When we were planning our trip, our friends in Rome made some “must see” recommendations to us. I have been to Rome three times, Amethyst once, so we had seen some of the great attractions like the Pantheon and the Colosseum. This trip we wanted to make sure to see some other sites. One of these was the Domus Aurea. This monument contains the remains of Nero’s palace. Please note that all quotes below and the schematic are from the Domus Aurea Project.
A few words of advice in case you are lucky enough to get on a tour if you travel to Rome. The English speaking tours are several times a day on Saturday and Sunday. You need to book them in advance. No need to pay a tour company to book it. Just go to this site and sign up.
You will need to wear a hard hat, supplied by the Domus. I recommend not bringing a big backpack or lots of stuff to carry since you will be walking around what is basically an underground construction site. Also, since it is far underground, wear layers. Even if it is 90F degrees above ground it can be very cool underground.
I was far behind the group taking as many photos as I could. That’s Amethyst on the stairs. Uhoh. I am the last one. Gotta get out before I am locked in.
What is the Domus Aurea?
Here is a short introduction from the website. Fascinating history!
“According to the ancient authors, Nero’s palace, built after the fire of AD 64, originally covered such a vast area – 80 hectares – as to be identified with much of the ancient city: ‘ … the Domus Aurea embraced the whole of Rome…’ (Pliny, Natural History, XXXII, 54) and in another passage it is said that it ‘… extended so far that it surrounded the city’ (Pliny, Natural History, XXXVI, 111) Today, with the exception of some buildings and other isolated structures attributed to the complex during recent archaeological excavations and scattered between the Palatine and Caelian Hills, it is the “small” portion preserved on the Oppian Hill that gives us an idea of the size and lavishness of the emperor’s residence. The pavilion, or more accurately what remains of this complex building, is subdivided into 150 rooms, and has a total length of about 250 metres and a width ranging from a minimum of 30 to a maximum of 60 metres.” From the: Domus Aurea Project.
Take a look at this drawing which shows the remains which are four times the size of a US football field and they contain wall decorations and frescoes in an area 30 times the size of the Sistine Chapel! Would have been wonderful to see this in its grandeur. However Nero’s successors tried to wipe out any trace of Nero, including this grand architectural achievement.
Now let’s take a tour of the remains which we were fortunate enough to attend. The site is open to the public only a few months a year. Tours in English are limited. So we have decided to post lots of detailed images so our visitors can get a glimpse of this remarkable history. Here is a quick view of the various rooms we viewed. The story is:
“Sunlight flooded the rooms opening onto this southern front, but even inside the complex light penetrated into the rooms through peristyles and courtyards, as well as through windows opening into the walls and vaults.
This fundamental feature of the architectural project was definitively lost when Trajan turned the building into a vast underground container, filled with earth and rubble and reinforced with massive walls that cut through the larger rooms; it served as a foundation for the bath complex built on the summit of the hill.”
The Octagonal Room
This was the most impressive area of the Domus. Theories are that it was a “party” room or a room where ceremonies and rituals were performed. The dome in the Pantheon is said to be patterned after this one.
“The focal point of the Neronian ground plan in this wing consists of the complex of the Octagonal Room – and its radial rooms – an extraordinary innovation in the history of Roman architecture for its spatial conception and bold construction. The architect experimented with the resistance of concrete, adopting solutions never before attempted: the two cross-vaults characterizing two of the radial rooms seem to be the most ancient examples of this type of vault (nos 123 and 125). However, the architect focused his attention principally on the main room: over the octagonal structure is a pavilion vault which in proximity to the central aperture becomes a hemispherical dome. The sense of lightness evoked by this architectural solution is further heightened by the fact that the vault, which appears to rest only on the broad jack arches leading into the radial rooms, can be seen from each of these through splayed windows and thus seems to float freely in space.”
It is astonishing that anything has survived almost two thousands years. Yet in many places we can see the original paint of the Roman artists. Michelangelo and Raphael, among others were inspired by the art. They lowered themselves down on ropes, carrying candles and art materials so they could copy the ancient masterpieces.
“Nero’s palace was first frequented in the Renaissance; by lowering themselves down from ground level, numerous artists managed to copy the subjects depicted on the vaults of many rooms that, still full of earth, looked like true grottoes. The books of copies circulated in Rome and, soon after, outside the city as well, leading to the dissemination of all those fantastic motifs known as “grotesques” which from then on were replicated in new paintings, sculptures and even on pottery.
Despite some differences with respect to what now survives, these antique drawings are of great help in reconstructing the original design of the painted decorations.
In this part of the palace, whose paintings are generically inspired by Greek mythology, the use of stucco is sparing and illusionistic architectural perspectives are rare; the characteristic feature of the paintings is the extremely fine detail of the decorative motifs, repeated in such a variety of combinations that they prevail over the figurative scenes.
The walls with a black, red or dark yellow background are generally subdivided by festoons, candelabra, plant tendrils or garlands into frames with small figurative panels at their centre; the surface of the vaults and lunettes, with a lace motif in a variety of colours, is reminiscent of the luxurious tapestries popular at the court of Alexandria, vividly described by ancient authors.”
See more wonderful ceiling art and decorations in the gallery below.
“We know from the ancient sources that rich veneers of marble, gold and gemstones were frequently used in the rooms of the Domus Aurea and that some ceilings were covered in ivory. However, these precious materials were all removed and reused in the baths built by Trajan; it is still possible to read the decorative scheme of walls and floors by observing the imprints left on the mortar beds. The most prestigious rooms, placed on the main axes of peristyles and courtyards, must have had walls clad in rectangular marble panels from quarries in Greece, Africa and Asia Minor, presenting marked variations in colour from white to yellow, red and green. These were framed by cornices and could be placed up to the impost of the vaults, which were covered with painted decorations – in large part preserved – sometimes enriched with stucco elements in relief. Today the work of Fabullus, the paintings in the fresco technique that were not removed during Trajan’s building programme, still adorns the walls and vaults of countless rooms. These beautifully executed paintings are an exceptional legacy belonging to this vast and unique monumental complex.”