right Georges Chedanne, The Laocoön in the Domus Aurea, 1880-1890.

Domus Aurea: the golden and the grotesque

Nero’s spectacular palace in Rome, the Domus Aurea or ‘Golden House’, was rediscovered in the Renaissance. Dalu Jones describes how the opulent designs of its ancient halls inspired some of the most celebrated artists of the 15th and 16th centuries.

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In no other matter did he act more wastefully than in building a house that stretched from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hill, which he originally named ‘Transitoria’ [House of Passages], but when soon afterwards it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt he called it ‘Aurea’ [Golden House]. It was a house whose size and elegance these details should be sufficient to relate: its courtyard was so large that a 120-foot colossal statue of the emperor himself stood there; it was so spacious that it had a mile-long triple portico; also there was a pool of water like a sea, that was surrounded by buildings which gave it the appearance of cities; and besides that, various rural tracts of land with vineyards, cornfields, pastures, and forests, teeming with every kind of animal both wild and domesticated. In other parts of the house, everything was covered in gold and adorned with jewels and mother-of-pearl; dining rooms with fretted ceilings whose ivory panels could be turned so that flowers or perfumes from pipes were sprinkled down from above; the main hall of the dining rooms was round, and it would turn constantly day and night like the Heavens; there were baths, flowing with seawater and with the sulphur springs of the Albula; when he dedicated this house, that had been completed in this manner,
he approved of it only so much as to say that he could finally begin to live like a human being.

Suetonius,
The Lives of the Caesars: Nero 31

Visitors to Rome taking selfies next to the Colosseum are often unaware they are standing where once there was a large man-made lake and a marvellous garden, overlooked by a magnificent pillared pavilion, whose gilded decoration shone in the sunlight. This was the sumptuous private retreat of Emperor Nero (r. AD 54-68): the fabled Domus Aurea, the ‘Golden House’, sprawling over the Oppian Hill.

Georges Chedanne, The Laocoön in the Domus Aurea, 1880-1890. IMAGE: Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen/DeAgostini Picture Library/Scala, Florence.

A huge bronze statue of the emperor towered over the site: the very name of the Colosseum derives from this amazing landmark. The statue later disappeared, but the palace did not. It was, however, forgotten: regarded by Nero’s successors as a symbol of the emperor’s decadence, it was intentionally buried under a huge mound of earth. Within a decade of Nero’s death, in AD 68, it had been stripped of its luxurious marble furnishings and of all of its moveable treasures. The 1st century AD structures were then filled with layers of soil and levelled to serve as the substructure for the grand baths of Emperor Titus (r. AD 79-81) and those of Emperor Trajan (r. AD 98-117) in a deliberate attempt to obliterate not only the former emperor’s memory, but also all traces of the Domus Aurea, and to return to public use land that Nero had claimed as his own.

Above Nero’s Domus Aurea, from an engraving by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, 1725.
Nero’s Domus Aurea, from an engraving by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, 1725. IMAGE: AKG-images.

Thus it was that Emperor Vespasian (r. AD 69-79) drained the artificial lake and began the construction of the Colosseum. In later centuries, these great monuments were also stripped bare and were surrounded by vineyards, leaving the Domus Aurea lying hidden beneath them, undisturbed for nearly 1,500 years. In the late 15th century, however, a young boy fell through an opening in the side of the Oppian Hill, where he dimly perceived a stuccoed and painted ‘grotto’, or cave – the fabled ruins of the Domus Aurea. He was soon followed by a host of artists and adventurers, including Raphael (1483-1520) and Michelangelo (1475-1564), who were lowered by ropes eager to dig up antiquities and explore the beautifully decorated spaces, which were to prove such an influence on the art and architecture of the Renaissance.

This poem served as an introduction for a group of etchings with grotesques, attributed to the Master of the Die (fl. 1525-1560).

‘Rome the receptacle of all shining genius,
From whose grottoes where the sun never shines,
Now such great light and such fine art returns.’

