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Ailing Marcus Aurelius Doomed to Indoor Life - For Now

April 12, 1990

ROME (AP) _ Marcus Aurelius and his noble horse are back on the Capitoline Hill but the triumph was bittersweet - pollution has forced the gilded bronze statue to abandon its glorious marble perch above the heart of Rome.

The 1,800-year-old statue was removed nine years ago for cleaning and shoring up. It was taken from the Campidoglio, the municipal square crowning the Capitoline, one of Rome’s seven hills.

There it had rested upon a marble pedestal, designed by Michelangelo, the Renaissance genius who also laid out the square.

After six years of examination, analyses and fund-raising, experts wielding lasers, scalpels and brushes began actual restoration in the spring of 1987. The team brought back some shine to the imperial toga and saddle, but it was soon clear that no technology existed to protect the treasure from the ravages of pollution and vibration in traffic-filled Rome.

Tests also showed that the weather is too humid for the 19-foot-high monument.

So the restored Stoic emperor and his steed could not return to the spot Michelangelo chose for them. Instead, they were installed Wednesday in a room, its temperature and humidity carefully controlled, in one of the palaces atop the hill that houses the Capitoline Museums.

In abandoning outdoor life, Marcus Aurelius has illustrious company.

In Florence, the gilded panels on the east entrance to the cathedral’s baptistry - a door so beautiful Michelangelo thought it was fit for paradise - are destined for specially sealed chambers in a museum.

The four gilded bronze horses on the facade of St. Mark’s in Venice were installed inside the church after restoration.

Research is under way for a coating that would protect the Marcus Aurelius statue from the corrosive atmosphere and allow the emperor to take his place again in the square.

Meanwhile, the city is debating whether to put a replica atop the pedestal.

Anna Sommella, director of archaeology for the Capitoline Museums, says leaving the pedestal empty could remind the public of the price it is paying for polluted air.

″A remedy must be found for the square and for all of Rome,″ she said as she watched workers unload Marcus Aurelius off a truck and push the upper half of the two-ton monument slowly into the museum.

Past city administrations have tried with little success to limit traffic in the historic center. Current Mayor Franco Carraro, a Socialist, was clearly ill at ease when asked what he could do about the problem.

″We can’t go backward. Even if we remove traffic, there are other kinds of pollution, heating fuels, industry. We can’t be utopian in facing the problem,″ said Carraro.

Romans would rather brave the four daily rush hours and inadequate parking than risk chancy public bus and streetcar service. Recurrent discoveries of underground relics have defeated ambitious subway plans.

Moving Marcus to the museum from the Central Restoration Institute at San Michele, a former monastery across the Tiber from City Hall, created its own traffic jam. Two flatbed trucks transported the statue.

The emperor, his arm outstretched, led the way. His horse, one front leg suspended in a graceful curve, followed.

The public will be allowed inside the museum to see the statue as of April 21, the anniversary of Rome’s founding.

Legend has it that when the statue’s gilding disappears, Rome will cease to exist. Most of the gold coating, cleaned in restoration, has been added over the centuries in previous restoration; only a few specks are original.

The work is the only known large equestrian statue surviving from ancient imperial days. Others were destroyed after Christianity came to Rome.

Historians believe Marcus Aurelius’ statue survived because it was mistakenly identified as representing Constantine the Great, the Christian emperor.

It was originally placed near the Lateran palace, which had been a papal residence. Pope Paul III ordered it removed to the Capitoline Hill in 1538.