Restored Mausoleum of August opens in March

On March 1st, 2021, the Mausoleum of Augustus will open to the public again after 14 years of closure, decades more of neglect and centuries of assorted mutilations. Visitors will have to reserve their slots online (advanced bookings can be made starting Monday) and entry will be free until April 21st, Rome’s birthday. For residents of Rome, entry will free for all of 2021. Starting April 21st, visitors will enjoy new VR content added to the tour. If it’s anything like as good as the VR experience at the Domus Aurea, that will definitely be worth waiting for, particularly since so much of the ancient structure and contents are lost.

At 295 feet in diameter, Augustus’ Mausoleum was then and is still today the largest circular tomb in the world. More than 135 feet high at its peak, it towered over the Campus Martius, even eclipsing the height of the nearby Pincian Hill. It was the first dynastic tomb in Rome and the only one until Hadrian copied his predecessor and built what is now the iconic Castel Sant’Angelo.

Augustus buried a lot of his family in the new tomb before his remains joined them in 14 A.D. Claudius was the last of the Julian-Claudian emperors buried there in 54 A.D. The last emperor whose remains were honored with inclusion in Augustus’ mausoleum was Nerva in 98 A.D. (Vespasian was in there for a second but only temporarily.) The tomb was one of Rome’s most important landmarks until it was looted in 410 A.D. when the Visigoths sacked Rome.

In the centuries after that it was stripped, fortified, burned, excavated, landscaped, converted into an arena for animal fights and a theater for Rome’s orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini. Mussolini tore all of that down in the misguided attempt to return the mausoleum to its original state, only of course he didn’t know what he was doing and ended up damaging it far more than the Visigoths and buffalo fights ever did. By the 70s it was so structurally unsound that it had to be closed off and the piazza was used as a bus terminus.

As ever in Rome, plans for restoration were bandied about for years before they finally became reality in 2017. At that time the projected completion date was 2019. That came and went. Then this year did the thing this year did, so really it’s something of a miracle that the Mausoleum of Augustus will open in early 2021. The last step the city has to take to complete the plan for the piazza is to move the bus terminus elsewhere. Once that’s done, Piazzale Augusto Imperatore will be pedestrian only and Augustus’ tomb and the Ara Pacis next to it will be a comfy stroll.

The mausoleum website has a misnamed “virtual experience” that will have to do for the rest of us right now. It’s the history of the tomb arranged in chapters against the backdrop of a few barely-animated models of the mausoleum at different times in its history. The content can be accessed by dragging your mouse around a lot or via menu in the upper left of the screen and dragging your mouse around a little. Within the chapters you can navigate using the Previous and Next buttons.

Chapter 1 is a truncated mini-bio of Augustus with brief blurbs about his childhood, his adoption by Julius Caesar and the appearance of a comet considered a portent of Caesar’s divinity. Chapter 2 is about the construction of the mausoleum. It’s short on detail, but it does effectively explain how Augustus started work on it when he was just 30 years old in the wake of his victory over Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium. It was a declaration of Augustus’ undying loyalty to Rome, in contrast to Antony’s final direction in his will that he be buried with Cleopatra in Alexandria.

Highlights of the rest of the “experience” are Chapter 3 about how the tomb and Ara Pacis defined this area of the Campus Martius in the Imperial era, Chapter 7 which covers the wrongs done to it in the Middle Ages (eg, Tiberius’ urn was used as a water bucket by monks), Chapter 9 about its conversion into an arena, and Chapter 11 about its transformation into an Art Nouveau theater in the early 20th century. There are a couple of great photographs of its interior that I had never seen before.

2 thoughts on “Restored Mausoleum of August opens in March

  1. I wonder if in the tomb by 1527 there was anything left for looting.


    A disciplined mercenary army with experience, self-confidence and good leadership proved far superior to all other troops. With mercenaries, the sovereigns subdued their rebellious nobility and made themselves independent of feudal succession. The downside was that mercenaries had to be paid regularly. If this did not happen, they deserted, defected to the enemy, looted and mutated into bands of brigands.

    The Sacco di Roma occurred when Habsburg once again waged war in Italy against France and the Pope in 1526. The silver from America and the credits had just been enough to gather a strong army mainly of Spanish mercenaries and mercenaries in northern Italy. When, after hard, heavy fighting, the pay kept failing, the mercenaries began to mutiny. Charles de Bourbon, under whose command the Spaniards were, and Georg von Frundsberg, the leader of the mercenaries, tried with ever new promises, borrowed from allied Italian princes, but could not raise the pay for the more than 30,000 men. When during one confrontation his servants even threateningly raised their arms against him, Frundsberg was struck by a blow and had to travel home seriously ill and a broken man.

    Charles de Bourbon orders the attack on Rome Bourbon and the other sub-leaders, who by now had completely lost control of the troops, now saw the only way out as leading the army against Rome in order to extort an appropriate sum from the Pope there. Already on the march, the mercenaries plundered numerous small towns and countless villages and homesteads. But in the process, the greed for the real treasures that were supposed to be waiting for them in Rome increased. When the negotiations with the Pope failed before Rome, Bourbon ordered the storming of the weakly defended city. He himself fell in the attack and after that a surge of mercenaries, uncontrollable by anyone, poured into the city.

    For the account of the events we quote here from the book of the historian Ferdinand Gregorovius “History of the City of Rome” (1889). As a typical educated citizen of the 19th century, he is not only very familiar with the sources, but also has the appropriate language to describe the events better than we could today. One should only add that the Sacco di Roma was a much-publicized major event, a sacrilege. However, mercenaries have always behaved in a similar way, and often it hit a small peasant whose farm was burned down harder than a cardinal who lost his art treasures.

