The ruins as museum of the place’s palimpsest. The ABDR’s project for the Mausoleum of Augustus*.

Rachele Lomurno

Archeological places in the stratified mediterranean cities

What is the Mediterranean? A thousand things together. Not a landscape, but countless landscapes. Not a sea, but a succession of seas. Not a civilization, but a series of civilizations stacked on each other, in short, an ancient crossroads. For thousands of years everything has flown in it, complicating and enriching its history: pack animals, cars, goods, ships, ideas, religions, ways of living (Braudel 2008, p.43).

The foundation of the cities we live in, European ones and in particular those of the Mediterranean, dates back to very ancient times. The morphological and spatial richness recognizable in them is due to their formation through subsequent stratifications over the centuries. Their slow process of composition is comparable to that of a text not simply enlarged, but also and above all rewritten over time.
This complex order of relationships clearly emerges within the archaeological areas. There, the palimpsest of the city is revealed through the practice of stratigraphic excavation. The archaeology practiced within the cities «inhabited continuously over time» is characterized by a different approach from the one used for abandoned cities, whose excavation strategies are closer to those used for investigating rural settlements (Gelichi 2002, p.61). The excavation areas are configured not only as places for archaeological researches and, sometimes, restoration laboratories, but also as real "open-air museums", containers of ruins that tell of the past of the city in which they are located and its uninterrupted continuity of life.    
Once re-emerged, however, the ruins, although remembering times different from ours, are not able by themselves to return the greatness of the past orders they refer to, risking to become incomprehensible and meaningless fragments even in the eyes of the most experts. The condition of “alienation” of the remains produces not only a loss of meaning of the ruins but also a loss of quality of the urban space in which they are located, a space they cannot establish good formal relationships with.
 The order of complexity posed by the places of the Ancient within the urban plot therefore inevitably makes them a meeting place for different disciplines such as archeology, architecture and museography.
Some significant project experiences of the contemporary architecture practice show how the synergy between the disciplines involved in the enhancement process can produce urban spaces with quality, where new and old can not only harmoniously coexist but mutually reinforce their meaning.
The project of the roman architecture studio ABDR, proposed on the occasion of the 2006 international consultation for the Mausoleum of Augustus and Piazza Augusto Imperatore, banned by the municipality of Rome, has to be included in this category. The project establishes a new order between the different stratifications recorded by the monument, making them re-emerge and legible. The archaeological ruin regains a contemporary sense, becoming itself a museum of the complex palimpsest of the place.

Rome “palimpsest” city
There is no need to remember that all these remains of ancient Rome are scattered in the tangle of a large city built in recent centuries, from the Renaissance onwards. Something ancient is undoubtedly still buried in the soil of the city or under its modern buildings. This is the way in which the conservation of the past presents itself to us in historical places like Rome (Freud 1978, p.562).
In his analogy between the psyche and the Eternal City, Sigmund Freud intends to emphasize how, through the work of psychoanalysis, a person's unconscious and lived experiences become visible again in the present. Likewise, traces of ancient Rome are made visible in the present time through excavation. Freud's intuition on the psychic, rather than physical, nature of Rome is an example of the extraordinary condition of this city, where the contemporary forma urbis coexists with something that has apparently disappeared but actually continues to exist.
Rome, like most southern italian cities, owes its beauty and morphological complexity to its development as the result of long and continuous stratifications. In every age it was built from time to time on itself and its plan proposes an image composed by the juxtaposition of parts that respond to different settlement logics.

The plan of ancient Rome by Rodolfo Lanciani, which summarizes its main transformation phases, from the ancient city to the medieval and Renaissance ones, up to Rome in the late nineteenth century, a few years after its annexation to the Kingdom of Italy, clarly shows the richness of the stratification of the Capital and the coexistence of traces and rewrites of different eras. In this sense, the condition of Rome and more specifically of the roman places where the ruin occurs, is almost everywhere referable to that of the palimpsest (from the greek πάλιν + ψηστός, scraped again): a place that had a interpretation set in an ancient form and which has seen further interpretations, at different times, which have changed relationships, features and forms, sometimes even in a conflictual or contradictory way. It is difficult to recognize for these places a condition defined within a single formal paradigm. The effective metaphor allows us to express the extraordinary condition that characterized the beauty of Rome and made possible its long history. Paradigmatic places such as Piazza Navona, Piazza Augusto Imperatore, the Valle del Velabro, have recorded urban transformations over the centuries, recording traces that have preserved until present.

