The Domus Aurea, Golden House of Nero
In AD 64, Nero set fire to the city of Rome.The exact reasons he did it are not fully known. It is thought that he partly did for poetic or artistic purposes, or for the purpose of clearing away a city that had currently dissatisfied him. In its place however he did rebuild a better Rome, for the most part that is. A large portion, and arguably too large of a portion, was expropriated for the use of his own residence to be called the Domus Aurea. This is translated: The Golden House, and so, the residence is called: The Golden House of Nero. While the Domus Aurea had rather unjustified reasoning behind it, it is one of the greatest architectural achievements of the ancient world.
Neros residence before his Golden House, was the Domus Transitoria. This was by now means any small living space. It was considered to be a mansion in itself. This palace linked to the Imperial Gardens of Maecenas on the Esquiline hill. It also spanned up the Velian slope beside the Forum (Grant 164). However this structure was not destroyed in the fire of 64. However it did clear out a valley behind it making room for Neros future house. Promptly after the fire construction was begun on Neros Golden House. It would continue until AD 68 (Wheeler 142).In fact the Domus Transitoria would soon become part of the new Domus Aurea.
The architects of this great project were more engineers than they were architects. Their names were Severus and Celer (Picard 116). They were more like Italian bosses heading up a team of technicians who came to Rome in hordes due to their recent fire. However, these engineers main goal was to make the estate look bigger and be bigger without actually expanding. They accomplished by working on it from the inside out, utilizing paintings on walls that gave the impression of going on for infinity.
It is an under statement to refer to these buildings as houses at all though. They were clearly much more than this, in even their smallest proportions. The Domus Aurea itself was a series of buildings and landscapes designed to give the impression of a vast park in a relatively small area for such a thing (Picard 116). The idea behind this was that you would create something more beautiful for the beholder if your creation was beautiful for how you used the earth. For example, there was a large lake in the center of the Domus Aurea, and around it were situated villas and other buildings to go beyond the beauty of precious things, but to attain the beauty that only nature can give. Suetonius commented on the Domus Aurea saying:
An enormous pool, more like a sea than pool, was surrounded by buildings made to resemble cities, and by a landscape garden consisting of ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures, and woodlands- where a variety of domestic and wild animals roamed about (Grant 170).
The Domus Aurea took up about two- hundred and ninety to three hundred and forty acres (Maso 52). Never before had or would any monarch ever take such a large piece of the central city, for his own personal living quarters. As you can imagine, this made for a very restless people because the portion of Rome the site took up was heavily populated. For this the citizens of Rome came up with nasty verses like this:
The Palace is spreading and swallowing Rome!
Let us all flee to Veii and make it our home.
Yet the palace is growing so damnably fast,
That it threatens to gobble up Veii at last.
The building of this large and spacious building was one of the first clues to the Romans that the burning of Rome was not actually the Christians fault.
The Domus Transitoria had now become the entryway or vestibule to the Domus Aurea. Even though it was the biggest building on the property, it was at the head or beginning of Neros house (Grant 170). Directly to the left of the Domus Transitoria was the main residential building. It was at roughly a right angle and is hard to notice from a distance because it is built into a hill. In fact, one could almost miss it if they did not see tall, barrel ceiling hallways. The building was shallow; two to three stories high, and made up of two wings, a west and an east (Grant 172).
The west wing was thought to be the Place where Nero and Poppaea had their bedrooms, however it is difficult to say because more likely, their rooms would be on the second level. The west wing had two personal apartments, each with a bedroom, two other rooms, and chapel (Grant 172). At the back of these suites, the view was unimpeded by a hill because it had been cut away or just sloped down, but they looked out onto a garden type of courtyard with a fountain in the middle (Rossiter 141).
