A View From On High
John Darlington, Executive Director, World Monuments Fund Britain, reflects on a recent visit to the Arch of Janus and its restoration activities.
I’m standing on scaffolding high above the street and my heart is beating. Not from the exertion of climbing four ladders, nor from a fear of being a vertiginous 15m up, but because I’m genuinely excited. Excited to be looking at part of an ancient monument that hasn’t been visible for centuries.
The Arch of Janus is in the heart of ancient Rome, marking the entrance to the Forum Boarium, the city’s cattle market by the original (and now long-gone) docks on the Tiber. It is an extraordinary monument: erected in the fourth century, it stands solid, square and slightly out of proportion because the top floor is missing, demolished in 1827 because it was erroneously believed to be medieval.
After years of neglect and relative obscurity amongst the heavyweight attractions of the city, the arch is finally getting the attention it deserves. World Monuments Fund is working with the Soprintendenza Speciale Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio di Roma to restore the monument and draw attention to an overlooked part of the city. The work involves specialist conservation: the cleaning of a facade of the arch that has become blackened with pollution and age, and then the preservation of key features, including the characteristic scalloped niches.
Talking with lead restorer Cristina Vazio, it is clear that there are professional decisions to be made every day about levels of intervention: how much to clean, what to remove and where to repair or leave alone. When repairs are made, it is important to keep them in the spirit of the monument, but also to visually differentiate between new and old. This is about conservation, not reconstruction. A light touch is the overriding philosophy. The results are spectacular. Underneath the scaffolding, the cleaned, conserved portion of the arch is brought gloriously back to life.
The Arch of Janus, like its better known counterpart The Arch of Constantine by the Colosseum, is made from new stone and spoila, recycled material quarried, removed or stolen from other, older monuments. In places, the erosion is so severe that some of the current repairs have revealed the sides and backs of stone blocks showing that they were once lintels, architectural or sculptural mouldings recycled from elsewhere. For me, this is the real treat: to be up close and personal with the people who originally built this arch. With old mortar and decayed stone removed, it’s even possible to see the marks made by the Roman masons – guiding their work, ensuring that the next stone is placed exactly as they wanted it.
Here, in a few simple, chiselled lines, is a practical action that transports me back 1,600 years to stand alongside a roman mason, both of us on scaffolding, sharing a moment high above Ancient Rome…