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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.90 Santiago ago. 2015 


Demountable Heritage
Ara Pacis and the reconstruction of memory


Elvira Pérez*(1)

* Head of Magíster en Patrimonio Cultural, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.


Through the study of the transfer of the Ara Pacis in Rome to a new location within a custom-made building, this article invites us to unravel the vicissitudes of the dismantling and relocation of monuments, an operation which while not new, questions the connection between heritage and place. Because if a monument is the petrification of memory so it can endure, disassembly may be a form of preservation that should not be underestimated.

Keywords: Rome, Italy, conservation, disassembly, moving.


To rebuild a monument many times it is necessary to disassemble it and then reassemble it elsewhere so as to ensure its conservation. That is why we consider heritage as a demountable good. However, the reconstruction of an old monument in a place other than the original site can become conflictive, mainly because the original idea and context is modified and can lose part of the meaning intended by its creators for a particular piece in a particular context. Sometimes this decision must be taken for conservation reasons, such as the relocation of the Egyptian temples of Abu Simbel or the Sanctuary of Isis in Philae to avoid their flooding by the Asuan Damn and resulting reservoir formed by the waters of the Nile River (Fig.1). In this case, the temples were disassembled block by block and rebuilt in a new location, maintaining their original orientation, and rebuilding the surrounding mountain.(1)

Fig. 1. The fragile sandstone head of Ramses II is reassembled at new site of Abu Simbel Temple.
«Abusimbel». Autor: Per-Olow Anderson (1921-1989), © Creative Commons

Historic pieces are usually moved to be exhibited in museums allowing the public to observe them and facilitating their conservation in an appropriate environment that prolongs their preservation. For example, the original Greek sculptures of the Caryatids of the Erechtheum are exhibited inside the Acropolis Museum in Athens; the mounted statue of the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was moved inside the Capital Museums in Rome; the atlas of the Temple of Zeus in Agrigento was located in the archaeological museum of the city. In these three cases replicas of the sculptures were built in their original contexts, and in some cases they generate confusion for visitors who are not necessarily informed of the originality of these object. Regarding the transport of archeological pieces, we must mention the well-known conflict over the Elgin Marbles,(2) pieces of the Parthenon currently on display in the British Museum of London for which the Greek government has been asking their restitution since 1980. But what happens when an architectural object is moved from its original context to be exhibited in a museum? This was the case of the Ara Pacis (Peace Altar) which was unearthed piece by piece to be rebuilt in a new context in the city of Rome.

The Monument

The Ara Pacis is a commemorative monument commissioned by the Roman Senate to celebrate the Pax Romana(3) after the return of Emperor Augustus from Spain. The senate decreed the construction of the altar in the year 13 BC, and it was inaugurated on January 30, 9 BC.(4) An annual sacrifice was to be offered in honor of the Pontifex Maximus. Yet one cannot study the monument without considering the figure of Augustus, Pater Patriae, the first Roman emperor that transformed the Roman Republic to Imperial Rome, bringer of peace and builder of the urbs: city of stone. Before dying, the leader declared "to have received a city of brick and left behind one of marble.»(5)

The altar is presented as an open book. On one side, a remembrance of everyday images and representations of the imperial family and, on the other, divine images and mythological representations. In this way, the sculpted monument acts as an object of communication and propaganda for the Roman people. It was built at a moment in which Roman art had become a universal reference, replacing Hellenistic Greek art and thus allowing the promotion of an Imperial art that was more unitary and focused on the portrait. It included not only mythological images but also private situations (Hauser, 2003:136). The altar was built in Lunen marble with a rectangular plan of 11.63 × 10.625 × 4.60 m, uncovered and with two square doors, 3.6 m, and an original east-west orientation: a front with a staircase for the priest’s entrance and another in the back for the entrance of animals for sacrifice. Inside, the sacrificial table was built on a podium that occupies almost all the space.

The external decoration was divided in two levels, the inferior level has floral decorations and the upper has friezes of figures. The floral frieze uses a unique motif that repeats symmetrically composed of acanthus, lotus and rose flowers along with small animals such as frogs, butterflies, and snails evoking the infinite variety of the natural forms and the development of nature. On the other hand, the frieze of figures on the north-south facades presents a procession of people that face the altar(6) entrance from east to west using the chiaroscuro technique where the use of medium and light reliefs achieve a sensation of depth. On the east-west facades there are four allegorical scenes of which only two have been well conserved. Two scenes about the foundation of Rome appear on the main facade: Aeneas and the sacrifice of the Penates, and a fragment of the Lupercal showing Romulus and Remus being fed by the wolf under the attentive watch of Faustus and the god, Mars. On the east facade is an image of the goddess Earth and the panel of the goddess Rome.

