If the essence of architecture – its intrinsic and determining constituent – is empty space, every man has experienced an archetypal feeling when visiting the Pantheon. Confined in an immense space, we can never embrace its entirety. Ignorant but curious, we marvel at how such a great dome can stand. Questions whose answers lie in subtle ploys: secrets buried within the structure and the material.
The fame of the ‘Roman Cyclops’ still lies in its architectural genius, never yet been equalled. Trapped in the narrow streets of Rome, the Pantheon may have lost its power but not its charm and mystery. Legends and taboos together with mathematical and philosophical symbols mingle under the self-supporting concrete dome and beneath the alerted eye.
To receive everlasting fame, a hint of fortune and wit is necessary: qualities that are not lacking in this building. The Pantheon’s almost spontaneous conversion to Catholicism made it receive grace. With a little indulgence, all past sins have been forgiven: a small price to pay to remain intact.
The interior atmosphere of the church-temple strikes us immediately. We oscillate between light and shadow, astonishment and disbelief, illusion and reality. An intangible light descending from unfathomable heights, invades the space and dazzles us. During sunny days, we are led to confusion: the innate generosity of the sky seems to have given the Cyclops the much-desired second eye.
Too narrow sighted to appreciate the dome in its whole, the only option is to sit down, look up and slowly analyse this space.
The Ara Pacis was and is an altar to the greatness of Rome, an altar of ideals and hopes. Forgotten but rediscovered. Rebuilt but eradicated. Idolised but caged. Now it sits imprisoned behind white bars, while the citizens invoke freedom for it. Criticism resonates from every part of the capital, loud and clear not unlike most Italians.
The first disputed element is the appointment of an American architect: Richard Meier. The second – subsequent to the first – is a more modern box that surrounds and over shades the first. The third is the fussy taste of the boot’s inhabitants for everything that is not marked as Italian style or Made in Italy.
The result of this senseless equation is that the citizens of Rome do not appreciate the Ara Pacis Museum and do not accept that this is the perfect building to preserve the altar of Augustus. After all, every important gift has an equally beautiful package.
With its sharp edges and pure forms, the Ara Pacis Museum succeeds in its role as a container to something greater. Crisp, regular, functional it is made to enhance its content, also visible from outside through the large rectangular windows. The materials are also in perfect agreement: white and cream dominate among marble, plaster and travertine, allowing the spotlight to be on the ancient roman ruin.
The simplicity of its structure resembles that of the altar: as the largest matryoshka protects the smaller one, the modern building protects the old one. The architect simply had the problem of harmonious containment, as the outer parallelepiped is perpendicular to the inner one.
It seems almost impossible that the Ara Pacis Museum is not appreciated given the careful and innovative, but above all respectful design. Using new technologies and materials, the building is an open shell not afraid to make its pearl shine.
Even the ancient Romans would agree: they were always at the forefront!