The Domus Aurea (Latin for "Golden House") was a large palace built by the Roman emperor Nero after the fire that devastated Rome in 64. Built of brick (not marble as is sometimes imagined) in the few years between the fire and Nero's suicide in 68, the extensive gold-leaf that gave it its name was not the only extravagant element of its decor: stuccoed ceilings were applied with semi-precious stones and veneers of ivory. Pliny watched it being built (Natural History xxxvi. 111).
The Domus Aurea was comprised of a series of villas and pavillions - open porticos to enjoy the artificial views created where the heart of Rome had recently been. In the centre of the grounds, which included forests, an altar in a sacred grove, pastures with flocks, and vineyards - rus in urbe, "Countryside in the city" - was a man-made lake. To plant a sacred grove as a garden feature could not have avoided connotations of impiety among conservative Romans of Senatorial rank. Nero also commissioned from the Greek Zenodorus a colossal 37-meter bronze statue of himself, dressed in the garb of the Roman sun-god Apollo, the Colossus Neronis, and placed it just outside the main palace entrance. The colossus was revamped with the heads of several succeeding emperors before Hadrian moved it to the Flavian Amphitheater. This building took the name "Colosseum" in the Middle Ages, after the statue nearby. The name stuck.
Romans excelled at the subversive art of graffiti. Someone inscribed a wall
Beneath the wit, the idea that the genii loci, the Quirites of the Quirinal hill, would have to abandon Rome gave a Roman reader of the graffito a chill sense of foreboding.
The Golden House was a party villa - 300 rooms and no sleeping quarters. Nero's own palace remained on the Quirinal Hill. Strangely, no kitchens or latrines have been rediscovered yet either.
Rooms sheathed in dazzling polished white marble were given richly varied floor plans, shaped with niches and exedras that concentrated or dispersed the daylight. There were pools in the floors and fountains splashing in the corridors. Nero took great interest in every detail of the project, according to Tacitus' Annals, and oversaw the architects, Celer and Severus.
Some of the extravagances of the Domus Aurea had repercussions for the future. The architects designed two of the principal dining rooms to flank an octagonal court, surmounted by a dome with a giant central oculus to let in light. It was probably the first use of a dome that was not in a temple dedicated to the gods, such as the Pantheon, and an early use of concrete construction. One innovation was destined to have an enormous influence on the art of the future: Nero placed mosaics, previously restricted to floors, in the vaulted ceilings. Only fragments have survived, but that technique was to be copied extensively, eventually ending up as a fundamental feature of Christian art: the apse mosaics that decorate so many churches in Rome, Ravenna, Sicily and Constantinople.
Celer and Severus also created an ingenious mechanism, cranked by slaves, that made the ceiling underneath the dome revolve like the heavens, while perfume was sprayed and rose petals were dropped on the assembled diners - such quantities of rose petals that one unlucky guest was asphyxiated - or was that part of the negative legend generated by Nero's numerous enemies and his immediate Imperial successors?
"Nero gave the best parties, ever," archaeologist Wallace-Hadrill told an interviewer when the Golden House was reopened to visitors in 1999 after being closed for years for restorations. "Three hundred years after his death, tokens bearing his head were still being given out at public spectacles - a memento of the greatest showman of them all." Nero, who was obsessed with his status as an artist, certainly regarded parties as works of art.
Frescos covered every surface that wasn't more richly finished. The main artist was Fabullus. Fresco technique, working on damp plaster, demands a speedy and sure touch: Fabullus and his studio covered a spectacular amount of area. Pliny, in his Natural History, recounts how Fabullus went for only a few hours each day to the Golden House, to work while the light was right. The swiftness of Fabullus's execution gives a wonderful unity to his compositions and astonishing delicacy to their execution.
After Nero's death, the Golden House was a severe embarrassment to his successors. It was stripped of its marble, its jewels and its ivory within a decade. Soon after Nero's death, the palace and grounds, encompassing one square mile, were built over: the Baths of Titus were already being built on part of the site in 79. On the site of the lake in the middle of the palace grounds, Vespasian built the Flavian Amphitheatre, which could be reflooded at will, with the Colossus Neronis beside it. The Baths of Trajan, and Temples of Venus and Rome were built on the site. Within 40 years, the Golden House was completely obliterated, buried beneath the new construction, but paradoxically this ensured that the painted "grotesques" would survive; the sand worked as effectively as did Pompeii's volcanic dust to preserve them from their perpetual destroyer, damp.
When a young Roman inadvertently fell through a cleft in the Aventine hillside at the end of the 15th century, he found himself in a strange cave or grotta filled with painted figures. Soon the young artists of Rome were having themselves let down on boards knotted to ropes to see for themselves. The frescos that were uncovered then have faded to pale gray stains on the plaster now, but the effect of these freshly-rediscovered grottesche decorations was electrifying in the early Renaissance, which was just arriving in Rome. When Pinturicchio, Raphael and Michelangelo crawled underground and were let down shafts to study them, carving their names on the walls to let the world know they had been there, the paintings were a revelation of the true world of antiquity. Beside the graffiti signatures of later tourists, like Casanova and the Marquis de Sade scratched into a fresco inches apart, (British Archaeology June 1999), are the autographs of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Martin van Heemskerck, and Filippino Lippi.
Their effect on Renaissance artists was instant and profound (it can be seen most obviously in Raphael's decoration for the loggias in the Vatican), and the white walls, delicate swags, and bands of frieze - framed reserves containg figures or landscapes - have returned at intervals ever since, notably in late 18th century Neoclassicism, making Fabullus one of the most influential painters in the history of art. But discovery meant letting in moisture - and that started the slow, inevitable process of decay. Heavy rain was blamed in the collapse of a chunk of ceiling reported in the July/Aug 2001 issue of Archaeology.