The monument was built with an entrance toward the old Via Flaminia and another toward the Campus Martius over the marble platform of the Horologium Augusti (Augustus Clock).(7) According to the historian Cassio Dione, the senate had proposed to build the altar inside the Roman Curia, but it was the emperor himself who preferred building it in this barely urbanized area (Dione, 1995). According to Edmund Buchner, author of studies on the Augustus Clock (fig.2), the three monuments, that is, the clock, the altar and the mausoleum make up an architectural group of unique symbolism (Buchner, 1976). Considering the importance Romans placed on the orientation of buildings, each element was placed in a strategic position. For example, the sixth century bc obelisk brought from Egypt on Augustus’ orders was placed in such a way that it related with the mausoleum built fifteen years before. According to Buchner, on the emperor’s anniversary, the shadow of the gnomon pointed directly toward the entrance of the Ara Pacis. In this way a sacred area was designed between the Via Flaminia and the Tiber River. The Ustrinum is also found here, the altar where the remains of the prince were burned in the year 14 AD and was also located in the Campus Martius. In the second century AD in the time of Hadrian, the level of the area was raised notoriously due to the flooding of the Tiber River so the altar was halfway buried and must have been surrounded by a masonry wall. In Medieval times, like the Romans, the monument ended up completely buried and forgotten. In the fourteenth century the Via in Lucina Palace, property of various cardinals, was built over the altar. 

Fig. 2. Horologium Augusti, Ara Pacis and Mausoleum of Augustus in the reconstruction of Edmund Buchner, 1976.
Source: Edmund Buchner. Solarium Augusti und Ara Pacis, Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts. Roemische Abteilung, Philipp von Zabern, 1976.

Rebuilding Heritage and the Search for the lost Pieces

The first iconographic traces of the monument were known thanks to the existence of ancient Roman coins that depicted the monument. The recovery of the monument has a story spanning four centuries that can be divided into two moments: chance findings and the technical archeological excavations. The assembly of the various scattered pieces was possible thanks to the work of several people, from collectors to archeologists who managed to rebuild the monument.

In the sixteenth century, thanks to the engraving of a swan by Agostino Musi(8) –later recognized as part of the floral frieze of the altar– we have the first news of the discovery of the altar slabs. This detail shows that the artist had access to a currently missing slab. The second documented item of news is the purchase, by Cardinal Ricci, of nine pieces of marble belonging to the altar found in the interior patio of the palace in 1566. Initially, these reliefs were attributed to the Dominican Arch. However, the slabs took different paths; for example, the Tellus panel (goddess Earth) ended up in Florence acquired by the Grand Duke of Tuscany (becoming part of the Medici collections and being exhibited in the Uffizi Gallery) and the other slabs ended up in the facades of the Villa Medici.

In 1859, the Via in Lucina Palace required renovation and thus the base of the altar and various fragments were found. It was the German archeologist, Friedrich Van Duhn, who in 1879 was able to connect these fragments, found and scattered throughout the world, as part of a single monument. In 1896, Eugene Petersen published the first study on the monument to convince the government to initiate archeological work (Petersen, 1902). The first regular excavations began in 1903 under the direction of Angelo Pasqui and Edoardo Almagià; the latter bought the palace and permitted the excavation work. At this time only some of the fragments were recovered because the ruins were flooded by water under the palace foundations and the technology did not yet exist nor was there sufficient funding to be able to uncover the remains of the altar.

Revaluation of Roman Heritage in the Fascist Age

Due to his imperialist ideas, Il Duce Benito Mussolini decided to resume the figure of the Emperor Augustus as national emblem and historical representative of the most glorious Roman era. The appropriation of imperialist symbols appeared to be the right way to strengthen Italian identity. That is why great effort was made during the fascist period to recover archeological remains from ancient Rome, most notably the Imperial Forums and the Mausoleum of Augustus. In this context in 1937, Giuseppe Moretti received the commission to recover the Ara Pacis from under the foundations of the Palace, now known as Fino Almagià, with all the necessary resources and latest technology available. The commission implied a great challenge if one considers that he needed to excavate 7.5 m below the street level to recover a flooded monument. An innovative solution was to freeze the terrain with carbon dioxide thus avoiding damage to the monument. Working underneath the foundations of the palace produced another complex situation, so a system was utilized that demolished and rebuilt layer by layer (Moretti, 2007). Once the excavation work was ended the work of recovering the blocks found through Europe since the sixteenth century began (fig. 3). The slabs were found in the Louvre Museum in Paris, in the Vatican Museum of the Vatican City, in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, over a tomb in the Church of the Society of Jesus in Rome and in the Villa Medici facade, also in Rome: "At the beginnings of the sixteenth century, the Cardinal Andrea della Valle’s nascent collection of ancient art had acquired a group of reliefs that seemed to be part of the frieze of an altar and were arranged on the outer walls of his villa. In 1584, along with the large part of other works, they passed in to the hands of the Medici and can still be found today hanging on the inner walls of the villa built on the Pincio" (Moretti, 1948).

