The New-Old Mausoleum of Augustus
Corripuere viam interea, qua semita monstrat. Iamque ascendebant collem, qui plurimus urbi imminet, adversasque adspectat desuper arces. Miratur molem Aeneas, magalia quondam, miratur portas strepitumque et strata viarum. Instant ardentes Tyrii pars ducere muros, molirique arcem et manibus subvolvere saxa, pars optare locum tecto et concludere sulco. … ‘O fortunati, quorum iam moenia surgunt!’ Aeneas ait, et fastigia suspicit urbis.
— Aeneid 1.418–438
“Meanwhile they took the road which the path indicates. And when they ascend the hill which loomed high over the city looked upon the facing structures from below. Aeneas marvels at their mass, once huts. He marvels at the gates, the noise of construction, and the paving of the roads. The eager Tyrians keep working, part build walls, fortify the stronghold, and roll the stones with their hands, part chooses a place for housing and marks the area with a plowed furrow… ‘Oh lucky ones, whose walls now rise!’ Aeneas said, and looked upon the rooftops of the city.”
It’s strange to see an ancient monument under construction again. We’ve spent so much time romanticizing ruin here in Rome. Such poetic decay of Piranesi etchings and John Keats’ verse are standards in Rome, but one has the opposite experience when looking at the ongoing work at the mausoleum of Augustus. Restoration can be just as poetic, and I’m reminded of Aeneas peeking over the hill in Aeneid 1 and getting a look at the initial constructions of Carthage. Even though all readers know the ultimate fate of Carthage, the energy of creation, production, and collaboration draws us in and makes us marvel.
The mausoleum of Augustus has also undergone this cyclical building and falling and rising and ruining in its many iterations throughout history. Originally a tomb for the Roman emperors, the mausoleum was converted into a fortress for the Colonna family in the Middle Ages, a terraced public garden in the Renaissance, then a bullfighting ring, then a concert hall. The structure was incorporated into new buildings at the risen street level then unincorporated and un-entrenched when Mussolini wanted to clear the square during the Fascist excavations. It has been born and born again, age after age. Now the mausoleum is undergoing a restoration that prioritizes its Augustan period appearance, and for the first time since the 1970s, it’s open to the public.
Augustus seemed to want it this way, at least to some degree. While there isn’t nearly as much buzz about the mausoleum in ancient texts as there seems to be today, we do have Suetonius’ Life of the Divine Augustus including an indication that the space was not just for private vanity, but also for the public good.
“Id opus [Mausoleum] inter Flaminiam viam ripamque Tiberis sexto suo consulatu exstruxerat circumiectasque silvas et ambulationes in usum populi iam tum publicarat.” — Vita Divi Augusti 100
“He built this work [the Mausoleum], between the via Flaminia and the bank of the Tiber during his sixth consulship, and he opened its surrounding grounds and walks to public use at that time.”
Tourists don’t have free reign of the mausoleum just yet, as the site is still actively a construction zone and an excavation area, but you can reserve a spot on a guided tour and an art historian will lead you through the tomb. Beginning at street level, you take a ramp down to the ground level of Augustus’ time, following the curve of the mausoleum’s exterior. Next, you are led straight into the inner chamber and are able to stand in front of the ancient burial sites of Augustus’ family.
Photographs taken by the author, unless otherwise noted.
From there, the tour moves from the inside out, leading up to a second level and through each successive outer layer. It is shockingly large inside the mausoleum. This could be due to the fact that all the marble has been stripped, or the barrel-vaulted ceilings give an impression of the space being bigger than it is, but it’s comfortable to walk through, and it’s clear the space was meant for access of the living as well as resting place of the dead. The brickwork was also incredible to see. At first, it can be difficult to tell what is reconstructed and what is originally Augustan era work, but our guide was clear about which as which. From the Augustan opus recticulatum pattern to the yellow brick of the fascist era, everyone who made use of the mausoleum left their mark on its imposing curved walls.
On this second floor, which features arched windows that look down into the center space as well as out onto the city streets, our guide pointed out some of the post-Roman aspects of the building: a plane that was terraced to make room for a garden, small holes in the wall — too low to be used for scaffolding or marble veneers — to which animals were tied and kept for bullfights, a staircase seemingly leading to nowhere that used to attach to the mausoleum to the townhouse of Marchese Vincenzo in the late 1700s, back when the block was a crowded street.
Photo by Rebecca Tauscher
Next, we were led to another mezzanine floor which was used as a covered theater and cafè in the early 1900s and renamed the Augusteo. In order to invoke that moment, the curators were piping in classical music, which resonated strangely off the now porous ancient bricks. An operatic soprano was singing when we entered the space and our guide assured us that this theater was the pinnacle of high culture up until it closed in 1936.
From there we were led back down and around to the center where we began and peeked through the arches to get a look a the construction work going on down below. It’s always strange to me to see an ancient building juxtaposed with a hard hat crew and a dump truck, but after the tour that touched on most other iterations of the mausoleum, it brought a kind of energy to the space that I hadn’t noticed on previous trips to Rome. For me, there is something about ancient works under reconstruction that rings with endless potential, and I am brought back to those verses of Virgil.
A look back at the history of the mausoleum tells me that this is likely not the last iteration of the ancient tomb. It very well may fall back into some half-formed ruinous state in the distant future. For now, though, I find myself marveling at the construction and the feats of human ingenuity. The Carthaginians’ city fell too, but Aeneas got to see them when they were the fortunati, quorum iam moenia surgunt. Now we are the fortunati, to be let into this ancient monument after so many years of closure, and I’m too thrilled about what’s happening in the present to wax morbidly poetic about the future.