The Golden House of Nero, Domus Aurea, a magnificent palace in ancient Rome, was constructed by the emperor Nero between AD 64 and 68. The palace and its grounds were laid out as a park with porticoes, pavilions, baths, and fountains, with an artificial lake in the center. (Under the emperor Vespasian the lake was drained for the site of the Colosseum). The Golden House was never finished and survived only four years, until June 9, A.D.68, when Nero committed suicide. The complex is historically significant because it introduced aesthetics of monumental architecture developed in the imperial style of Roman architecture under Domitian, Trajan, and Hadrian. It was also one of the first building do use concrete for fine architecture.
Little survives of the palace but excavations have revealed hints of its grandeur and size. It is said to have had over 300 rooms, none of which were bedrooms. Nothing remains of the palace’s second storey. Much of the excavated structure was built into the hills or was built over by the Baths of Trajan. After years of restoration, part of the palace was opened to the public in 1999. Heavy rains in 2006 weakened the structure and forced the site to close. Happily, the Domus Aurea was again open to the public when I visited Rome in November 2019. About 30 of 100 excavated rooms are opened to the public. Each room generally takes its name from the decorative elements that remain: the Room of the Vault of the Owls (sala della volta delle civette) and, the most famous, the Room of the Golden Vault” (sala della volta dorata). Admittance is by appointment only on a guided tour that is all underground. It was one of the highlights of my five weeks in Italy. If you are interested in Roman history, art, or architecture, or the genesis of Renaissance painting, I highly recommend visiting. Demand is high and space is limited, so book ahead.
Much of the palace decoration is related to mythology and the Homeric poems, especially the Illiad. The Room of Achilles at Skyros is said to be the work of the painter Fabullus. The center panel of the barrel vault depicts Achilles, with spear and shield in hand, surrounded by the daughters Lycomedes, the king of the island of Syros. Achilles, who had been disguised as a girl, has just revealed his true identity to Odysseus.
A small section of the surviving wall painting has been cleaned as a test to give an approximation of the original. This passageway, which is set into the hill, was used by servants to move throughout the palace. It is a massive space with frescoed walls and ceiling vaults almost 36 feet high. It shows some of the painting motifs that became part of the Renaissance vocabulary following the discovery of the palace by Renaissance painters.
Floors, walls, and ceilings were originally covered with the sumptuous wall paintings, mosaics, and stucco decorations or sheathed in marble, precious stones, ivory, and gold. Following Nero’s death, the palace was stripped of its marble and most of its decorative elements. Over the centuries, the internal space was filled with rubble or used as foundations for later buildings, which helped to preserve at least some of the palace structures. Since before the Renaissance, holes have been cut into the Domus Aurea’s ceiling so that people might descend inside to see its spectacular decorations, such as those in the Room of the Golden Vaults and as part of the construction of a park (top right) in the 1930s. In the 16th century Raphael and his followers were inspired by the wall paintings in the grotte, or caverns, of the palace, especially the tiny grotesques, which became an intricate part of many Renaissance frescoes. (The grotesque decoration generally depicts monsters and hybrid characters, often represented as a mix of different figures, surrounded by natural or geometrical decorations, in a very symmetrical structure, on a white or one colour background. The characters represented are not connected to any specific story, but represented in a very simple and basic way.) Many artists were inspired by the grottos of the Domus Aurea and some, such as Raffaello, Ghirlandaio and Pinturicchio, left their signature on the walls. Unfortunately, the holes and other breaches of the palace allowed water and roots to infiltrate and damaged both the structure and the frescoes. Humidity has caused serious deterioration to the frescoes.
Renaissance grotesque decorations from one of the rooms of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
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