Fig. 3. Recovery process and retrofitting.
© Giuseppe Moretti personal archive

The slab from the Vatican Museums was handed over to the Italian State after lengthy negotiations. The slab from the Louvre, on the other hand, was never returned. Only the plaster molds of the internal decorations on the Villa Medici facades were obtained. Once the majority of parts had been recovered, a complex process of assembly began. Obviously the monument could not be rebuilt on site, so a site was chosen next to the Mausoleum of Augustus. This caused some controversy. The altar was placed within a pavilion located on the bank of the Lungotever and built especially for the altar and changing its original orientation from east-west to north-south.

The inauguration of the pavilion was on September 23, 1938, the day on which the bi-millenial of Augustus was celebrated (fig. 4). To schedule such a precise and symbolic date hurried the process of rebuilding the altar and construction, perhaps causing some sacrifices to meet the established deadlines. For example, the missing parts were rebuilt with concrete adhered to original parts. This decision meant that the reconstruction was definitive and non-reversible and, as such, the monument cannot be moved without suffering damages.(9) Also, many fragments were left out of the reconstruction for being too small. When that which remained was not enough to complete the image, Giuseppe Moretti decided to rebuild with the ‘a graffio su malta’ technique, that is, drawing over the mortar. In the case of the external slabs with floral decoration, the system of symmetry and repetition allowed for a complete reconstruction of the decorations.

Fig. 4. Album of "The Führer's Trip to Italy": Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini following a guide showing the authorities a fragment depicting Saturnia Tellus, a detail of the Ara Pacis. Henrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels and Joachim von Ribbentrop are visible in the group. The work was reconstructed in 1938 in celebration of bi-millenium anniversary of Augustus.
© Alinari Archives, Florence

During the years of war, the stained glass was removed and the monument was protected with sacks of cement (later replaced by a wall). In 1950, the municipality eliminated the protective wall, repaired the entablature of the altar that had been damaged by the protections, and replaced the stained glass by a wall 4.5 m high; only in 1970 was the pavilion recovered by placing new glass. Later, in the eighties, the monument underwent the first systematic restoration to conserve it, but in the mid-nineties problems required the fascist pavilion to be replaced with a new structure to ensure the conservation of the Ara Pacis.

Meier’s project: a controversial solution

In 1996 the City of Rome commissioned the American architect, Richard Meier with the project of a new museum to house the Ara Pacis (fig. 5). The proposal, which was not without controversy, was nominated by the press as the first modern building in the historical center of Rome since the thirties. Although these declarations seem exaggerated, we must understand that the project was an intervention of great impact and notable size in a strategic point of the city.(10) The project used travertine to relate itself with the historical city and glass as a sign of modernity. This material proposal was considered by some critics as a break with Roman Historicity: "the image of Rome achieved by Richard Meier that faces the Mausoleum of Augustus interprets his wise mannerism with a controversial composition of transparent flavor in the sense that the silence of the archaeology wants to oppose the roar of the formal modernist repertoire" (Purini, 2000).

Fig. 5. Relationship between the altar and the street: a museum piece exhibited and protected by a glass box.
© Elvira Pérez

The project uses many technological solutions, for example, the glass that encloses the altar is composed by two layers, 12 mm thick, separated by a cavity of argon gas and provided a layer of metal ions that permit the filtration of light rays. The interior micro-climate is regulated through a complex cooling system that impedes condensation and stabilizes the temperature. Also, underground lies an extensive network of electronically cross-linked polyethylene tubes with warm water to generate ideal climatic conditions: the absence of particulate matter and fewer mites. Thus, the large hall has a sophisticated system that allows for air circulation with a high degree of filtration even with twice the predicted maximum of crowding.(11)

