One day in the fifteenth century, a young man went for a walk in Rome. While walking on the Esquiline Hill, he fell down a hole. He was astonished to find himself in an enormous cave decorated with painted figures and frescoes. Locals were soon queueing up to abseil into the cave and see these amazing paintings for themselves.
Although he had no idea where he was when he first stumbled into the cave, the young man had inadvertently discovered the Domus Aurea, Nero’s pleasure palace. The Domus Aurea (“Golden House” in Latin), was the most opulent palace in Ancient Rome. Nero had extravagant tastes, and he took advantage of the fire of 64 AD, which had destroyed many buildings in the centre of Rome, to construct his personal palace.
You would expect the palace of an emperor to be luxurious, but even by the standards of Roman emperors, the Domus Aurea was excessive. The palace and its gardens were vast, by some estimates covering an area of up to 300 acres. The building was lavishly decorated with gold leaf, semi-precious stones and frescoes. According to Suetonius, when the construction work was finally finished a few years later, Nero’s only comment was that he was at last beginning to be housed like a human being. Nero, of course, was no ordinary human being.
Suetonius’s description is perhaps the most evocative, giving us a good idea of the scale and splendour of the palace:
The vestibule of the house was so big it contained a colossal statue 120 feet high, the image of Nero; and it was so extensive that it had three colonnades a mile long. There was a lake too, in fact a sea, surrounded with buildings as big as cities. Behind it were villas with fields, vineyards and pastures, woods filled with all kinds of wild and domestic animals. In the rest of the house everything was coated with gold and adorned with gems and shells. The dining-rooms had fretted ceilings made of ivory, with panels that turned and shed flowers and perfumes on those below. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens.
There were over 300 rooms in the Domus Aurea, but no bedrooms. It seems unlikely that Nero ever slept in the palace, as it was designed purely for entertainment purposes. Nero’s decadent parties were legendary, though not always for the right reasons. Legend has it that one unlucky guest was asphyxiated by the rose petals that fell from the ceiling. It seems unlikely, but the story is proof of Nero’s reputation. As the reality was so extraordinary anyway, it’s no wonder his detractors decided to embellish a few details. Even just sticking to the facts, Nero’s life was truly stranger than fiction.
Nero didn’t get to enjoy the luxuries of the Domus Aurea for very long. He committed suicide in 68 AD, and within forty years this magnificent palace had disappeared. It was considered an embarrassment, and Nero’s successors were quick to fill in the ground and build over the palace. The Baths of Trajan were built on the site, and Vespasian covered the lake with the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known as the Colosseum. While some sections of the Domus Aurea can still be seen today, other parts are lost forever, buried beneath other ruins.
Rome wanted to forget Nero and his embarrassingly ostentatious palace, but the influence of the Domus Aurea lived on. When the palace was rediscovered in the fifteenth century, its frescoes inspired artists such as Raphael, whose designs for the Vatican were clearly influenced by the Domus Aurea. Nor was the palace’s opulence forgotten, as modern companies including hotels, estate agents and wine manufacturers use the “Domus Aurea” branding to suggest wealth and luxury.
When visiting Rome, a Domus Aurea tour is a must see, it's a fascinating experience as you walk through vast underground corridors admiring the frescoes – still beautiful despite the water damage – that captivated the imaginations of the Renaissance artists. The octagonal room, believed to be the location of Nero’s rotating ceiling, has an oculus in the dome, reminiscent of the Pantheon. As you watch the sunlight streaming in through the hole, imagine the young man falling into the Domus Aurea from the hill above, accidentally rediscovering one of the greatest buildings in Roman history.
~by Alexandra Turney~