Following recent runoff elections, Rome’s new mayor Gianni Alemanno declared his intention to dismantle the 2006 Richard Meier marble-and-glass sanctuary around the Ara Pacis, an altar dedicated by the emperor Augustus in 9 B.C.E. As one of the first postwar modern buildings to be built within the walls of the city’s ancient center, the new structure has been highly controversial from the start and was even referred to as a “gas station” by the art critic and one-time undersecretary of Italian culture Vittorio Sgarbi. Many criticized the way Meier—a Rome Academy fellow from 1976—was awarded the commission without a competition by then-mayor Walter Veltroni. Others simply objected to what they saw as its heavy-handedness.
The site, which sits alongside the Tiber River, was first reshaped by Benito Mussolini when he removed the famed Santa Cecilia concert hall from the Augustian tomb on which it stood. Mussolini capped the area’s arcaded reconstruction with the Ara Pacis, moving it from another site nearby. Mussolini’s ghost may be present still, because the night that Alemanno—the first right-wing politician to take the mayoralty in 30 years—won the election, scores of young men were seen throughout the city chanting “Duce!” Could it be that Alemanno’s real goal is to cleanse this immensely important space of the only thing not introduced by Mussolini into the current setting?