Although Meier’s project solved the technological complexities of conservation, it did not adequately resolve the relationship between the various monuments, this historical center, and the modern project. For example, the proposed transparency appears quite rigid and the sun’s rays enter the museum and cast lines that modify the image of the altar. No relationship exists between the museum and the river despite the fact that it was built on its shores; even the proposal for a fountain to recall the lost Ripetta Port is a difficult metaphor to perceive upon a first approach. The two ancient churches of Via Ripetta were forgotten behind a wall that separates the museum from the Lungotevere, while the staircase fails to become a significant public plaza like the historic Spanish Steps. We could say that certain design decisions where overly timid perhaps due to the grandiosity of the surroundings and thus generating a fairly ambiguous result. In this regard, the Piazza Augusto Imperatore project has been evaluated that considers rezoning the mausoleum area(12) and new proposals for the museum by Meier himself that seek to eliminate the wall and the water fountain without completely demolishing the building as was suggested at one point by the mayor. According to statements by the previous Mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, the intervention surrounding the altar should be one of the best examples of fusion between urbanism and archaeology as well as generate an upgrade in the historical center.(13) The construction of this museum was considered as the stellar return of great architects to the urban stage of the capital after forty years as the last great urban and architectural transformation in Rome had been in 1960 for the Olympics.(14)

Conclusions and Questions

«By simply interrogating her own ruins, Rome can continue to exist.» (Purini, 2000).(15)

The study of the monument in memory of the Roman Emperor Augustus was made from the perspective of a foreign architect visiting Rome and is fascinated with its historical complexity, its layers of different eras and its difficulty at erasing history, a city that in the face a monument such as the Ara Pacis rejects a work of contemporary architecture. The first image of the monument as it is presented today, rebuilt next to the mausoleum of Augustus himself, reflects a grand museum, perhaps a bit too white, perhaps too new for such a historic city nostalgic for its past. While passing through Lungotevere one can observe the rebuilt monument inside this large glass space, and it is common to see tourists up against the glass observing it from outside. But how does this emblematic altar that recalls the Imperial Roman era relate to the city today? Is a visitor capable of understanding the original symbolic and physical context of the altar? Is it necessary to conserve a work of architecture in a ‘glass aquarium’ so as to not lose sight of its image? The answers to these questions can be explained thanks to its complex history of recomposition, considering the iconographic reconstructions, the decision to excavate the complete object, and the choosing of a modern solution for a monument that is no stranger to controversy, to the decisions of politicians, and to collector’s private interests.

After having rebuilt the history of such a symbolic monument, it makes sense to reflect on the human necessity to conserve and recompose the monuments of antiquity. An obvious explanation would be reflect the necessity of transmitting history to future generations; another is to consider that every monument bust be conserved for its history (Riegl, 1987). So while in antiquity they raised one temple on top of another, today even the effect of a building’s collapse is conserved as an event worthy of note; each remnant is left, and historical value is granted to each intervention.(16)

For the Ara Pacis we must realize how daring this reconstruction was due to the proposal of modifying the original context of the altar. The discovered building was found in a suburban area and, because of its small scale, we must imagine it isolated over a large marble platform. The monument that was originally found with an east-west orientation (looking towards the Tiber River) was reassembled north-south without considering the importance that the Romans assigned to the solar orientation of monuments. These decisions were most likely the result of considering the monument as an art object, isolated from its context, radically changing its meaning and connection with the cosmic realm of sacred roots. Like any historical piece, the altar was moved to a museum, only in this case a big glass box was built above it thus interpreted more as an object than as a work of architecture. The idea to propose the Piazza Augusto Imperatore as a reference in the city or as a memorial space is an interesting urban quandary, but the act of locating the monument next to the Mausoleum of Augustus provoked the first mistake for the visitor who tends to imagine a direct relationship with the tomb of the emperor. Upon observing the project plan by Meier one can deduce an intention to unify the complex through pavement, but these kinds of design decisions move away from the Roman way that proposed complex visual relationships between its monuments, thus making the current connection between both buildings timid and physically ambiguous.

The Ara Pacis reconstruction was daring also, because it returned the rebuilt memory of the emperor to Rome and took back up his ideas of transcendence. Eugenio La Rocca, on the occasion of the inauguration of the new museum in 2007 said: "we receive the new museum designed by Richard Meier as an homage to the scientific tradition that allowed the reconstruction of the monument, as a living participant of historic and urban events of Rome."(17) The altar has been an issue addressed by politicians since the time of ancient Rome, including the fascist era that proposed it as a national emblem, and the city mayors that have tried to participate in history through this monument. The day of the new museum’s opening, Walter Veltroni presented Meier’s work as a symbol of contemporary beauty and a legacy for future generations: "A city where one can walk from Bernini to Michelangelo, from Giulio Cesare to Richard Meier, this is what we want to protect: the dual identity in which there is no contradiction between past beauty and present beauty."(18) It is most likely the attention it receives that maintains its relevance, and, much more than standing as a ruin, it becomes heritage.