The metamorphoses of the Mausoleum of Augustus
Born as a large isolated monumental reference in the center of Campo Marzio and conceived as a burial and veneration place for the Emperor and Gens Iulia, the Mausoleum of Augustus has acquired, over the centuries, always different uses and meanings, being gradually absorbed by the urban fabric. Throughout history, the monument has overlapped several ideas of cities without interruption, until the fascist era when the millennial cycle of its uses was violently interrupted.
The great sepulcher was started in 28 BC by Augustus as part of his ambitious new urban plans. It kept this first function until the burial of Nerva, looking as a large cylindrical building in a dominant position on the Tiber, capable of establishing relationships at distance with other monuments of the Campo Marzio, including the Pantheon and the solar clock of Augustus. The monument was composed by a series of concentric walls The first three were interspersed with a filling of earth and therefore totally inaccessible. The sepulchral cell was located in the center of the building, reachable through the long dromos which also gave access to the two annular corridors. Nothing remains today of the rich marble apparatus of the Mausoleum, first transformed into a stone quarry, called the limestone of Agosta, then into a medieval fort of the Colonna family. The whole area surrounding the monument remained the feud of this powerful family throughout the Middle Ages. Little remained of the monument, however, in the fifteenth century, as iconographic evidences show - for example Sebastian Munster's View of Rome or the one of Piero del Massaio - where the mausoleum is not represented or reduced only to a mound of earth. The monument lived one more major important phase of its long existence in the Renaissance, when it became the property of the wealthy Soderini family. After extensive renovations on the ruins, the building was transformed into a magnificent and unique italian roof garden, populated by a rich collection of ancient marbles. The Soderini garden soon became one of the most suggestive places in the city, frequented by artists and antiques dealers and reproduced in numerous engravings and drawings for over two centuries. In modern times the building lived a series of transformations in succession. At the end of the eighteenth century, entirely incorporated in the fabric of houses that covered almost entirely the extension of the ancient Campo Marzio, it was transformed into an arena for rudimentary bullfights; later, in 1908 it was adapted to a concert hall; finally, following the demolitions of the neighborhood and surrounding buildings during the Fascist period, it was recovered as an autonomous building, acquiring its present state of archaeological ruin. The ruin, damaged and almost illegible, is currently enclosed in a new fence made up of buildings that respect the canons of architecture of the fascist era, designed by the architect Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo. According to Antonio Munõz's design, the ruin is covered by three rows of cypresses and surrounded by inclined planes made up of plant masses of virgilian inspiration that connect the quote of the contemporary square with the ancient one. Denied the original relationship with the Tiber through the placement of the Ara Pacis and the construction of the glass case designed by Richard Meier for its protection, the ruin is nowadays1 compressed between the tall buildings of the fascist era, difficult to reach and completely isolated despite being physically in the center of the square.    

The ABDR project between Archeology Architecture and Museography
In the Mausoleum of Augustus area the critical issues of the place and its uniqueness, given by the richness of the palimpsest and the value of the buildings that coexist there, led in 2006 the Municipality of Rome to announce the International competition for the Mausoleum of Augustus and the square Augustus Emperor. The project presented by the roman studio ABDR, the subject of this paper, combines in an original way the voices of the many truths that are involved in the process of enhancing this rich heritage for the elaboration of a synthetic architectural project, which becomes an experimentation moment and active transformation for the whole part of the city.
The project starts from a clear point of view, which considers ruin as «treasure of accumulated memory and resource of perennial rebirth» (Venezia 2011, p.15). The ruins have a strong capacity to evoke the original form and other analogous forms and they also have a transformative value which leads us to consider them as “open” forms, available to new metamorphoses. Second assumption, but no less important, is the belief that conservation must coincide with the return and activation of contemporary uses. In the case of the Mausoleum, in fact, thanks to its millennial cycle of transformations and the series of different uses, even totally unrelated to the original one, the ancient artifact was handed down to the contemporary era.    

