The glass roof covering the Ara Pacis Augustae (the Altar of Augustan Peace) is leaking water over the marble monument built in 9 B.C. to celebrate Augustus’ military success in Hispania and Gaul. Torrential rains in Italy have caused major flooding and even loss of life in Sardinia, the region worst hit by downpours. The new roof, built in 2006, was unable to withstand the pressure and flooded the enclosure the night of Tuesday, November 19th. The night staff didn’t notice, leaving the water to accumulate until the next morning. The museum was closed for the day so conservators could drape the Altar with tarpaulins and mop and vacuum the water off the floor. It reopened on Thursday the 21st.
The enclosure that is supposed to be protecting the symbol of Augustus’victories has been a bone of contention from the beginning. Built in 2006, the airy glass structure was designed by eminent American architect Richard Meier, designer of the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the High Museum in Atlanta. Its modernist design was controversial as many felt it was not in keeping with the classical and Fascist neo-classical architecture of the historic center. Francesco Rutelli, the center-left mayor of Rome when the designs were first proposed in 2000, strongly endorsed Meier’s vision, believing there was room in the ancient and baroque downtown for modernist structures as well.
Advocates of the new museum pointed to the deplorable condition of the previous roof, built in 1938 by architect Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo, as requiring immediate intervention to prevent exposing the Altar, which had only been completely excavated a year earlier, to the elements. Some think reports of the old Fascist-era enclosure’s dire condition may have been overstated at the time because Rutelli was so keen to have a world-class modernist piece in Rome. The irony is strong here, since Morpurgo’s building lasted 68 years without anybody needing to cover the Ara Pacis with a tarp to protect it from a downpour. After the museum was constructed, center-right mayor Gianni Alemanno (elected in 2008), threatened to tear the whole thing down, an obviously empty threat that never went anywhere.
An aide of Meier’s flew to Rome to determine why the roof leaked. His assessment was that leak was caused by a failure to perform necessary maintenance. If that’s so, then that was a design flaw too because seven-year-old roofs shouldn’t need a lot of maintenance to keep the water out.
On a completely unrelated note, Happy Thanksgiving, USers! I’m going to give thanks for that 30-year warranty on my roof.