There is a place in Rome that has always inspired a distinct fascination – or better yet, has emanated a special aura. The allure of the Domus Aurea is strange because it is really just a bunch of bare walls, silent corridors, and stripped down brickwork enlivened here and there by the small remains of frescoes and mosaics. What could be the real source of enchantment felt by visitors here, in the most sumptuous royal residence ever conceived? Perhaps it’s the personality of its patron, Emperor Nero, archetype of unbridled power and determination. For me, though, the enchantment comes more from the moving traces left by visitors, who in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries lowered themselves through a hole in the ceiling into these subterranean rooms. At the time the space was mostly filled with dirt; crouching low and relying on the flickering light of torches (the streaks of lampblack are still visible), they examined the frescoes and copied the ornamental motifs that would become the famous grotesques of late Renaissance art: vegetal motifs mixed with small human or animal figures that were rarely realistic, almost always imaginary, and adhered to no naturalistic canon – a fantastic world in which humans, animals and plants were fused to create lively, bizarre representations somewhere between humor an hallucination.
The term grotesque come from Italian grotto, and the rooms of Nero’s palace had essentially become underground grottoes, filled almost to the ceiling with dirt and debris. Their rediscovery launched a wildly popular style based on classical antiquity and the grandiose ruins of Rome, a style comparable only to the Egyptomania unleashed by Napoleon’s campaigns in North Africa at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
After the disastrous fire of AD 64, Nero envisioned his new palace rising from the ashes of the devastated city. He expropriated a nearly 200 acre lot because, according to Suetonius, he wanted his palace to extend from the Palatine Hill to the Esquiline Hill. In his Epigrams Martial complained “a single house now occupies the whole of the city”. To get a sense of the immense spaciousness of Nero’s palace, just consider that a bronze statue 35 meters tall (the equivalent of a twelve story building) was set in the vestibule. It took a team of twenty-four elephants to move the enormously heavy sculpture , and it was for this gigantic, colossal figure that the Amphitheater of Flavius was renamed the Coliseum in the Middle Ages. The Greek sculptor Zenodorus represented the emperor nude, bearing the attributes of the sun, his right arm extended, his left bent to hold a globe. From his crown radiated seven rays (each one six meters long) representing both his absolute power and the sun, the cosmic force he wanted to be identified with. It’s interesting that the ray-of-light motif has continued through the centuries, from the Colossus of Rhodes to the Statue of Liberty in New York’s harbor.
The palace, Suetonius assures us, included three porticoes almost a mile long, “an enormous pool, more like a sea than a pool, surrounded by buildings made to resemble cities, and by a landscape garden consisting of ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures and woodlands –where every variety of domestic and wild animal roamed about”. If today we walk through it in darkness and silence, in Nero’s day the residence gleamed with light because it was completely covered in gold and was studded with gems and shells set into its walls. Suetonius continues “All the dining rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let (out) a rain of flowers or of perfume …”. The Domus Aurea also had splendid revetments of multicolored marbles mixed together into the polychrome compositions the ancient Romans excelled at. These stones came from Spain, the province of Numidia, Libya, Egypt, the Far East, Greece, Gaul, and Cappadocia. Their color and texture made each one diverse, and each had a unique hardness and beauty. These marbles continued to be popular , and centuries later Roman stonecutters gave them names that evoke a particular epoch: portasanta, or Holy Gate; lumachella orientale, named for its snail-shell pattern; pavonazzetto, purple with white veins, reminiscent of a peacock; granite degli obelischi, or obelisk granite and the most precious of all, porfido rosso, the red porphyry reserved exclusively for emperor.
Yet color was not the only over-the-top decorative element in this fantastic residence. Technology also played a part, and the best mechanical knowledge of the time was employed to make the circular dome of the main dining room rotate day and night, synchronized with the earth’s orbit. The baths were equipped with faucets for both seawater and sulfur water. The palace’s two architects, Severus and Celerus, knew that this work would either earn the eternal fame or cost them everything, including their lives. Challenged by the size of the project, and knowing the emperor’s tastes, they envisioned such bizarre wonders that Tacitus remarked “they often go against the laws of nature”. The entire nearby valley, at whose center we now see the Coliseum, was flooded to make the artificial lake that Suetonius described as being almost as vast as the sea.
The palace and all its marvels barely outlasted their owner’s death in AD 68. Nero only briefly enjoyed his immense home, and likely never saw it finished, nor had the time to tour all of it. His successors had most of it demolished; Domitian razed the buildings one the Palatine Hill, the artificial lake was filled with debris in preparation for erecting the Coliseum, and Hadrian demolished the vestibule on the Velian Hill to build his temple of Venus and Rome. The pavilion on the Oppian Hill (the Domus visible today) survived until AD 104, when it was partially destroyed by a fire. When Trajan then ordered a bath complex built on that site, his architect, Apollodorus of Damascus, had the upper stories of Nero’s palace torn down, and filled the lower rooms with earth. He made an immense, solid cube of it and used it as the foundation for his new buildings. Shadows replaces the light, and the gold, gems, and colored marbles were drowned under tons of debris. Magnificence was substituted by ruin, and for several centuries it was forgotten – a circumstance we can thank for the partial conservation of this distinguished testimony of the past.
Visitors will be enraptured by the breathtaking paintings and mosaics, as well as the structure itself, the supreme art of its masonry, the cupolas, the arrangement of the spaces, and the play of light refracted through the bocche di lupo – the so called wolves’ mouths – openings in the upper part of the porticoes. A few rooms were rightly left in the upper part of the porticoes. A few rooms were rightly left as they were found, still filled with the dirt Trajan dumped into them. Tons and tons of earth fill our view, and in the inert mass we can make out bricks, pieces of marble. Column fragments, scraps of stucco, cornices and other ornamental debris. The aura I mentioned above also comes from this. By burying the present, Trajan unwittingly did a great service to future generations.
As for Lucius Domitius Claudius, called Nero, – the tragic owner of these apartments – almost all we know comes from Tacitus and Suetonius. Pliny also wrote about him, and some of that passed into Dio Cassius’s Roman History. There is also a series of fragmentary passages, brief mentions, references, and citations disseminated here and there throughout ancient literature and in the works of the early Christian writers. Most details, however, come from those first two sources, whose histories have shaped Nero’s reputation into that of the most discussed, exemplar, and loathed emperor of all time; neither of the two was kind to him. Time, of course, has layered a variety of interpretations over the texts, and they have melded with his myth, making Nero both archetype and stereotype.
You might be interested to read also our article about the Coliseum in Rome: