pax Romana, his strong-handed and trademarked peace that lasted until his death.
Originally located a few hundred feet south in the current Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina, the Altar all but disappeared from the landscape with the implosion of Rome and city flooding. Over the centuries, bits and bobs were unearthed and pilfered for private collections- like the Louvre, but in the late 1930s, archaeologists found remaining bas relief and reassembled the structure with original pieces and casts, re-erecting the temple in its present location.
I love visiting this museum for some many reasons- mine tend to veer on lines and architecture, but what makes this museum so incredible is that it is dedicated entirely to a single structure and its incredible details. A free standing altar, the Ara Pacis is covered with very detailed scenes from Roman mythology, gorgeous flora and fauna, and an Augustus celebration with priests, the general Marcus Agrippa and the entire imperial family. You can spend hours on each side looking for hidden details.
The museum is also immersion in Augustus and the Julio Claudio family. There are busts showing off family members, and a detailed family tree which can spin your head with the overlapping relationships. There is a model of the Campo Marzio depicting the area as it was in 9BC, showing the altar’s geographical positioning and relationship to the Pantheon and Mausoleum of Augustus, as well as a video area that shows the evolution and disappearance of the altar in its original location. Additionally there are temporary exhibitions, often contemporary themes, in the basement galleries.
On the exterior travertine lower wall is the entire Res Gestate, a monumental Latin inscription and August’s first-person record of his life and accomplishments. Day or night, it is gorgeous.
“All he does is stand there. Yeah, but it’s the way he stands,” responds John Lennon to Paul McCartney’s complaint about Stu Sutcliffe in the movie Backbeat. This is what I think about every time I walk by the Ara Pacis, and how initially wrote this piece in 2006 when the museum re-opened after years of work. It’s not just a white box. It’s how that box stands in time and cityscape.
Rectilinear lines, travertine and two walls of floor to ceiling windows, there is nothing ancient about the Ara Pacis. And that’s the entire point. The building wants to bring you into the museum and a conversation on the confrontation between classical and contemporary. Whether you are just catching a glimpse while sitting in traffic or walking, you are given a direct peek in to the ancient temple and subsequently direct interaction with Augustus and Ancient Rome, just as it was originally planned 2000 years ago.
The windows give a “Through the looking glass” feeling. Transparency, temporality and movement of time is the conversation, whether gazing into the ancient temple or standing in the clean lines and looking at today’s traffic.
Richard Meier is not my favorite architect. However, I can safely say I do not hate this structure as basic design. I find faults with some components like the obvious components like his signature on Travertine and the North East (back) corner which reminds me of a chalky white shoe box. Approaching the Ara Pacis from Piazza del Popolo (via Ripetta), there is less wow and more deja vu- are we walking up to a Staples Office Supply. Ever since its 2006 inauguration, I’ve hoped that the exterior walk becomes covered in street and/or public art and thus fully meld Ancient Rome with its future.
A word from the international press
When I originally wrote this post in 2006, I was angry at the hate i found in so many international publications. I thought I’d share some of the Ara Pacis bulling from the International Herald Tribune New York Times, and Newsweek.