Standing on a wall in central Rome and peering through the railings, Mario Adobati was not happy. The businessman and his family had come all the way from Bergamo, in northern Italy, to the capital on Tuesday to take part in celebrations marking the 2,000th anniversary of Emperor Augustus’s death. Understandably, he had come to the monument that arguably the greatest of ancient Rome’s leaders had built as a tomb for the imperial family, where Augustus’s ashes were housed before being pillaged by rampaging Visigoths in 410.
But Adobati’s hopes of being able to enter the Mausoleum of Augustus were to be dashed. Except for a lucky few – 90 people, to be precise – who managed to get tickets for three guided tours in the morning, the tomb was in its usual state of eerie quiet and abandon. Despite efforts to revamp it, the site has remained almost completely off-limits for years.
“I’m disappointed,” said Adobati. “It really pains me to see such a historic monument in a state of neglect like this, and I do not understand how our public administration is not capable of doing something about it. You [journalists] should write about it.”
If he had picked up a copy of La Stampa before setting off, Adobati would have seen that the media were indeed becoming exercised about the understated way in which contemporary Rome has chosen to mark such an important anniversary. “Rome and Augustus: the dismal celebration,” the Turin-based newspaper declared on its front page.
“It is certainly not for us … to discuss the artistic and academic range of the celebrations,” wrote the journalist Mattia Feltri. “But as a tourist attraction, or as a simple city occasion, it’s objectively pretty shameful. Can you imagine what would have happened in Tokyo or New York or London … if they’d had an anniversary of this kind at their disposition?”
It would be unfair to discount what Rome has organised to mark Augustus’s passing. There are several events and exhibitions taking place around the capital, from a summer-long narrated light show at the forum named after him to a musical reworking of ancient Roman poetry at Trajan’s Markets.
More than 160,000 people visited an exhibition devoted to Augustus at the Scuderie del Quirinale gallery, which ran from October to February. And on Tuesday night the Ara Pacis museum, which houses a magnificent altar built to honour Augustus’s triumphant return from Hispania and Gaul, will be illuminated in its original colours.
But the sum of all these parts is, some say, underwhelming. There is a decided absence of buzz. A lack of funds in the cash-strapped city has undoubtedly played a role. But, according to Francesco Rutelli, a former culture minister and mayor of Rome, there is more to the “missed opportunity” than that.
“The first [reason] is that there is a kind of unuttered self-censorship which stems from Augustus’s preceding bimillennium, that of his birth, which fell in 1937,” he told La Stampa. “Benito Mussolini took it as an opportunity to promote and celebrate himself and fascism and the reborn empire.”
The second reason, Rutelli added, was Italy’s political discontinuity: the country has had five culture ministers in three and a half years.
Whatever the reasons, the result is plain to see in the state of the Mausoleum. Built in 28BC as a suitably glorious tomb for Augustus and his relatives, with pink granite obelisks, golden urns and a bronze statue of the emperor on top, it has suffered innumerable indignities ever since the sack of Rome.
Now, fenced off and often used as a dumping site for litter, and even as an unofficial public lavatory, it goes almost unnoticed by the diners who crowd into the restaurants of the square around it.
The city council had long been aware of the bimillennium, and tried to jump-start a restoration plan by appealing for a private sponsor, as happened with the Colosseum and the Trevi fountain, which are both being restored by elite fashion brands. But no one came forward to bring the mausoleum back to life.
A €2m wedge of central government funding unblocked last year will enable the restoration to begin, with another €2.3m expected to come from the city’s coffers. But another €7.7m will be needed to complete it. A separate €17m plan to pedestrianise the surrounding piazza should begin next year, a spokesman for Rome city council said.
It may therefore be some time before Adobati, or anyone else, can experience the wonders of Augustus’s mausoleum. But the Lombard, for one, was employing a healthy dose of stoicism a la romana. “We’ll go and eat a gelato,” he said, stepping away from the railings and smiling. “Instead of crying or mocking, I’d always prefer to go and eat a gelato.”