Race to Preserve Nero’s Golden House

The Domus Aurea, also known as the Golden House, was the emperor Nero‘s grand palace, with more than 150 rooms gilded, frescoed and clad in marble. Spanning an area of eight hectares, it was built over the Oppio, Celio, Palatine and Esquiline hills in Rome in 65 AD, following the great fire that destroyed 10 of the city’s 14 neighbourhoods. When Nero killed himself just three years after its construction, the Domus Aurea was opened as a public park. Some of it was destroyed immediately and the giant lake, known as the Stagnis Neronis, was filled so that the foundations for another grand building could be laid: the Flavian amphitheatre, or Colosseum.

It wasn’t until Trajan took power between 98-117 AD that the Golden House was finally filled with earth and Trajan’s baths built on top. But this destructive act was also the palace’s saving grace. The earth-filled rooms survived intact and untouched between 104 AD until they were rediscovered at the end of the 15th century.

Renaissance artists such as Raffaello and Ghirlandaio visited the underground rooms and made copies of some of the frescoes at that time their sketches, giving rise to the grotesque artistic movement, provide important evidence of the Domus Aurea’s interior as the paintings in many of the rooms have been ruined by water seeping through the walls.

These days the structure is closed (despite brief periods when it has been open to academics and specialists). But Rome’s heritage ministry is hoping to breath a new lease of life into the site. Restoration work, costing more than 3 million Euro, began at the start of June and they hope to reopen the site by 2011. The works will include several projects for protecting the structure from water, including a complete excavation of the area above the Domus Aurea and a drainage system to divert rainwater away from the site. The site referred to today as the Domus Aurea is in fact the first floor of the original palace. The ground floor was stripped of its marble and precious adornments in the years following Nero’s death and the walls were reinforced to provide a sturdier foundation for Trajan‘s baths to be built on top. The second floor of the palace was largely destroyed to make way for the baths.

Photo by Leon Reed.