Unlike their counterparts in other cities, modern Rome’s urban planners have the weight of over 2,000 years of material culture to consider when making changes to the metropolis.

During the Fascist period, Mussolini (rendered at right before the Colosseum) attempted to create a modern landscape in the midst of Rome’s ancient monuments. But he soon realized the difficulties involved in the undertaking, changed his plans and proposed a new government center south of Rome. Known as the Universal Exposition of Rome, this project was only partially implemented before the fall of the Fascist regime.

During the following decades, many people dismissed Mussolini’s interest in archaeology as a symptom of his megalomania, of his need to be recognized as the new Augustus. In the 1980s, officials planned to demolish a boulevard built by Mussolini, now named the Via dei Fori Imperiali, which cut through Rome’s ancient forums. These plans were met with fierce protests, however, which stopped the demolition. In the 1990s archaeologists chipped away at grassy areas bordering the road—revealing previously unknown areas of the Forum Transitorium (Forum of Nerva) and providing a better understanding of the relationship between the Forum of Trajan and the Forum of Augustus—but left the Fascist-era boulevard intact.

In 1995 the American architect Richard Meier, the designer of the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, was selected by Rome’s mayor, Francesco Rutelli, to design a new building to house the Ara Pacis. The decision to replace the old building, designed by Vittorio Morpurgo for Hitler’s 1939 visit to Rome, was in part prompted by conservation concerns: The building was not effectively climate-controlled and so pieces of relief sculpture were becoming detached from their supports. Mayor Rutelli also admitted, though, that he relished the thought of demolishing the building because it “was a symbol of the imperial and infelicitous taste of Fascism.”

Many people protested the insertion of a Modernist building into the heart of ancient Rome. The press trumpeted the fact that Meier received his commission without competing against other architects. Some claimed that that the old building could have been repaired. Architects pointed out that the Morpurgo structure was part of an architectural scheme that included the Ara Pacis, the Mausoleum of Augustus and nearby Fascist buildings, and that thoughtful restoration should be given to the entire area, not just one building.

By the summer of 2001, the old building was razed in preparation for Meier’s construction project. But construction was soon halted for two reasons: Significant archaeological remains were uncovered that needed to be documented, and public protests against Meier’s plan continued. An influential member of the Ministry of Culture, Vittorio Sgarbi, launched a barrage of criticism against Meier’s project and impugned his abilities as an architect. (In fact, since the May 2001 national election, which Rutelli lost to the conservative Silvio Berlusconi, several other monumental restoration projects besides the Ara Pacis have come under attack.)

Following Sgarbi’s dismissal by Berlusconi in August 2002, progress resumed on Meier’s Ara Pacis project. When the new structure (shown in a computerized rendering in which an image of the Meier building has been inserted into an actual photo of the site) is completed (scheduled for 2005), it will include more visitor space and a new pedestrian walkway that will connect the Ara Pacis to the Mausoleum of Augustus.