(Anonymous poet, c.1530)

Back on the original site of the Domus Aurea, a large public park was created in 1871, incorporating the ruins of the ancient baths built by Emperors Titus and Trajan. In later years, the park was enlarged, serving as a backdrop for the celebrations held on 21 April 1936 to mark the legendary founding of Rome on the same date in 753 BC. These developments were disastrous for the ruins, however, and for the gloriously painted and stuccoed rooms surviving beneath. In their search for the minerals that abound in ancient mortar, the roots of plants had cracked the remaining floors of Trajan’s Baths, infiltrating the opus signinum (pieces of pottery or brick mixed with lime and sand used as mortar) that held them together.

The hall of Achilles at Skyros: the central ceiling panel depicts Achilles with shield and spear in hand, surrounded by the daughters of Lycomedes, ruler of Skyros. In this scene, Achilles who had been in hiding, disguised as a girl has just revealed his true identity to Odysseus.
both pages The hall of Achilles at Skyros: the central ceiling panel depicts Achilles with shield and spear in hand, surrounded by the daughters of Lycomedes, ruler of Skyros. In this scene, Achilles who had been in hiding, disguised as a girl has just revealed his true identity to Odysseus. At the north face of the room, the remnants of a tile arch can still be seen. Below the arch is ‘the conch’, so named for its resemblance to a shell. Decorative frames and details abound.
At the north face of the room, the remnants of a tile arch can still be seen. Below the arch is ‘the conch’, so named for its resemblance to a shell. Decorative frames and details abound.

In recent years, a vast programme of reclamation by the Archaeological Superintendency of Rome was set up at the Domus Aurea and is currently under way. Archaeologists are clearing an increasing number of underground spaces, and tackling the problems of conservation and public access; removing salts, mineral deposits, fungal growths, and pollutants that are destroying the wall paintings; and trying to reattach the topmost painted layers of the frescoes to the underlying surfaces from which they have become separated. It is painstaking work – and, for it to be successful, it is also necessary physically to decrease the sheer volume of the park, whose weight increases by up to 30% in the rain, by more than half. ‘We are far from any effective solution,’ says Fedora Filippi, the retired archaeologist formerly responsible for the excavations. ‘We have had to map and then remove existing trees that are causing the most damage, while documenting the entire excavation phase in detail… We can’t just dismantle the garden without taking precautions or we will destroy the palace’s frescoed walls, which have managed to adapt and stay standing over the centuries.’

The archaeologists are working to replace the existing gardens at a level more than 10 feet above where they are now, with a subsurface infrastructure designed to seal off the underground architecture from moisture and to regulate temperature and humidity. With straight avenues crossed at right angles by little paths, the new garden will also echo ancient Roman gardens as they were described by Latin writers Columella (AD 4-c.70) and Pliny the Elder (AD 23/24-79). The overall idea is to evoke the concept of rus in urbe (or ‘countryside in the city’) that underlies the Domus Aurea’s original design – that of a vast country villa made up of separate but linked porticoed pavilions with inner courtyards, exedrae, nymphaea, pools, and fountains, complete with groves of trees, vineyards, an artificial lake, and even pastures with grazing animals, right in the densely populated urban heart of the empire. The historian Tacitus (c.AD 55-120) wrote of the Domus Aurea that what was even more marvellous than the spectacular interiors were ‘the fields and lakes and the air of solitude given by wooden ground alternating with clear tracts and open landscapes’. To be able to recover some of the lost relationship between the green of the Oppian Hill and the architecture within is therefore a tremendous challenge.

The Octagonal Hall today. IMAGE: Parco Archeologico del Colosseo

The Domus Aurea was not designed for everyday use, but for the private entertainment of the emperor and to display his collections of works of art. It covered a huge area – hundreds of acres – over the Oppian Hill between the Palatine and Esquiline Hills. Nothing in the entire 1st century AD Roman empire could compare to its beauty and magnificence. No building was as gloriously splendid and imposing. It had hundreds of rooms, their walls sheathed in polychrome marble, while the stuccoed vaults and high ceilings were covered in wall paintings inset with semi-precious stones, real gems, iridescent seashells, and, of course, gold. The use of gold leaf was ubiquitous, inside and out, and Nero even had mosaics, previously restricted to floors, set for the first time in vaulted ceilings. The house and gardens were filled with sculptures the emperor had taken from Greece and Asia Minor. Among the most celebrated of all ancient sculptures, the Laocoön group – rediscovered in 1506 on the Oppian Hill and standing more than two metres high – might have been one of them, though archaeologists now argue it was found under the nearby Bath of Titus, rather than on the site of the Domus Aurea, as first believed.

