AUGUSTUS Caesar's Ara Pacis, the "Altar to Peace" showed its true colors on its 2,000th anniversary thanks to a groundbreaking lighting projection system.
Though the white-marble monument has lost its color over the centuries, visitors were able to see its intricate array of friezes in dazzling color.
According to researchers from the Vatican museums, who have gone over every inch of the altar for traces of pigment, the Ara Pacis was brightly colored when unveiled by the Roman Senate in the year 9 AD.
Rome's culture chief Umberto Broccoli told Italy's ANSA news agency that the study furnished lighting technicians with the exact colors which originally embellished the monument, which they replicated with hundreds of tiny lighting projectors. Broccoli said the color system, financed in part by a Roman supermarket chain, cost the city about $100,000, "but it was money well spent".
"The color reproduction is extraordinary," Broccoli told ANSA. "If Augustus were to see it, he wouldn't notice any difference". This is not the first time that the Ara Pacis has been "painted".
A rather less sophisticated system was tried out during Emperor Augustus' birthday in September 2008, but museum officials say the technology has come a long way since then.
Visitors clearly were stunned by the spectacular altar. And their reaction was understandable. The famed West Facade and East Facade were both illuminated.
The West Facade (above) is highlighted by a frieze called "The Lupercal Panel" which shows Romulus and Remus (suckled by the She-Wolf) being discovered by Faustulus the shepherd while Mars looks on.
The God of War is resplendent in a crimson cloak which contrasts with deep greens of the lower frieze's viney motif.
On the left panel of the East Facade (right), a goddess nurses the twins Romulus and Remus and, on the right-hand panel, Trojan hero Aeneas makes a sacrifice to the gods, all in the life-like splendor they enjoyed under the paint brushes of Roman craftsman.
Scholars have suggested that the goddess variously might be Italia, Tellus (Earth), Venus, or Peace. The Goddess of Peace (Pax Augusta) makes the most sense since the entire scene depicts the benefits of peace, and the monument is the "Altar of Augustan Peace", not the "Altar of Italy" or "the Altar of Earth". The exact identity of the goddess, however, remains in dispute.
The Altar marks the northern city limits. Travelers approaching Rome upon arrival at the port of Ostia would have seen the Altar on the west side of the Via Flaminia, the backdrop of which was the Seven Hills of Rome — the "skyline" of Rome.
The Ara Pacis Augustae stood in the flood plain of the river Tiber, where it became buried under silt over the centuries. It was rediscovered in modern times and, after decades of on-again, off-again excavation, was finally fully restored under the rule of Benito Mussolini.
Alas, the colored light show was only temporary. Visitors hoping to see the color-illuminated Ara Pacis will have to wait for another special occasion, perhaps the annual celebration of the founding of Rome.