Monday, November 10, 2008

Peace memorial

Via Corsini, Rome, Nov. 9—

Richard Meier's building for the Ara Pacis

UPTOWN TODAY — I always think of upstream in Rome, toward the Piazza del Popolo, as "uptown", I don't quite know why — to see the first new building in central Rome in eighty years, or something like that: to my taste rather a nondescript flatroofed boxy thing of glass and concrete, next to the Tiber; set on a plaza and backed by a handsome travertine wall down which water sheets into a gutter leading to a clichéd square pool with four rows of four vertical jets. Some like this; I find it a little unsettling — it refers to Rome, of course, with her fountains and piazzas; but it's unlike anything else here, yet insufficiently arresting to justify its irrelevance.

Oh well: this container is interesting for the thing contained, the Ara Pacis as it's called — in fact not the Altar of Peace, apparently never found, but the cube of a roofless building that enclosed it. The Ara Pacis was erected a couple of thousand years ago to commemorate the Roman pacification of Spain and Gaul, as I understand it: I have no idea what the altar looked like, but its enclosure, say thirty feet square and nine or ten high (I'm guessing), is a thing well worth seeing, even worth commissioning a nondescript new building to protect.

Inside Meier's museum the first thing you notice is a scale model of the supposed original spatial context, very different from today's. The Tiber makes the same bend, but only three buildings are to be seen on the huge expanse that was then the champs-de-Mars, the training ground for young soldiers: the Pantheon, built in 27 BCE by Augustus Caesar's son-in-law Agrippa; Augustus's mausoleum, which he himself had built at about the same time; and, midway between them but considerably east of their axis, the Ara Pacis, dedicated eighteen years later. (Between the Ara Pacis and the center axis was an horarium, a paved rectangle serving as sundial whose gnomon was an obelisk.)

Reconstruction of the Campo Marzio, 9 BCE: at left, Augustus's Mausoleum; right, Pantheon; center distance, Ara Pacis beyond Horarium

Two things are immediately striking about this: first, the apparent emptiness of the zone, given more to Nature than to architecture; second, the location of the Ara Pacis, away from the river and oriented toward the sun — an orientation underlined by the Horarium, designed so that the gnomon's shadow will fall on the Altar at noon on the equinox, as I understand it.
The deliberate mirroring of the Pantheon, celebrating all the gods, and the Mausoleum, celebrating Augustus Caesar, is unmistakable. I think, too, that the openness of the plan, all that empty grassy field between, reinforces a sensibility that must have been oriented more toward Nature and her spaces, less to the city-dwelling system of "development" and its complex economic, political, and technological structures.
Augustus was passed off as a god himself, descended from Apollo: after the experiment of the Roman Republic failed it took divine intervention to restore a degree of order and impose a degree of "peace" on society. It must have been important for him to have been seen as something apart from the mass of humanity in the city that had built up to the south, in the harbor and the forum and the apartments and villas surrounding the Capitoline hill.

WELL, YOU CAN'T put things back as they were two millenia ago, and I suppose this new installation of what's left of the Ara Pacis is a good thing, though the point of the original setting is largely lost, and the Ara itself is missing, and its original enclosure turned 180 degrees from what was intended as I understand it. The fragments that have turned up so far are set into a concrete wall reconstructing the size and shape of the original; missing figures from the bas-relief sculptures are indicated in two dimensions; the entire surround is placed high on a podium. Walking up those steps and entering the enclosure is a solemn kind of experience, quite like entering the Pantheon.
There are plenty of explanatory panels, in Italian and English, identifying the figures in the reliefs, which portray a kind of parade celebrating the peace Augustus has imposed on those distant colonies. Considerable light falls from all sides, thanks to Meier's glass curtain walls. The sculpture itself is intensely interesting, both for its intrinsic qualities and for its historical significance. (It's hard to think of it colored, though, as it must have been when new; but that's a subject for another day.)

From the sublime to the ridiculous: We left the Ara Pacis and headed for the Spanish Steps, with the usual Sunday crowds jamming the streets. It was the hour of the passaggiata, that slow amble Italians and other latins, I think) love to take on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Something was heightening the effect, though, and as we neared the Corso we heard a marching band just stepping out of sight toward the Piazza del Populo, enthusiastic children marching along behind it; and then here flew nine fighter-jets low overhead, right up the airspace over the Corso, red, white, and green smoke trailing behind them to lay the national colors out across Apollo's sky. We've largely lost the Augustan context, but human nature continues to respond to his instincts. I suppose it always will.

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