far left The Octagonal Hall today. below & left Digital renderings from the exhibition: the Octagonal Hall in the Domus Aurea, with a map of the night sky showing astrological signs, and the second lateral room opening on to the Octagonal Hall.
far left The Octagonal Hall today. below & left Digital renderings from the exhibition: the Octagonal Hall in the Domus Aurea, with a map of the night sky showing astrological signs, and the second lateral room opening on to the Octagonal Hall.

The construction of the Golden House began in AD 64 and was completed four years later, in AD 68, just six months before Nero’s death. The emperor oversaw every detail of the grandiose project, which he had masterminded as a showcase for his own god-like persona. The iconography of the surviving wall paintings makes this clear, with a sequence of themes in each major group of rooms linking the emperor to his mythical ancestry.

Digital renderings from the exhibition: the Octagonal Hall in the Domus Aurea, with a map of the night sky showing astrological signs, and the second lateral room opening on to the Octagonal Hall. IMAGES: © Dotdotdot. All rights reserved.

The reclamation plan to conserve and stabilise the surviving parts of the Domus Aurea has also provided the opportunity for archaeologists to excavate an increasing number of halls and passageways within the buried palace. Among them is an octagonal court, surmounted by a dome with a giant central oculus six metres in diameter to let the daylight in: a feat of architectural engineering and a brilliant early example of the Roman mastery of concrete building techniques. Some archaeologists believe they have identified here the famous cenatio rotunda, or revolving banqueting hall, described by Suetonius. To create the effect, the palace architects – Celer and Severus – would have designed an ingenious mechanism that made the ceiling underneath the dome revolve like the heavens; special light-effects at specific times would evoke an astronomical cosmology, while perfume would have been sprayed and rose petals dropped on the assembled diners. What is astonishing is the clever use everywhere of devices to increase daylight in the palace’s inner quarters. An extraordinary luminosity must have pervaded all the spaces, now dank and dark, with white or brightly coloured walls and many pools and fountains concentrating or dispersing light from specially positioned slanted openings.

Grotesques and an ancient philosopher, c.1503-1504, by Luca Signorelli in the cathedral at Orvieto. IMAGE: Alamy.

When visitors are finally allowed once again to enter the Domus Aurea, they will be surprised by a new lighting system designed to highlight such masterpieces of Roman painting as the recently restored composition showing Achilles at Skyros. Virtual renderings of the original spaces and special effects will alternate between full daylight and flickering torchlight.

above & right Grotesque decoration in the Carafa chapel, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome, 1489-1493. left Grotesques and an ancient philosopher, c.1503-1504, by Luca Signorelli in the cathedral at Orvieto.
Grotesque decoration in the Carafa chapel, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome, 1489-1493. IMAGES: Alamy.

This year, before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, a major exhibition was due to open inside the Domus Aurea to mark the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death in 1520. Entitled Raphael and the Domus Aurea: the invention of the grotesque, the exhibition focuses on the discovery inside the Domus Aurea of a famous series of painted ‘grotesques’ – mysterious stylised figures that were to become a subject of fascination to Renaissance artists.

Raphael’s pupils decorated several Vatican rooms, including the Loggetta of Cardinal Bibbiena, after his designs inspired by ancient painting. They show fanciful grotesque designs, as well as scenes from the life of Apollo. IMAGE: Alamy.

