Square Perspectve #16

Walking With Nero

The Octagonal Dining Room with Domed Ceiling. Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House), Rome, c. 64-69 AD, Rome, Italy. Concrete was used for the dome construction.


The Golden House

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 DomitianTrajan, 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.


Frescoed Vaulted Ceiling, Room of Achilles on Skyros (Room 119), Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House), Rome, c. 64-69 AD, Rome, Italy

Room of Achilles on Skyros (Room 119)

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.


Frescoed Vault, Central Octagonal Decoration Set into Mosaic Ceiling Room 42, Ceiling, Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House), Rome, c. 64-69 AD, Rome, Italy

Nymphaeum of Polyphemus (Room 42)

The ceiling and walls of a rectangular nymphaeum were originally covered by colorful mosaics and marble sheathing, which were stripped for reuse after Nero’s death. The nymphaeum had a waterfall fountain on the bottom and water was conveyed into a central basin. The lower part of the walls were originally covered with marble.   Four vault medallions and a central octagonal medallion are partially preserved. The central scene show Polyphemus,  one of the Cyclopes described in Homer’s Odyssey, receiving the cup of wine from the hands of Ulysses.

Central Passageway, Frescoed Wall, cleaning test section, Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House), Rome, c. 64-69 AD, Rome, Italy

Grand Passage/Grande Criptoportico (Room 92)

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.


Damaged Frescoed Ceiling, Room of the Golden Vault, (Sala della Volta Dorata), Used to enter the room during and after the 15th centery by artists who studied the painting on the ceiling and upper walls.  Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House), Rome, c. 64-69 AD, Rome, Italy

Room of the Golden Vault

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 Fresco Detail, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence Italy

Renaissance grotesque decorations from one of the rooms of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence

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Arches and Domes

Its All in the Crop

Transept Crossing Dome, Basilica of San Lorenzo, c. Florence, Italy. Building dates from the Renaissance, 15th century.. Frescoed ceiling painted by Vincenzo Meucci in 1742.

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Silent Sunday

Florentine Fountain

Fountain, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy

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Lines in Design

Horizontal Lines

The Baptistry, Florence, Italy

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Pastel Angels

Hark! the Herald Angels Sing

Four Musical Angels, Detail from Coronation of the Virgin triptych, 1430, by Giovanni di Marco also called ‘dal Ponte’ (1385-1437), tempera on wood,Galleria dell’Accademia

Four Musical Angels, a detail from Coronation of the Virgin triptych, c.1430, by Giovanni di Marco also called ‘dal Ponte’; tempera on wood. The triptych was part of a special exhibit on Florentine Painters from 1370-1430 at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Italy. The altarpiece belonged to the Monte di Pietà in Florence and is now housed at the Galleria. You might wonder how such a special worked ended up belonging to a charitable organization meant to serve the poor. I did a bit of research and found some interesting information on both the Monte di Pietà movement and also the organization in Florence.

The Coronation of the Virgin triptych, 1430, Giovanni de Marco also called ‘dal Ponte’

A Monte di Pietà is an institutional pawnbroker run as a charity in Europe beginning in the Renaissance; some still operate today. In 1462, the first recorded Monte di Pietà was founded in Perugia, Italy. Between 1462 and 1470, an estimated forty more were developed in Italian cities as an early form of organized charity to aid the less fortunate. Their intent was to reform money lending by providing an alternative to practices the Catholic church viewed as socially unacceptable. Many were organized and operated by the Catholic Church and offered financial loans at a moderate interest to those in need. Some were run as civic organizations by the cities. Basically charitable pawnshops, the Montes were to benefit the borrower and not the lender, and were viewed as a benevolent alternative to loans provided by moneylenders. The organization of the Monte di Pietà depended on acquiring a monte, a collection of voluntary, permanent donations from citizens and benefactors. The Monte di Pietà would then lend funds against an item of value. The term of the loan would be a year, and the amount lent equal about two-thirds of the value of the borrower’s item. Profits were used to pay operating expenses. The Florentine Monte di Pietà was established in 1496 and existed until the 19th century. Over the centuries, the charitable lenders began to make other loans and to take deposits. After the unification of Italy, many were merged with or purchased by banks or state run organizations. I couldn’t find much information on how many still exist in Italy, though there is an operational organization in Malta. The following excerpt below is an interesting perspective on the Florentine Monte di Pietà. It is unclear where the office in which this triptych was displayed was located.

From Charity and State in Late Renaissance Italy: The Monte Di Pietà of Florence, by Carol Bresnahan Menning, Cornell University Press, 1993:

“In the minds of its founders, there was no doubt about the purpose of the Florentine monte di pietà: it had been created, in the words of the statutes, “to be able to lend against pawns to poor persons with as little interest as possible.” Until its demise in the nineteenth century with Italian unification, the monte di pietà continued to accept pawns and to offer low-cost small loans. Yet less than half a century after its founding in 1496, the monte also began to undertake other functions far different from those envisioned by its founders and to serve social groups other than the poor. By the late 1530s it agreed to pay 5 percent interest on deposits and by the next decade it was flooded with income, the bulk of which came from middle-class persons seeking a safe if conservative investment. the establishment’s liquidity quickly attracted the attention of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici who, seeing the monte, as his son and heir Francesco bluntly put it, “abounding in money,” used its resources to finance loans to himself, his family, and friends. the duke’s personal, dynastic, and public financial schemes were, in essence, subsidized by the monte di pietà, which was in turn supported by its poor clientele and its middle-class depositors.”

For further information on the history and the demise of the Monte, the following links are interesting:

The Untimely Demise of a Successful Institution: the Italian Monti di Pieta in the Nineteenth Century”


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