by Roderick Conway Morris

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Nero's Pleasure Dome

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 25 June 1999
Vatican Museums
Grotesque frescoes inspired by Nero's Domus Aurea
in Cardinal Bibbiena Loggetta at the Vatican
by Raphael and Giovanni da Udine, c.1516



When Rome was devastated by fire in A.D. 46, the emperor Nero grabbed the chance to turn a large part of the center of the city into a private park. The most extravagant component of the scheme was the Domus Aurea, or Golden House, on the Oppian Hill, overlooking an artificial lake made by flooding the area at its foot (where the Colosseum now stands).

The Golden House was designed not so much as a residence but as a pleasure dome where the emperor could preside over his revels while enjoying the views over the lake, the pavilions that dotted its shores and the Palatine Hill beyond. The entrance hall, wrote Suetonius, was 'large enough to contain a colossal statue of the emperor a hundred and twenty feet high, and it was so extensive it had a triple colonnade a mile long...In the rest of the House all parts were overlaid with gold and adorned with gems and mother-of-pearl. There were dining rooms with fretted ceilings of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling guests with perfumes.'

Hardly surprisingly, the Golden House - 'that hated palace reared from the spoils of his countrymen,' in the words of the historian Tacitus - became the ultimate symbol of Nero's megalomania and profligacy. And, to disassociate themselves from their predecessor's excesses, subsequent emperors literally buried it, filling its rooms with earth and building on top of it to obliterate any signs that it had ever existed.

But the outraged descriptions of ancient Roman authors of the Domus Aurea's opulence in due course aroused the curiosity of their Renaissance readers, and from about 1480 onward attempts began to excavate and explore the palace. The investigations soon had a major impact on Western decorative art. For among the first visitors to the subterranean chambers - described as 'grottoes,' since they seemed more like underground caves than man-made rooms - were some of the leading artists of the day, including Pinturicchio and Raphael.

What these painters found here was a new kind of Roman art, very different in scale and conception from the cool, majestic statuary and grand architecture with which they were familiar. Here was a colorful, playful, fantastical world of floral patterns, scrolls, elaborate medallions, imaginary beasts and intricate stucco work that opened up fresh vistas in ornamental embellishment. These 'grotesques,' as they came to be known from the so-called grottoes where they came to light, were soon being imitated, with Raphael, to take but one example, incorporating them in his frescoes in the Vatican.

The excavated areas now amount to more than 30,000 square feet, parts of which were open to the public until nearly 20 years ago, when the complex was closed indefinitely to preserve its rapidly deteriorating fabric.

But after several years of work to control water infiltration, stabilize the atmospheric conditions and install new lighting to minimalize heat generated, the Golden House is to be opened to limited guided tours. The initial itinerary is planned to take in some 30 rooms of the total of about 150, and will vary periodically as conservation and excavation continue in the future.

When the Domus Aurea was completed - on which occasion Nero remarked, according to Suetonius, that 'at last he was beginning to be accommodated like a human being' - its architecturally innovative high-vaulted rooms were filled with natural light. Given that it now lies buried under today's summit of the Oppian Hill, it is cold, damp and dark and some imagination is required to visualize what it was like in Nero's time.

The walls were once clad in sumptuous marble, which was removed for use elsewhere before the rooms were earthed in. Also many spacious chambers were afterward bisected by brick walls to provide a solid foundation for the Roman baths that were built on top of it.

Most of the painted decoration is high up in the vaults, above the line where the marble cladding of the walls once ended. But the rooms when they were first rediscovered were not, as they are now, excavated down to floor level. So Raphael and other Renaissance visitors, making their way along what seemed to them more like tunnels, could observe the grotesques much closer at hand than we can today.

In fact, this intimate and intricate type of Roman painting - examples of which were later discovered in and around Pompeii and more recently at such sites as the Emperor Augustus's study on the Palatine Hill - was actually ill-suited to such vast chambers. So now, as in Nero's time, it is the bigger architectural perspective and mythological scenes and stucco work that are easier to see clearly and appreciate.

The only point at which today's underground journey is lit by daylight is when one reaches the impressive Octagonal Hall, the opening in the dome that is level with the ground on top of the hill. This is almost certainly the main banqueting hall, described by Suetonius, that once had a wooden inner dome decorated with a huge representation of the heavens, which by means of an ingenious water-driven mechanism slowly rotated by night and day.

Here it is not difficult to conjure up the scene of Nero and his guests, lolling on their couches and intoxicated with fine wines, sampling delicacies and congratulating themselves on their good fortune to the sound of strings and flutes.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023