The “critical” musealization of the Mausoleum area
Considering the great complexity stated by the places of archeology, and specifically the area of the Mausoleum of Augustus, the principle of musealization, intended as “freezing” of the ruins and museographic project to support the visit, cannot be the only possible answer. In the ABDR project a “critical” musealization is proposed and the plurality of suggested interventions aim to recover and reintegrate the archaeological complex in the city, making it part of a wider urban transformation2.
The whole area of the Mausoleum can be considered an “open-air museum”, because many architectural presences coexist in it, in a historical sequence without interruption, linking the ancient with the contemporary, passing through the Baroque, the Neoclassical and the Modern. The idea is to transform this area into a lived-in urban place, where architectures of different times coexist harmoniously and, moreover, to transform the ruin of the imperial era into a museum. It is an almost natural choice because the very definition of museum is intimately linked to the double value of the ruins, to remember the past and, at the same time, to suggest transformations and new uses, becoming an expression of contemporary social and cultural values. The centrality of the building also recalls the circular halls of the nineteenth-century museums and represents, among the many transformations of uses of the monument, its formal invariant over the centuries. It is a particular type of museum, where the building is the protagonist of its own story, a container of memory but also the content. The transformed ruin becomes a device capable of revealing the multiplicity of truths of this important area of Rome.    

The new “stratified” museum    
  In order to enhance the monument, currently isolated and scarcely visible despite being in the center of the large piazza Augusto Imperatore, the project plans to physically bring the city closer to the Mausoleum. By aiming to a complete pedestrianization of the area, the edge of the city is brought closer to the monument and envelops it. The new crease at the height of the contemporary city is designed as a new urban place, of crossing and stopping, all around the circumference of the Mausoleum. Although the quote of the contemporary city is brought closer to the monument, there is no reduction of the archaeological space, which is instead expanded and configured as an underground and covered square. The new roof is supported by a system of punctual pillars that will follow and adapt to the process of excavation defining their position according to the possible findings.
After setting the limit of the excavation and the vertical connection systems with the quote of the contemporary city, the new museum is defined by layers, each of a different nature following its specific location inside the monument. The four parts of the museum are articulated so that the most important uses of the Mausoleum occurred during its two-thousand-year history are recalled. In order to combine the different disciplines involved, the paths frequented by visitors are always doubled and placed on different quotes from those of the archaeologists' work. In this way the archaeological excavation and restoration laboratory can coexist with the musealization programs.    

The first exhibition hall is located at the oldest level, the imperial one, and it is designed as a large underground and covered square. The traces of the walls of the ancient concamerations and the new design of the archaeological parterre commemorate the time when the Mausoleum of Augustus was built as the tomb of the emperor and his gens. The entrance to the monument corresponds with the original one and the excavation area is remodeled in a square form that remembers the imprint of the sacred marble enclosure that framed the Mausoleum. Furthermore, the same level, through the segmentation of the excavation wall, recalls the directions and paths of the medieval fabric. The “museum of the sepulcher of Augustus”, developed around the central cell, consists of two annular paths that alternately allow the presence of visitors and the activities of the archaeological laboratory. The project, pursuing the objective of establishing a new and renewed order between the different stratifications of the place, also creates a reconnection between the new archaeological square and the system of quays on the riverside, underpassing the driveway of the lungotevere and going out onto a new belvedere terrace, allowing, for a limited but significant portion, to bring back some steps of the important and buried Ripetta port. The new sepulchral space looks as a dark environment, catching the light only from above along the crack between the new roof and the old wall. Light plays a central role in the museum space, both for "the possibility of participating with its symbolic component in the metaphorical story that takes place in the museum, and for the ability to physically characterize the exhibition spaces and to reveal the exhibits" (Menghini 2003, p.49).