1. The Abu Simbel Complex (1279-1213 BC) is formed by two temples excavated from stone situated on the banks of the Nile to the south of current Egypt, very close to the border with Sudan. The temple were discovered by the Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, and excavated by his collegue, Giovanni Belzoni in 1817. In 1899 the British began the construction of the Asuan Dam, finishing in 1902. The engineering work had to be expanded in 19446 when with the project of a second dam 8 kilometers upriver creating an enormous lake (Nasser) that submerged a large quantity of Ancient Egyptian heritage with the Temples of Abu Simbel included. To save the principal monuments located to the south of the dam, a commission of Unesco experts began to form rescue plans. The decision was made to move the temples, disassembled piece by piece, to be rebuilt on new sites from from the rising waters. This was the case of Abu Simbel and the Sanctuary of Isis in Philae.

2. The collection was taken to Great Britain by Thomas Bruce (Count of Elgin) between 1801 and 1805, who was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Athens. The marbles have been on display in the British Museum since 1939.

3. A long period of peace imposed by the Roman Empire in the time of Augustus over all conquered territories.

4. The date that coincides with Livia’s birthday, wife of the Emperord.

5. In Gaio Svetonio Tranquillo. Le Vite dei dodici Cesari. Second Century AD.

6. Here appears representations of the Emperor Augustus with his family, friends, magistrates and senators: Agrippa, Giulia, the daughter, or Livia, his wife, along with Tiberius, Livia’s son, Gaio Cesare, Lucio Cesare and his adopted children.

7. Plinio il Vecchio (ca. 100-59 BC.), in his Storia Naturale (Libro XXXVI, Capitolo XIV), recounts the existence of the solar clock in the form of the obelisk commissioned by Augustus in the Campus Martius.

8. Agostino dei Musi, called The Venetian. Engraving Panel of Ornament with Acanthus and a Swan, circa 1530-1535. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin.

9. The International Athens Charter of 1931 recommends the "judicious employment of all the resources of modern technique especially reinforced concrete" (art. 5).

10. To follow the media controversy see:

11. See:

12. Project won by the group directed by Francesco Cellini in 2006.

13. Interview of Alemanno in La Repubblica. Vitale, Giovanna. "Ara Pacis, terraza sul porto di Ripetta". January 15, 2009.

14. Vittorio Vidottoda "Quel Dibattito tra Antico e Moderno" Il Messaggero del 22.04.06.

15. The author considers that because Rome has become an object of scientific investigation it has ceases to be contemporary and lost its present. (Purini, 2000).

16. For example, in the Temple of Zeus, Agrigento, which was completely destroyed, a corner of the altar was conserved, maintaining the blocks as they fell from the effect of an earthquake; the same occurred with the Ruskin-inspired proposal of restoring the Coliseum by Raffaele Stern in 1806 which to consolidate the wall decides to fix the stone blocks that fell during an earthquake.

17. La Rocca, Eugenio. "Introduzione alla guida scritta da Moretti Giuseppe" See: (Moretti, 2007). La Rocca is also author of Ara Pacis Augustae. In occasione del restauro della fronte orientale, L’Erma di Bretschneider, Rome, 1983 (with Vivian Ruesch and Bruno Zanardi).

18. Interview with the Mayor of Rome for the museum’s inauguration. Francesca Mariani "La Teca Di Meier Celebrata Negli Usa" in Il Tempo from 25.04.06.



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DIONE, Cassio. Storia romana, a cura di Alessandro Stroppa (Milán: BUR, 1995)        [ Links ]

HAUSER, Arnold. Historia Social de la Literatura y el Arte (Barcelona: Debate, 2003)        [ Links ]

MORETTI, Giuseppe. Ara Pacis Augustae (Roma: La Librería dello Stato, 1948).         [ Links ]

MORETTI, Giuseppe. L’ara Pacis Avgvstae (Roma: Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato, 2007).

PETERSEN , Eugen Adolf Hermann. Ara Pacis Augustae (Wien: A. Hölder, 1902).         [ Links ]

PURINI, Franco. «Un’attualitá perduta». En: TóΠoΣ e Progetto: Il recupero del senso (Roma: Fratelli Palombi Editori, 2000).

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1. Elvira Pérez | Architect, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2003. Master of Architecture, Storia, Progetto. Universitá degli Studi RomaTre, Italia, 2009. Doctor (C) in Architecture and Urban Studies, FADEU, UC. Diploma in Documentation and Management of Heritage in Chile, Heritage Center UC, 2009. Diploma of Art Studies with a mention in Photography, School of Art UC, 2004. Assistant Professor School of Architecture UC. Her academic work is focused around architectural and urban heritage. She is currently the Director of the program of Cultural Heritage UC.

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