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Rome, the Eternal City, has just given the world a sneak preview of the first modern building to rise in its ancient historic center in 70 years. It's a glass and marble museum for the Ara Pacis, the Altar of Peace, that was erected by the Emperor Augustus in the first century BC. The project, by American architect Richard Meier, began 10 years ago and has been plagued by controversy. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has this report.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

James Joyce once remarked that Rome reminded him of a man who lives by exhibiting to travelers his grandmother's corpse. Rome actually is many corpses. When it comes to architectural preservation, the city's art professionals treat the many different Romes as a virtual battlefield: Classical Rome vs. medieval Rome vs. Baroque Rome and even fascist Rome. And up to now introducing a work of modernism to old Rome was seen as absolute heresy.

Mr. RICHARD MEIER (Architect): It certainly was intimidating, yes.

POGGIOLI: Richard Meier has been coming here since the '50s and knows Rome well.

Mr. MEIER: And it's inspiring, the scale of the city, the scale of the spaces, the scale of the buildings, the relationship of the architecture over a long period of time, the kind of layering of history that you get here. Hopefully with the Ara Pacis, you know, one has an opportunity to continue that kind of layered history one on top of another.

POGGIOLI: In 1995, Meier, an internationally renowned architect who has designed museums in Los Angeles and Barcelona, was commissioned to replace the crumbling building housing the Ara Pacis. The Altar of Peace commemorates Emperor Augustus' victories in Gaul and Spain. Its carved marble bar relief(ph) are among the great masterpieces of antiquity. The altar was put in its current location, on the banks of the Tiber near Augustus' mausoleum, in 1938 by dictator Benito Mussolini, a mythomaniac who saw himself as a direct political heir of the Roman emperor.

Construction on the Meier project was repeatedly delayed by bureaucratic interference and critics who bemoaned what they called the Los Angelesization of Rome. And a group of Italian architects recently went so far as to appeal to the Italian government to put an end to what they called `an invasion of foreign architects' who, they claim, don't have the right DNA to understand and work in Italy.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

POGGIOLI: Nevertheless, the Meier project is almost complete. And on the day marking Augustus' birthday 2,068 years ago, city authorities unveiled the new addition to the Roman skyline to the media, art critics and assorted VIPs. What they saw is a new airy structure with 44-foot-high glass walls framed in Rome's traditional travertine marble. Lit from three sides and from the roof, the magnificent Ara Pacis is clearly visible even at a distance at all times of day. But a few die-hard critics staged a demonstration.

(Soundbite of demonstration; song)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in Italian)

Unidentified Man #2: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: With a Roman ditty of their theme music, members of the neo-fascist party staged one protest. Dressed as gladiators and vestal virgins, they carried banners denouncing the new structure as barbaric and looking like a gas station.

(Soundbite of music)

POGGIOLI: On the other side of the building, a handful of members of the preservationist group Italia Nostra were more dignified but equally dismayed. Former European Union environmental commissioner Pablo Dipedimiana(ph) heads the group.

Mr. PABLO DIPEDIMIANA (Former EU Environmental Commissioner): We are deeply dissatisfied. We think that this carbuncle that has produced a pointless challenge to Italian and Roman culture.

POGGIOLI: However, Meier's supporters dismissed the protests as petty examples of provincialism and professional envy. Yolanda Bufalini is a journalist who covers municipal affairs and who has no problem with modernism in the ancient city.

Ms. YOLANDA BUFALINI (Journalist): (Through Translator) It fills me with emotion. It's a beautiful work, an important work. What was here before was asphyxiating, very heavy.

POGGIOLI: Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni couldn't hide his excitement that Meier's Ara Pacis Museum will usher Rome into the 21st century.

Mayor WALTER VELTRONI (Rome): (Through Translator) Safeguarding Rome's ancient legacy does not mean that the contemporary city is unable to produce artistic beauty. Rome is a city that is growing and doesn't fear what is new. And Rome's future is to continue to create artistic beauty.

POGGIOLI: The official inauguration of Meier's Ara Pacis museum is scheduled for next spring. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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