    The morning of May 7 revealed a sight too terrible for any words: the streets covered with rubble, with dead and dying; burning houses and churches, echoing with clamor; a ghastly bustle of robbery and flight; drunken war-servants burdened with booty or dragging away prisoners. Not only to plunder a conquered city, but to consider its entire people as fallen to the sword, was then the law of war. No mercenary would have understood that it was inhuman to treat defenseless citizens as war slaves. Whoever loved his life had to buy it. With the crudest simplicity, the knight Schertlin wrote in his records: “On the 6th day of May we took Rome by storm, beat 6,000 men to death in it, plundered the whole city, took what we found in all the churches and above ground, burned a good part of the city.”

    Nothing and no one was spared. The houses of Spaniards and Germans were plundered like those of the Romans. In many palaces of the imperial minded people of every rank had taken refuge, by hundreds and more. The Spaniards broke them open, looted or pillaged them. This happened on the very first night with the palace of the Marquis of Mantua and that of the Portuguese envoy, where a booty of 500,000 ducats was made, if this is credible […]

    A tower at the Capitol was blown up. In Campo Marzo, the palace of Lomellina defended itself; the soldiers stormed it; fleeing, the owner let herself down on a rope into the courtyard; she was shot with shotgun pellets. The richest booty came from churches and monasteries, both their own property and that which had fled there. They were all plundered; not even the “Anima”, the national church of the Germans, was spared, nor St. James on the Navona, the national church of the Spaniards, where Bourbon’s body was laid. S. Maria del Popolo was immediately completely emptied, and the monks there were massacred. The nunneries of Santa Maria in Campo Marzo, S. Silvestro and the one on Monte Citorio were filled with nameless horrors. Where poor convents were broken into, the deception was avenged with outrageous fury. One must imagine the quantity of precious church utensils in the sacristies of Rome to comprehend the mass of the booty: all this was looted, destroyed and desecrated.

    The heads of the Apostles in the Lateran, the head of St. Andrew in St. Peter’s and that of St. John in S. Silvestro shared the same fate. The so-called sacred spearhead was attached to his own spear by a German warrior servant; the cloth of Veronica passed through a thousand hands and all the taverns of Rome. The great cross of Constantine from St. Peter’s was dragged through the Borgo and then lost. The Germans kept some relics as souvenirs, and the most ridiculous loot was probably the thick and twelve feet long rope with which Judas had hanged himself. Schertlin took it with him from St. Peter’s to his homeland.

    Rome’s holiest chapel, Sancta Sanctorum, was also looted. The Spaniards plundered the tombs In St. Peter’s the Saracens had once not been worse. The Spaniards even ransacked the tombs here, even the tomb of Peter, as the Moors had once done. Julius II was plundered in his coffin. The dead Sixtus IV was protected only by the solidity of his bronze tomb.

    People played dice on the high altars, they caroused with prostitutes from goblets. In the side aisles and chapels, as in the Vatican Palace, horses were employed. Bulls or manuscripts that humanist popes had once collected served as litter. Only with difficulty did Orange save the Vatican Library, since he had taken up residence in the palace.

    The streets were seen strewn with scraps of writings and registers of papal chanceries. Many archives in convents and palaces perished, creating an irreplaceable loss for the history of the city of Rome in the Middle Ages. The lack of documents in the Capitol archives is explained today only by this looting. Works of art were also lost. The Flanders tapestries of Raphael were looted and sold, the beautiful stained glass windows of William of Marcillat were smashed.

    Senseless national hatred, of course, imputed to the Landsknechts what they never committed. Not even the smoke of torches of the soldiers blackened the frescoes of Raphael, and the spiteful accusation that the Germans wantonly smashed the most beautiful statues is refuted by the persistence of all the masterpieces of antiquity and the Renaissance that existed at that time. After the first three days, the Prince of Orange issued a prohibition against further plundering; all troops were to withdraw to the Borgo and Trastevere; but no one obeyed him. They continued to drag away prisoners, they plundered all the houses except the poorest dwelling of the water carrier. The country folk from the Colonna’s estates also entered the city, where they were harvesting their crops in the footsteps of the warrior servants. Pierluigi Farnese, an epigone of Cesare Borgia, the ghastly bastard of the cardinal who was later to make him great as pope, grabbed greedily at Rome. He had joined the imperial party out of rapacity. With a booty estimated at 25,000 ducats, he departed from Rome to the Patrimony to recover it in a fort belonging to his family. The people of Gallese, however, plundered this caravan.

    For eight days the palaces of Cardinals Valle, Cesarini, Enkevoirt and Siena were spared because they had taken in Spanish captains and paid 35,000 and more ducats each for them. But when the lansquenets saw that the Spaniards had seized the best houses, they went into a rage; for four hours they stormed the palace of Siena, ransacked it, captured everything in it, and dragged Cardinal Piccolomini away with them to the Borgo. Then the other three cardinals escaped to Pompeo’s palace, whereupon the lansquenets also broke into their apartments. The booty of the Valle house was estimated at 200,000 ducats, that of Cesarini at the same amount, the value of the Enkevoirt palace at 150,000, to which the ransom for the prisoners had to be added. …

  2. The “virtual experience” is not that user friendly but I found it quite interesting overall. What struck me though was that the timeline seems to completely ignore the 5th century and iconic sack by Alaric where presumably the juiciest bits of contents were carted away to Calabria or wherever. Odd!

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