A new roof, resting on the ancient sepulchral cell in the center of the ruin, defines a new level, corresponding to the museum's second exhibition room. This large circular room, open to the sky, recalls the Renaissance era and the time when the ruin was transformed into the Soderini family garden.
The second level can be reached from the main entrance through new stairs and elevators. From this point an annular path is designed, cut out on the first cliff of external terrain. Through the annular path the sixteenth-century entrance of the garden can be reached. The choice to reactivate both accesses to the Mausoleum, the ancient one from the south, which leads directly to the funerary cell and the underground museum space, and the sixteenth-century one from the north, at a higher quote, «is faithful to the history of the Mausoleum and facilitates the visitor a stratigraphic reading of its different phases» (ABDR 2006).
The third museum is located in the sequence of annular spaces around the perimeter of the Soderini garden. It is the “museum of the Mausoleum's two-thousand-year history” and shows all the transformations that happened in this place over time.
From the new stone garden it is possible to access a further level, the large «urban diorama», referring to the definition by the authors of the project (ABDR 2006). This last museum itinerary, uncovered and panoramic, is placed on the top of the highest annular wall, becoming a privileged observation point for domes, apses, architraves, arcades of the surrounding urban context, to which the project gives back, in a renewed form, the ancient relationship with the ruin. This walkway tells of the early medieval age, when the Mausoleum was transformed into the castle of the Colonna family.
Through all these compositional choices, the museum proposed by ABDR offers a guided tour through the transformation phases of the place, revealing its complex stratified composition, currently too complex to understand.

In order to offer a contribution to the formation of a project theory for the stratified places of our urban realities it is necessary to define rules that, beyond the specificity of the case-study, allow to guide the architectural project or, at least, constitute useful tools to analyze complex urban phenomena.
In the Mausoleum of Augustus area, the public space has a stratified structure that is the result of the action of the various communities that inhabited it. The analyzed urban project, through the necessary knowledge provided by archeology and museography, as stated by Raimondo (2007, p.81), returns this place to the city of Rome and to its inhabitants. A relationship of mutuality is established between the new and the ancient: the stratified palimpsest suggests architectural choices and, in turn, the project suggests a correct interpretation of the partial forms of the palimpsest.
 The transformation of the Mausoleum of Augustus into a museum is linked to a recurring trend in Italy, that of the reuse of ruins as museum sites – for instance the Baths of Diocletian with the adjacent Certosa transformed in the National Roman Museum, or the system of exhibition spaces in the complex of Trajan's Markets -. In the current situation, dominated by a growing virtualization of the exhibition spaces, this important and courageous choice strictly follows the idea that a museum must be an architecture rooted in the place that should assume, from time to time, as stated by Russoli (1981), the character that its heritage and history require, and must also be a device capable of telling about its past by simultaneously expressing the values of the present time. For all these reasons, the project studied in this contribution represents one of the exempla that should be analyzed in order to identify composition techniques and grammars for the architectural project in the places of archaeology within the stratified mediterranean city.


*   Group Ad Altum 446. Group director: Paolo Desideri. Group members: Maria Laura Arlotti, Michele Beccu e Filippo Raimondo (ABDR); Maria Federica Ottone e Lorenzo Pignatti Morano (Ottone Pignatti). Archaeology consultant: Mario Torelli; Anna M.Riccomini; M.Letizia Gualandi; M.Teresa Moroni; art history consultant: Vittorio Vidotto; Antonio Pinelli; restoration consultant: Francesco Scoppola; Francesco Siravo; landscape consultant: Bet Figueras; Fabio Di Carlo; Monica Sgandurra; Fabrizio Orlandi.

«Municipality of Rome, hereinafter referred to as "Auctioneer", announces, an international architecture competition by restricted procedure pursuant to art. 26 of D.Lgs. 17 marzo 1995 n. 157 and DPR 554/1999 aimed at the acquisition of a project, with an in-depth level equal to that of a preliminary project, for the redevelopment of the Mausoleum of Augustus and Piazza Augusto Imperatore in Rome». COMUNE DI ROMA, Concorso internazionale per la riqualificazione del Mausoleo di Augusto e di Piazza Augusto Imperatore a Roma, Regolamento, 1.

1  Here we refer to the condition of the area in 2006. At present, the winning project of the competition (group Urbs et Civitas, group director: Francesco Cellini) is under construction.
2  Relazione di progetto del gruppo finalista “Ad Altum 446”, partially published on Europaconcorsi website, http://europaconcorsi.com/projects/23583-Riqualificazione-Del-Mausoleo-Di-Augusto-EDi-Piazza-Augusto-Imperatore, edited by Arlotti, Beccu, Desideri, Raimondo, ABDR Architetti Associati, on the first of December 2006.

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