The east wing was shorter and shallower than the west wing. Its rooms faced openly out into the courtyard ahead. The Hall of the Golden Vault leads into the back of the wing into a corridor having no faade. Here the building is built right into the hill and therefore cannot having any open facing side. This makes for a dark damp hallway that is very high running the length of the wing. At the middle of the east wing, interrupting the rooms facing out is an octagonal hall. It is forty-two feet wide and has a domed ceiling, one of the first on any major building of this scale (Maso 52). Light filtered in from a round hole at the top of the cupola. It preceded and foretold of the Pantheon to come. This new technological advance was made possible by the invention of concrete. This octagonal atrium though was a bold new step towards something that had never been practiced on such a large scale. Each side of the octagon had an opening. The front three let out into the courtyard before it. This is one reason it is assumed to be a place of greeting. The next four in, two on either side, were vaulted rooms, two of which were cross-shaped, two were square. The last opening at the top and directly in the center was a stairwell with a stream running down it (Grant 173).
Nero was intrigued by small gadgets or neat architectural inventions, and so, he had many put into his house. In his baths he had both salt water and sulphurous water. His music room had the largest and most powerful hydraulic organ ever. In his dining room he had panels put into his ceilings to shower his guests with flowers and hidden pipes to spray perfume on them. He was also able to move panels in his ceiling to show a different ceiling during different courses of the meal. In his banquet hall, Suetonius tells us:
circular, and constantly revolving, day and night like the heavens.
It is now a topic of great discussion whether the entire room actually revolved, or if it was just the ceiling. Either way, it would have required a large power source for this and would have required the latest technology (Grant 175). The new trend of the times was artificially stained marble. Another rock that was sort of a novelty was one recently discovered in Asia Minor that let the light in while doors were still closed (Grant 176).
Art was very prevalent in Neros Golden House. The artist in charge of the art was named Famulus or Fabullus, no one is sure. He managed many other lesser artists who would do the busywork. During these times though, artists werent appreciated at all, and so Famulus would wear a full toga every day painting on the scaffolding in order to show the respect painters deserved. There were really two distinctive types of art that were noticeable in Neros house, what was in the hallway, and what was in rooms. Hallways were more corridors with barrel vaulted ceilings. Hallways often had paintings giving the trompe loeil effect of having a beautiful landscape viewed through a window (Grant 164). Most of the paintings in the hallways were landscapes or impressionistic mosaics. However in the rooms there were more architectural paintings of colonnades continuing on. The rooms also had gilded semi-precious stones implanted into the walls and sheets of ivory plated to the ceilings (Maso 52).
Nero has thus far been very generous to his people in the funding of rebuilding Rome and especially his palace. However one of the more expensive aspects of the dcor of his home, would be the sculptures. Famous sculptures ran a high price for quality work and so, Nero decided to steel the existing sculptures that were already very good, and most importantly paid for in the world. He sent two consortiums of people to roam around the Roman Empire and gather anything that looked good. This infuriated many people because quite often the best sculptures were in temples, and stealing from the temples is a sacrilege. One statue we know he paid for was the one he had Zenodorus sculpt of himself. It stood 120 feet high and was placed in the reconstructed Domus Transitoria, most likely in the center of the main colonnaded atrium. Nonetheless, Nero collected thousands of sculptures and put them in the many nooks and crannies of the Domus Aurea (Grant 178-80). Today there are many in the Vatican Museum.
Nero committed suicide in AD 68, after his home had been dedicated, but before it had been completed. At its dedication, Nero said that he could finally live like man was intended to. Unfortunately and ironically, he hardly got to enjoy it. While the Domus Aurea was a great architectural work in their time, it had left a sort of bitter taste in their mouths that they wanted to avenge. After Otho short reign of protecting this monument, Vitellius became emperor for an equally short time but disliked the palace while he was in charge. It came down to the fact that the Domus Aurea was not objectionable in its splendor, but in it size and wasted space. The emperor could not justify having so large a dwelling when it was robbing the city of places to live, highways, and other amenities of the city. So, Vespasian (69-79) demolished most of the great house (Grant 185). Trajan built baths over much of it (Grant 164). The Colosseum now sits over the large lake that was the center of the great park (Maso 53).This year in celebration of the year two thousand, thirty new rooms are being opened up of the Domus Aurea, about an entire new wing (Archeology 28).
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