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‘Her­itage is not just about the jewels in the crown. Con­text mat­ters

THE Mau­soleum of Au­gus­tus is among the great­est mon­u­ments of An­cient Rome, built in 28BC on a colos­sal scale—nearly 300ft across—equalled only by the later Mau­soleum of Hadrian, which sub­se­quently turned into the Pa­pal fortress of Cas­tel Sant’an­gelo. It fell into ru­ina­tion in the Mid­dle Ages and, at var­i­ous stages, served as an arena for bull­fights and cir­cuses. In the 1930s, the build­ings hud­dled around it were de­stroyed to make way for a grand bit of Fas­cist ur­ban plan­ning and the di­lap­i­dated mau­soleum was left stranded in the mid­dle of the Pi­azza Au­gusta Im­pe­ri­ale.

It ac­quired a some­what in­con­gru­ous neigh­bour in 2006 when the Ara Pacis mu­seum, de­signed to pro­vide a home for the Au­gus­tan al­tar of peace, opened in a harshly modern build­ing de­signed by Richard Meier. Such ‘star­chi­tec­ture’ only em­pha­sised the mau­soleum’s ne­glect. Sur­rounded by tem­po­rary fenc­ing, it made an ex­cel­lent home for le­gions of Ro­man street cats, but hardly added much lus­tre to the Eter­nal City.

Some­what iron­i­cally, the ori­gins of the ‘con­ser­va­tion move­ment’ can be found in the reign of Au­gus­tus, when ef­forts be­gan to be made to pre­serve im­por­tant shrines of ‘An­cient Rome’ as re­counted in David Kar­mon’s book The Ruin of the Eter­nal City.

At last, restora­tion work has be­gun, aimed at restor­ing ‘vis­i­bil­ity and vis­itabil­ity’, in the words of the press re­lease, to the mon­u­ment. This is thanks to a €6 mil­lion con­tri­bu­tion from TIM, the Ital­ian mo­bile­phone com­pany to whom Athena raises a cel­e­bra­tory kylix of chilled retsina. Such brand name funded restora­tions have be­come a fea­ture of the Ital­ian her­itage scene: Tod’s, the maker of fash­ion­able driv­ing shoes, has been bankrolling the Colos­seum, Bul­gari cleaned the Span­ish Steps and Fendi re­cently shelled out big time to beau­ti­fully re­store the Trevi Foun­tain.

This cor­po­rate her­itage phi­lan­thropy is not with­out its crit­ics. Venice in par­tic­u­lar tends to shroud many of its works in progress un­der huge ad­ver­tis­ing hoard­ings, which, while pay­ing for vi­tal con­ser­va­tion, are a blot on the cityscape. Writ­ing in the New

York Times re­cently, Frank Bruni noted that ‘only the most fa­mous land­marks get face-lifts be­cause they gen­er­ate the pub­lic­ity that donors want. In­come in­equal­ity: the mon­u­men­tal ver­sion’.

Cor­po­rate gen­eros­ity is wel­come for al­most any rea­son—and we could use more of it in this coun­try—but her­itage, if it is to make a con­tri­bu­tion to our qual­ity of life, is not just about the jewels in the crown. Con­text mat­ters. The ev­ery­day her­itage of horse troughs, mod­est ter­raced houses and lo­cal li­braries will never cast come-hither looks at the multi­na­tion­als, yet it mat­ters a great deal.

We are so lucky to have the Her­itage Lot­tery Fund, but greater ef­forts must be made, per­haps by the new govern­ment, to cre­ate a more be­nign frame­work to en­sure that the her­itage all around us is nur­tured. Time to look again at VAT re­form?

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