By  on July 9, 2007

ROME — In ancient Rome, citizens would visit the Ara Pacis — an intricately etched altar built to celebrate peace under Emperor Augustus — and place flowers and fruit on its marble stairs. Leave it to Valentino to surround it with chic.

As part of his anniversary celebration, the designer selected almost 300 couture dresses for the retrospective exhibition "Valentino in Rome: 45 Years of Style," artfully placing them around the Altar of Peace, which since last spring has had a new home in the glass and travertine Richard Meier-designed museum Ara Pacis.

Located on the eastern banks of the Tiber River, the bold linear structure is the first example of contemporary architecture in central Rome in almost a century.

In a symbolic gesture, Valentino placed his 1990 Peace dress — with the word peace embroidered on it in 14 languages — high in front of the altar.

The museum's striking lines and endless stream of natural light wasn't lost on the designer, who relished the chance to showcase his work in such a spectacular venue.

"I love to share," Valentino said, following the exhibit's opening on Friday night. "I wanted to give Rome the opportunity to see my couture collections."

Guests like Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Hudson and Elizabeth Hurley swooned at the various groupings of dresses, which evocatively framed the altar. "I wish I had a U-haul to take them with me," Anne Hathaway said with a laugh, taking in a towering display of Valentino's signature red frocks (66 in all) and other styles demonstrating his mastery of ruching, beading and embroidery. "Seeing his body of work together like this makes it so apparent why Valentino is such a genius."

Hudson, wearing a chocolate brown embroidered chiffon column dress, had no sooner arrived at the Ara Pacis when she spied her next red-carpet look: an ivory vintage gown with rings of pearls looped around the shoulders.

The retrospective — from the simplest one-shouldered sheath to an intricately sequined pastel dégrade number — expressed the timelessness of Valentino's style.

The designer had few kind words for certain trends and eras during an earlier press briefing, describing grunge as "outrageous," criticizing the Eighties for unflattering proportions and describing minimalism as "an offense to women," and adding, "It made them look like little nuns running around."The exhibition, which runs through Oct. 28, dazzled Karl Lagerfeld, who usually derides such backward-looking exercises as funereal. "I think it's beautifully done," he said. "It looks fresh. It doesn't look like a bunch of old dresses, and that's what impresses me." The exhibition was curated by Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Monfreda, who placed the dresses on clusters of golden mannequins, some with arms raised out to the altar reverentially.

On the lower level, Valentino paid homage to today's goddesses. He showcased a sampling of some of his most iconic celebrity dresses, including the canary yellow taffeta gown Cate Blanchett wore to the 2005 Oscars. "I love beauty, and I love the feeling of serenity," Valentino said. "I've always looked to give my best, and I think I have succeeded."

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