The Museo Ara Pacis Augustae is controversial. It is the first modern building in the centre of Rome for 50 years and the current Mayor of the city, Gianni Alemanno, has declared his desire to see it demolished. Thankfully for the rest of us he has also said it’s not a priority. Mr Alemanno is, frankly, wrong! The Ara Pacis Museum is not some blot on the landscape but a very beautiful and sympathetic addition to the banks of the Tiber.
From the outside the building is a statement and stands out against the other buildings around it, none of which are in themselves particularly exciting while at the same time reflecting them in its glass facade. You might even argue it does a sterling job of hiding the shabby monstrosity of the Mausoleum of Augustus next door. It’s cool and sleek and, hey, it’s got a fountain outside! How Roman do you want?
However, it’s inside that this museum hits you. There is just one artefact in the main gallery – the Ara Pacis (or Altar of Peace) itself. When I stepped through the door from reception it took a fairly large dose of self-restraint to stop me running squealing toward it. When I say altar, of course I don’t mean the cloth draped table we associate with Christianity. This is pagan pomp at its most pomp-y! It was commissioned by the Roman Emperor Augustus to commemorate pacification of western provinces (that’s France and Spain to us!) We won’t go into whose idea of peace at this stage and let the victor write the history. The gallery is glass and stone and while it’s beautiful in its own right, it also serves as a perfect backdrop for the creamy marble of the altar.
Downstairs are education areas and a temporary exhibition gallery and a small gallery telling the story of the Altar’s discovery and restoration. If I have one criticism of the museum it is that the interpretation is separated from the Altar. If you didn’t go downstairs, you’d never learn anything about the Altar and its history. You would also miss the fantastic interactive which shows the likely colour scheme of the original. As much as I love the upstairs gallery and the beautiful altar sitting proud in the centre, I do worry that most visitors will miss this important feature.
In short, the Museo Ara Pacis Augustae is a stunning piece of architecture, inside a stunning piece of architecture. Get there before the bulldozers move in!