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The discovery of the Ara Pacis Augustae in Rome

lostcivilizations's profile picture
Published in 
 · 20 Nov 2023

The discovery of the Ara Pacis takes place over a span of nearly four centuries.

In 1568, nine large marble blocks carved on both sides were found under the Peretti Palace in Rome. Assuming their belonging to a Domitian arch, the blocks were purchased on behalf of the Grand Duke of Tuscany and for the most part transferred to Florence, after being sawn in the sense of thickness to facilitate transportation and display.

Not all of the fragments followed such linear and documented routes, however:

  • one large figured fragment ended up in the Louvre, where it still stands today;
  • a second fragment is now in the Vatican Museums;
  • almost all of the fragments decorated with festoons were walled up in the facade of the Villa Medici at the Pincio, where they are still today.

The Horologium Augusti
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The Horologium Augusti

Three centuries later the Peretti palace, which had meanwhile passed to the duke of Fiano, required consolidation. During the work carried out at the beginning of 1859, the altar base and numerous other sculpted fragments were found. The new fragments remained in the Fiano palace until, in 1898, the duke sold them for a very favorable price to the Museo Nazionale Romano.

The following year it was discovered that a festooned tomb slab, placed on the floor of the Roman Jesus church and badly chiseled because it was too protruding, formed the other side of the slab present at the Vatican Museums.

Meanwhile, in 1879 Friedrich von Duhn was able to refer the set of findings precisely to the Ara Pacis Augustae.

Ara Pacis Augustae
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Ara Pacis Augustae

Shortly thereafter Eugen Petersen advanced the hypothesis of reconstruction of the Ara Pacis. Petersen himself in 1896 interested the Italian state in the matter and in 1903 presented a project for the recovery of all remaining fragments under Fiano Palace.

Unfortunately, the presence of water and dangers to the stability of the palace paused the work until February 1937, when the Council of Ministers decreed their resumption in view of the bimillenary of the birth of Augustus.

Soon excavation began, and on April 30, 1937, the relief with the procession of the Flamines came back to light. However, the difficulties to overcome remained great, as the Altar lay more than seven meters below the road level and a natural water source at a depth of five meters, prevented recovery by drawing water from the surrounding areas.

Fragments of the Ara Pacis Augustae have been discovered
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Fragments of the Ara Pacis Augustae have been discovered

A cutting-edge technique was then used: freezing the ground and creating an ice barrier that blocked water infiltration. At the same time, the foundations of the building were rebuilt using the system of demolition and reconstruction by blocks, after shoring up the building with a mighty concrete trestle placed under its outer corner. Finally, the recovery of the fragments and some slabs of the podium's outer facing was completed. The latter was left in the ground after its complete survey.

The reassembly was entrusted to Giuseppe Moretti and took place, thanks also to the consistent collaboration of Guglielmo Gatti, in the laboratories of the Museo Nazionale Romano: the Florentine slabs were recovered and reassembled, while casts were made of those in the Louvre, the Villa Medici and the Vatican Museums (the latter were later donated by Pius XII and relocated in the Altar).

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