‘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?