When my friend Olga, who is a licenced tour guide in Rome, invited me for “a rare visit,” I didn’t ask too many questions. Before long I was by her side tearing through the frenzy of tourists outside the city’s famous Colosseum, following the gentle slope of the Colle Oppio hill to arrive at the quiet green gardens of the mostly underground Domus Aurea, or Golden House.
Built in A.D. 64, after much of Rome was destroyed in a raging fire, the Domus Aurea was Emperor Nero’s glittering palatial residence. At the time, its estimated 150 rooms boasted the finest marble, ivory veneers, precious stones, frescoed walls, and exquisite gold leaf vines, which gave the mansion its timeless name. The mansion’s excesses stretched along its three gilded colonnades, each a mile long. Complete with gardens, vineyards, and even a man-made lake, the Domus was a 200-acre ecosystem of grandeur.
Today’s Domus is different. The building which is buried underground, was recently reopened after a decade following a ceiling collapse. At its unassuming entrance, our guide, an art historian, greets us with a smile and safety helmets. As I step inside, I am struck most by the severe lack of features. The 11-metre-high bare brick walls and gaping holes in the ceiling make the room seem hauntingly empty. Metal bars and panels secure the ceiling at this underground site. The place is dim except for a few strategically-placed lights. This is done, the guide notes, to protect the walls from light damage and algae growth. But even with the best precautions, it is hard to miss the algae and ferns that have taken root in the path of the light. The corridors take us deeper into the villa where faded reds, blues, and yellows begin to appear. Delicate figures of real and mythical creatures are preserved in patches, some more complete than others, on the walls and ceiling. It’s hard to believe I am looking at frescoes that are 2,000 years old.
But where are the dazzling gold leaf and other treasures of the Domus Aurea? The answer to their absence lies in Nero’s life. His extravagance and arrogance attracted fierce enemies, who led a rebellion and displaced him from the throne. Nero was accused of starting the Great Fire of A.D. 64, a charge that stuck because he built the Domus Aurea on grounds that were cleared by the fire. In the face of these accusations, Nero committed suicide. But even in death, he faced damnatio memoriae, Latin for “condemnation of memory.” It is quite literally the systematic deletion of someone from history. The palace’s destiny mirrored its master’s. It was stripped of its magnificence and buried underground. New structures were built over the complex, and the mansion was presumed lost forever.
It was in the late 15th century, nearly 1,400 years later, that a young man fell into what he thought was a grotto, and noticed the same faded frescoed paintings that are before my eyes today. Rising from the ashes of condemnation, the Domus Aurea became a prominent influence for the Renaissance movement, inspiring artists like Raphael and Michelangelo. I begin to appreciate that the Domus’s charm lies in its emptiness, for it elicits the same excitement a child feels with an empty colouring book. The high-vaulted arches, and long thin galleries and vaults were once covered with ornamental motifs. Raphael used this art to breathe life into the Loggia at the Vatican.
The guide leads us into the final, and perhaps most captivating, room of the Domus Aurea. I walk along the eight walls of the octagonal dining room, unable to take my eyes off the round skylight at the centre of the dome above. Even as a blank canvas, the room is stunning. The guide begins to fill in the details: Waterfalls cascaded from the room’s decorated arches, beneath the sparkling night sky visible through the skylight. Here, under a mist of exotic perfumes, Nero treated his guests to lavish meals and profligate performances. It was precisely this decadence that ultimately spurred his downfall. Nero’s palace was excised from memory, but he was not forgotten. In fact, Rome’s most iconic symbol gets its name from the Colossus of Nero, a gigantic statue of the emperor which once stood outside it. Not many recognise this structure, the Flavian Amphitheatre, by its official name now, but everyone knows and loves it as the Colosseum.
Appeared in the January 2016 issue as “Golden House Underfoot”.
The Domus Aurea is a few minutes’ walk from Rome’s Colosseum. Archaeologists are still excavating the site so it is open for limited public tours only on weekends. Tours take roughly 90 min and are capped at 25 people. Tickets must be booked in advance (www.coopculture.it/en; tickets €12/₹860). Carry a warm jacket with you as the Domus is underground and it can get a little chilly.
Aanchal Anand is a travel addict who has been to over 50 countries across 5 continents. When she isn't travelling, she is typically coaxing her two cats off the laptop keyboard so she can get some writing done.