Between 1991 and 2006, convinced that the arts provide necessary and effective means to express and protect the highest values of the human spirit, as well as serving as critical tools for building dialogue and peace, Maria Nicoletta Gaida, founded and led the Dionysia International Center for Arts and Cultures. During this time the Center developed and implemented countless projects featuring some of the most renowned artistic and cultural personalities of our time – visual artists, playwrights, theater artists, writers, musicians, culinary artists, cartoonists, who participated together with politicians, religious leaders, academics, local authorities, and at-risk youth from all over the world, including China, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Chile, South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Morocco, Algeria, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and beyond. In particular, the Center’s theater programs focusing on artists from conflict areas became forums for dialogue where citizens and even political and religious leaders found, through the arts, safe and creative space where they could recognize the humanity and truly engage with “the other”.
Based on the outcomes of these projects and inspired by the work of Hannah Arendt, Donald Shriver and other eminent scholars, Ms. Gaida began to focus more and more on the theme of forgiveness. Thus in 2000, the Dionysia Center organized in Rome “Amen – a concert for reconciliation” which was composed and conducted by Goran Bregovic with the visual direction of Oliviero Toscani. Featuring artists from the Middle East, the Balkans and North Africa, the concert was followed by a series of workshops centered on the theme of forgiveness with the participation of political leaders, religious figures, artists and intellectuals from the three Abrahamic faiths.
Building on the momentum created by the concert and the Center’s ongoing projects, in 2002 an appeal for forgiveness was launched in Rome by and for the people of Israel and Palestine. Adopted by prominent personalities from Europe and the Middle East, the appeal called for Europeans, Israelis and Palestinians to take responsibility for the tragedy of the conflict by initiating a process of reconciliation based on the acknowledgement of the two narratives and on the suffering of the other. In 2003, as a follow up to the appeal, “The Day After” initiative brought together 50 Israelis and Palestinians who for the most part had never met anyone from “the other side” for a discussion on “issues and opportunities for building trust”. The closed-door “open space” session produced outstanding dialogue and cooperation among the participants despite the violence and politics dividing them. Moreover, in 2005, a socio-drama entitled “The Gold and the Lead of Forgiveness” contributed to the healing experience of the Parents Circle/Family Forum by gathering in Rome Israeli and Palestinian citizens who had lost a loved one in the conflict.
In this light, Ms. Gaida created the Ara Pacis Initiative with the aim of establishing a new Areopagus composed of wise and authoritative human beings who could lead the world down the paths of understanding, forgiveness and reconciliation; a body which proposes a new form of justice, which symbolically unites the human family and is at the service of peoples in conflict, that they should not be left alone in the folly of hatred and injustice; so that dignity and forgiveness can be striven for even in the heart of darkness, so that voices of sanity and of light may be heard when calls for punishment and revenge suffocate even the remotest desire for peace, so that historical wrongs, contemporary greed, spiritual derailment and the power to humiliate can be revealed and addressed in order to create space for reconciliation.
In 2008, it was proposed to the City of Rome to promote the Initiative, based physically and symbolically at the Ara Pacis, the altar of peace erected by decision of the Roman Senate on the 4th of July XIII b.c. and inaugurated by the Emperor Augustus on the 30th of January of IX b.c.. The Latin inscription on the south side of the Monument is the political and philosophical testament of Caesar Augustus, who after having “conquered” peace in the “known world” with weapons (pax romana) bestows the peace on the people, entrusting them with its safekeeping and encouraging them to believe in the possibility of enduring peace.