The first time I visited the Domus Aurea in Rome (in 2002), I knew I was lucky to see such an extraordinary site from Ancient Rome.
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.
But in 2014 they re-opened their doors. And it was even better than before. And now (2017)? It's become one of the most spectacular things you can do in Rome!
Picture Rome in 64AD. Nero is emperor. Yet another fire sweeps through Rome (this happened a lot back then.) This time, the 6-day fire destroys huge amounts of land across the Esquiline, Celian and Palatine Hills.
Once the fire is out, Nero figures it's the perfect opportunity to build his opulent house of gold. Just for him (that is a lot of ego even for a Roman emperor!)
Imagine a vast space, probably larger than 4 football fields, that has nature parks, marble-covered pavilions, statues, fountains, sculptures, and atria. We are talking about a massive complex of buildings, man-made lakes, gardens, porticos, all glimmering with white marble, ivory and precious materials brought in from around the empire.
That villa became known as the Domus Aurea (literally, from Latin, "Golden House.")
The Domus Aurea 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, the Esquiline Hill and the Caelian Hill. This includes where the Colosseum is now. (During Nero's reign, the Colosseum had not yet been built. 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 one 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.
Nero used gold leaf as decoration in many parts of the villa. Also, most of the structures were composed of white, sparkling marble, and adorned with ivory and jewels. And finally, the whole thing was exposed to streaming sunlight.
Today it's underground, but when 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.
Nero was probably insane. He'd killed his mother, killed his wife, and behaved pretty erratically. In 68 AD he was driven out of the city and forced to commit suicide.
After his death, the senate issued a "Damnatio memoriae", a Latin phrase meaning "to condemn his memory." In theory, Nero and all he did was to be obliterated so Rome could get back to being a stable, growing empire.
There was a shaky year of the four emperors, where the first 3 after Nero kept getting killed one after the next. But the fourth, Vespasian, who took reign in 69 AD, founded a stable dynasty: The Flavian dynasty.
One of Vespasian's ideas to help erase memories of Nero was to get rid of Nero's giant lake. He said (something like), hmmm, let's fill in that pond and make a cool arena we can use for spectator sports. The people will be amused and entertained and forget about all that craziness and instability.
This arena was known then (and still is) as the Flavian Amphitheater (named for the Flavian dynasty which Vespasian began.) And eventually, it became known as 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.
A lot of what Nero did when he had his villa built influenced later art and architecture in Rome and in Italy. For me, this is one excellent reason to visit the Domus Aurea- It really ties together Rome's ancient past with some of the things you may already have seen in Rome:
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? Like the Pantheon?
Second of all, Nero went against the trend at the time of laying mosaics only on the floor ... and used them 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 (as I wrote just above), 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.
The Domus Aurea is today an active archeological dig and restoration project. Luckily, we can visit these ruins, with a knowledgeable 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.
I will just say "wow." The Domus Aurea was already one of my favorite Ancient Rome things to see.
But now, with the addition of virtual reality goggles, this site visit has jumped to a whole new level of AMAZING!
When you first arrive for your visit, you will be given a hard-hat to wear. I guess this is just a precaution, as I cannot see anything falling on you. Even the guide will wear one.
Your guide will be one of the archeologists actively working on the site. So he/she is really in a position to know all the details. In fact, each time I've done this visit over the years, the various guides have provided different and new information as more is discovered.
The spaces are large, and it's not claustrophobic at all.
It is however, chilly in there. And it can be damp in parts. So if it's hot out, this can be a great way to keep cool! Just remember to bring a sweater.
In one of the rooms you will sit down and put on virtual reality googles. This is the part about the visit that makes the whole thing a must-see in Rome. The narrator will take you through (in English) the ruins you are sitting in, but make it look as it did in the past. You will feel transported, as if you are flying around and looking at the huge complex from a drone. It's one of the most amazing things I've ever done in Rome and I cannot recommend this highly enough!
I cannot stress highly enough how you need to plan ahead for this. And in high season, plan way ahead!
The excavations are open to the public for guided tours only on Saturdays and Sundays. During the week, they are actively working on excavating and restoring the site, so you cannot visit it then.
As the guide explained to us on our tour, they finally re-opened 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 14€. 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 to 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 and the virtual reality portion.
For tickets, visit the official site of CoopCulture. If they are sold out, you may try with a tour company. Tours can also be good options if you want to combine a visit here with something else.
For a tour that includes the Domus Aurea, Colosseum, and Roman Forum, click here. For a tour that includes a visit to the Domus Aurea, and a rooftop aperitif, click here to book with Through Eternity tours.
The Domus Aurea is not one of the sites available for free or reduced entry with the Roma Pass. Also, it is not one of the sites that participates in the "Free Sunday at the Museum", held the first Sunday of each month, in which state museums and sites are free.
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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