The first time I visited the Domus Aurea in Rome (Nero's Golden House), I thought I was so lucky to see something so amazing and special. I couldn't believe we could go underground and visit this incredibly intact 2000-year old ruin, and see such vivid paintings and well-excavated rooms. I was awed by the details I could see in the ancient artwork, and the octagonal room with oculus in the ceiling that was so clearly a precursor to the pantheon.
Well, I was right. It was short-lived. They shut the whole site down to visitors due to too much exposure devastating the ruins. I thought it was closed for good.
And now, I am more than happily surprised to find that after years of work (which continues even now) by the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma, the site has reopened to the public. On October 26, 2014, they opened their doors again for the first time in 9 years, and I went back in. It's just as wonderful as I remembered, and more!
Without getting too technical or too long-winded, here are some basic facts:
During Nero's reign as emperor of Rome, there was a huge fire in 64 AD that destroyed most of the city. In fact, many people then and later suspected that Nero had the fire set himself, so that the way would be cleared for him to built the gigantic villa he wanted. That villa became known as the Domus Aurea (literally, from Latin, "Golden House.")
This villa was anywhere from 100-300 acres (it's not clear.) Most of it has not been excavated but apparently it occupied much of the area we think of today as "Ancient Rome", i.e. the Palatine Hill, Caelian Hill, and where the Colosseum is now. (During Nero's reign, the Colosseum had not yet been built, and there was a huge man-made lake there instead.)
Originally, it was thought that Nero's villa was simply a gigantic place for entertainment, as they had not found sleeping quarters. But during my recent tour, the archeologist did in fact speak of possible sleeping quarters. So much is still to be discovered about the use of all the spaces there.
In ancient times, imagine a vast space, larger than 3 football fields, that has nature parks, marble-covered pavilions, statues, fountains, sculptures, and atria.
A lot of what Nero did when he had his villa built influenced later art and architecture in Rome and in Italy.
First of all, there is the octagonal complex, with its open oculus in the ceiling to allow light in.
Remind you of anything else in Rome??
Second of all, Nero went against the trend at the time of laying mosaics only on the floor...and had them used to decorate the ceilings as well.
Later, byzantine-style mosaics would be used this way to decorate church apses around Italy.
Third, the villa was rediscovered during the Renaissance, and many painters at the time took ideas from the paintings they saw on the walls there.
Most famously, Raphael's rooms in the Vatican take a lot from the designs he saw on the ceiling of the Domus Aurea.
Nero used gold leaf as decoration in many parts of the villa. Also, most of the villas were composed of white, sparkling marble, and adorned with ivory and jewels. And finally, most of it was also exposed to streaming sunlight.
Even if today it's underground, at the time Nero built and used it, it was on ground level. So between the white marble, gold leaf, shimmering jewels, and the brilliant sunshine pouring in, the idea was to make this a "golden house." A house that shined.
After Nero committed suicide in 68 AD, the next emperor, Vespasian, said, hmmm, let's fill in that pond and make a cool arena we can use for spectator sports. This arena was known then as the Flavian Amphitheater (named for the Flavian dynasty which Vespasian began.) And eventually, it was called the Colosseum, perhaps because of the colossal statue of Nero that stood there for a while.
Subsequent emperors (Titus and Domitian) built more things on top of the ostentatious ruins left behind by Nero, and finally, the Emperor Trajan, said, all right, this has all got to go. (This was typical of emperors, and frankly, later, popes, who each wanted to leave his own mark on the city, and so, destroyed or built over what his predecessors had done.)
So Trajan had all the spaces filled with dirt and brick - which reinforced the walls and created a solid base - and built his baths on top. Today you can see what's left of those baths in the Colle Oppio.
I just love this story...apparently sometime in the Renaissance, a young Roman man fell into a crevasse in the ground, and found himself staring at ancient frescoes on the rubbly walls around him.
When word got out, the artists in Rome of the day, including Pinturicchio, Raphael and Michelangelo, all lowered themselves in there on ropes, and walked around on top of the rubble (put there by Trajan.) They gazed at the art...and took with them ideas for their own works. The style of art we think of today as Grotesque comes from this...because the artists said it was like being in a grotto, or cave.
The Domus Aurea is today an active archeological dig and restoration project. Luckily, we can visit these ruins, with a knowledgable archeologist, who will give you an excellent and very thorough tour of the main catalogued and opened spaces of this vast underground complex.
It is really worth fitting this visit into a trip to Rome, and I would definitely classify it as a must-see in Rome, especially if you like the ancient stuff. You get a much more intimate and closeup, and also un-crowded view of what once was the splendor of Nero's Rome.
If you'd like to read the ongoing blog about the renovation project, click here.
At the time of this writing, October 2014, the excavations are open to the public for guided tours on Saturdays and Sundays. This is because during the week, they are actively working on excavating and restoring the site.
When they first reopened the site, they said it would available for visits only through December 31 2014. Then they date was moved to August 31 2015. At the time of this writing, the Domus Aurea will be open for visits through December 28, 2015 (I am not sure what will happen after that. They may shut down the site again, or continue to keep it open if the site is in ok shape, or, perhaps open it for visits even during the week.) Keep checking this site, or their blog (see link above), for updates.
As the guide explained to us on our tour, they did finally open it to visitors because, frankly, they need the money to help pay for these works!
You may visit on Saturdays and Sundays on a scheduled visit with an authorized guide from the site, between 9am and 5pm. Appointments are available for groups of maximum 25 people, every 15 minutes, in English, Italian and Spanish. Last admission at 3.45 pm. The tour lasts about 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Admission is 10€. If you pre-book tickets, there is a 2€ booking fee. I strongly recommend pre-booking. This is a very popular site, and although they are offering visits throughout the day on Saturdays and Sundays, there is a maximum of 25 people allowed per visit, and you risk not getting in if you just show up. Also, it's a good idea if you book in the language you want. The guides give a lot of information and speak quickly, so you will need to keep up!
The fee includes the guided tour. For tickets, visit the official site of CoopCulture.
The Domus Aurea is on the Colle Oppio, just next to the Coliseum. It is easily accessible from the Piazza del Colosseo, by walking through the gates of the Colle Oppio park.
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