Pax for the Duce
21 April was the birthday of Rome – 2759 years since Romulus murdered his brother Remus and became king of the village by the Tiber. This year the anniversary was marked by a slightly less violent dispute. It was about a steel and glass box erected over one of the city most famous ancient monuments. And also about what to do with the legacy of fascism.
That monument is the so-called “Altar of Peace” (though, “Altar of Pacification” would capture the robust Roman sense of Pax rather better). A grand sacrificial altar, enclosed by a wall dripping with some of the best Roman sculpture we have: sculpted processions of the Roman imperial family and the senate, panels showing Aeneas landing in Italy and a luxurious Mother Earth. They would come into almost any art historian’s top ten of Rome.
This ensemble was put up between 13 and 9 BCE in the reign of the first emperor Augustus, as part of his extraordinary and self-promoting campaign of urban regeneration (turning Rome “from a city of brick to a city of marble” as he was supposed to have put it). One ingenious German archaeologist has calculated that on Augustus’ birthday the shadow of a nearby giant sundial pointed directly at the entrance to the Altar. As if, presumably, to link Augustus’ arrival in the world with the birth of “Roman Peace”.
The argument is over how to protect this monument from the elements and traffic pollution. It used to be covered by a modest affair, designed by Vittorio Morpurgo in the 1930s. The replacement, which has been in the pipeline for more than a decade now, is a considerably less modest creation by Richard Meier (of Getty Center fame). Much bigger than its predecessor (it will eventually contain a large lecture theatre, as well as café and bookshop), it is made of glaring white steel and glass.
21 April is a date of such symbolic power in Rome that the planned inauguration went ahead despite the fact that workmen were still whitewashing the concrete as the dignitaries spoke (and the lecture theatre is still a gleam in the eye). The occasion revived all the controversies that have dogged the project since it was first mooted. Vittorio Sgarbi, one time culture secretary under Berlusconi, compared it to a pizzeria and threatened to blow it up. And others, currently in the rightwing political out-crowd, promised they would dismantle it as soon as they were back in power (which they probably will be quite soon).
On the other side the socialist mayor, Walter Veltroni, purred about “adding to the riches that Rome offers its visitors” and there was a good deal of self-congratulation about the revival of modern architecture in the historic centre of Rome.
Outside Italy, the press enjoyed the row. But, in Britain at least, they mostly missed the underlying irony. The point is that – genuine though the sculptures themselves are -- the Altar of Peace is not an ancient monument in the strict sense of the word at all. It is an imaginative reconfection by fascist archaeologists in the 1930s, who dug most of the key pieces out of a waterlogged basement in the Via in Lucina, a kilometre or so away from where they now stands in their reconstructed form.
The excavation was state of the art, and involved freezing the site to get the stuff out. The reconstruction was inspired, even if not entirely accurate (as a few pieces of marble apparently impossible to fit into the jigsaw must suggest) .The choice of location, next to the surviving Mausoleum of Augustus, was a calculated one.
It was all part of Mussolini’s fantasy of himself as the political heir of the first Roman emperor. And he used the re-erection of the Altar to convert the area around the Mausoleum (which he turned back into a ruin, by removing the concert hall which stood on top of it) into an urban shrine to his hero. Covering the whole of one side of basement wall of Morpurgo’s building was the inscribed text of Augustus’s autobiography. This is the only part of the 1930s structure that has been preserved in Meier’s scheme.
Arguments about how best to preserve Rome’s ancient antiquities can only be part of the issue here. It strikes me that what really underlies this row is the problem of how to accommodate, or not, the monuments of the fascist past.