Conquering the Lonely Planet Rome List: Ara Pacis and Mausoleum of Augustus

Between my weekends away, holidays, and work I’m a bit behind on posting about my various attempts at whittling down the Lonely Planet Rome list. For those of you who don’t remember, I looked through the 2012 edition of Lonely Planet Italy, made a list of all the major sites in the “Rome” section– there are 80– and then figured out the ones I hadn’t been to: 26 in total. I’ve been slowly making my way through the list and the other week I finally went to a sight that most people visit on their first trip to Rome: the Ara Pacis. The Mausoleum of Augustus is right next door, so I threw that one in for kicks.

the fancy Richard Meier building that holds the Ara Pacis

I know, I know, I’m a few years late to the Ara Pacis party, but I have a good reason. I did try to to go on my very first trip to Rome. I remember the experience distinctly, because it was lousy: It was raining, I didn’t have an umbrella, and I found myself wandering around near the Ara Pacis. I thought: “about time to see that lovely old altar of peace,” so I wrung out my hair, marched drippily into one of the most architecturally forward structures in Rome and proudly asked at the desk in my most faltering italian for “un biglietto, per favore” holding out my 20euro note. “Do you have change?” the ticket seller asked me; I didn’t, that 20euro was the only cash I had on me, and it seemed a perfectly reasonable banknote to use for the 10euro admission price. “No,” I said. “Sorry,” the ticket seller said, and I turned, stunned to wander back into the rain without gaining access to the museum despite having the money to pay the admission fee.

I swear you can see the corner of the altar in this photo

In the two subsequent trips to Rome I made since then I made a dedicated point to not visit the Ara Pacis. While that level of rudeness is certainly not the norm, I was so put off by the experience, that I didn’t want to return, despite the major-ness of the destination. I finally decide though, now, now I can go. One of the perks of the grant I’m on is that I get an access card that allows me into most museums (but not all) for free. I crossed my fingers that the card would work here, and luckily it did.

The Ara Pacis is beautiful; and when, when, when do you get to actually stand inside an altar, like you can there? It’s so elegant, though part of that appearance is misleading since the pristine white marble would have originally been painted in lively colors. It also occurred to me how strange it must be, to be a guard at the Ara Pacis museum; while I was there, there were three guards who were just chatting the whole time while standing on the first few steps of the altar. Let me repeat: they were having their mundane, quotidian discussions about soccer, their families, their work annoyances, whatever, while standing on the lower steps of a 2000-thousand-year-old altar to peace, that is one of the most significant pieces of their cultural patrimony. I can’t think of an American equivalent– maybe having a coffee while leaning against the Liberty Bell?? It still astonishes me on a regular basis how Italians, Romans particularly, can live so seamlessly amongst the tangible relics of so much history. I wonder if they feel the weight of it all; I wonder if the current economic crisi makes their enormous history that much heavier? How does that affect the Roman psyche, to see the remnants of past glory so casually strew around? Is it inspiring or oppressive?


Right next to the Ara Pacis is the Mausoleum of Augustus. When I first read about the Mausoleum, when I was making my list, I thought to myself, “How have I never even heard about this before??” But then when I saw it, I understood. It’s not really a sight to see, not really an attraction meant for visitors. It’s a construction site in the middle of a fascist piazza, not the most impressive vista that Rome has to offer:


The Mausoleum is a pretty impressive mound in the middle, and it’s gigantic, but because of the excavations, or restorations, or whatever they are exactly, surrounding the whole thing, it’s not really much of an attraction. What I did find interesting was the piazza surrounding it. They were seemingly government/bureaucracy buildings built in the fascist era, architecture that is particularly marked by it’s reliance on regular geometric lines, rectangles, squares, and plain, light-colored stone; it’s really quite distinctive, once you know what to look for with fascist architecture, you start noticing it everywhere. And on one of these buildings was this:

also interesting?

The words say: “The Italian people are the immortal people that always find a springtime for their hopes, for their passions, for their greatness.” A quick google search indicates that those lines are a quote from a speech Mussolini gave in 1923. Seemingly the weight of Italian greatness is not a new concern…



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