From the 1480s, leading Italian artists – including Pinturicchio (1454-1513), Filippino Lippi (c.1457-1504), and Luca Signorelli (c.1445-1523) – visited the ‘grottoes’, reinterpreting in their own work the bizarre motifs inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses they saw there. Raphael is believed to have visited the grottoes in 1514, together with his assistant Giovanni da Udine (1487-1564). An antiquarian in his own right, Raphael correctly identified the long-buried halls of the Domus Aurea. Together with his pupils, he made careful copies of the Roman motifs, using them in his own work as luxuriant framing devices to enhance mythological paintings in an ‘after the antique’ style. This is most evident in the Vatican loggias, or corridor spaces, decorated by Raphael under Pope Leo X (1475-1521), and in the private bathroom known as the Stufetta del cardinal Bibbiena, also in the Vatican.

top Raphael’s pupils decorated several Vatican rooms, including the Loggetta of Cardinal Bibbiena, after his designs inspired by ancient painting. They show fanciful grotesque designs, as well as scenes from the life of Apollo. above Fresco decoration painted in 1516-1517, by Giovanni da Udine, one of Raphael’s pupils, in the Loggetta.
Fresco decoration painted in 1516-1517, by Giovanni da Udine, one of Raphael’s pupils, in the Loggetta. IMAGE: Alamy.

Henceforth, designs involving ‘grotesques’ became a widespread fashion for painted and stuccoed interior decorations in Italy and elsewhere. These designs were the same ones the great Roman architectural theoretician Vitruvius (c.80-after 15 BC) had disliked when they became fashionable in his own time. He wrote in De architectura (c.25 BC) that they were illogical and perverse:

monsters are now painted in frescoes rather than reliable images of definite things. Reeds are set up in place of columns, … several tender shoots, sprouting in coils from roots, have little statues nestled in them for no reason, or shoots split in half, some holding little statues with human heads, some with the heads of beasts. Now these things do not exist nor can they exist nor have they ever existed… How, pray tell, can a reed really sustain a roof, or a candelabrum the decorations of a pediment, or an acanthus shoot, so soft and slender, loft a tiny statue perched upon it, or can flowers be produced from roots and shoots on the one hand and figurines on the other? … Minds beclouded by feeble standards of judgement are unable to recognise what exists in accordance with authority and the principles of correctness.

Grotesques in the Sale della Vittoria e degli Acrobati,Castello di Torrechiara, Parma, 1576-1585, by Cesare Baglione. IMAGE: Alamy.

Despite Vitruvius’ sharp judgement, Renaissance artists took to the novelty and playfulness of grotesques’ imagery – in which extravagance and whimsicality prevailed over the ‘correctness’ of Classical models, ushering in a Baroque style characterised by a need for the fantastic and the delirious, for surreal motifs and imaginary architectural perspectives painted with vivid, bright colours. In this way, the decorative taste of the infamous Emperor Nero, a ruler reputed to be both ‘mad and bad’, was to inspire other artists to recreate a symbolic golden age in the palaces of popes and princely rulers throughout Europe.

Grotesques in the chiostro dell’Abbazia of Monte Oliveto Maggiore abbey, c.1505-1508, by il Sodoma. IMAGE: Alamy.

Nero’s reputation remains controversial, to say the least. In the past, it has widely been thought that it was the emperor himself who sparked the fire that destroyed a large part of Rome in AD 64 – but this is now believed by scholars to be the result of a smear campaign against a ruler who, though certainly capable of murderous actions, was also a genuine and discerning patron of the arts. As evidence, they point to the fact that Nero’s first palace, the Domus Transitoria, which he had richly furnished, was partly destroyed by the encroaching flames; indeed, many of the marbles that were later used inside the Domus Aurea had been salvaged from its site on the Palatine Hill. Whatever the truth, the excavations at the Domus Aurea tell a fascinating story of how the whims of one of history’s most notorious figures came to echo down the ages.

Further information
Raffaello e la Domus Aurea. L’invenzione delle grottesche is at the Domus Aurea in Rome, until January 2021. 
Its website is https://raffaellodomusaurea.it and the catalogue, edited by V Farinella, S Borghini, and A d’Alessio, is published (in Italian only) by Electa. V Farinelli’s The Domus Aurea Book, in English and Italian, was published by Electa in 2019 and costs €28.