Before I travel, I like to scope out my destination online to see what might be going on while I am there. In traveling to Rome, something I had always read about and not seen on previous trips (maybe because it was closed for the past eight years) was the Domus Aurea. You know, that over-the-top house built by the crazy emperor with the fiddle and the pyromania?
Well, tours of the Domus Aurea are occurring again in a limited fashion (only on the weekends) due to the fact that active excavations are underway Monday through Friday from 9 to 5. I can’t recommend this tour highly enough. It was fascinating and my only complaint was that it didn’t last nearly long enough.
The Domus Aurea was a pleasure palace – built by Nero, really one of the worst of the worst as Roman emperors went – the grounds, buildings and artificial lake of which occupied a square mile of prime real estate in the center of Rome that was mysteriously and conveniently cleared by a devastating fire in 64 AD that completely destroyed well over half the city… and which was possibly ordered by Nero himself, though that may never be known. Hence the whole fiddling and fire story, though there were certainly no fiddles in the first century and crazy Miss Nero probably just smiled, sang and watched. To encapsulate a little history (in my limited fashion):
Nero’s mother Agrippina was the Empress. The two of them poisoned his uncle, the Emperor Claudius (of ‘I, Claudius’ fame). Nero succeeded his uncle to the throne. Then he engineered the death of his mother – who must have been very unpleasant, but was still his mother.
He then apparently went on a spree and had most of Rome burned down because there wasn’t room enough in any existing palace for both him and his ego. He snatched up all the now-empty land and built the Domus Aurea, moving out all that trash who had lived in the center of the city and reportedly stating that he could finally be housed like a human being. He blamed the fire on those pesky Christians, but ended up getting his when everyone became thoroughly tired of his foolishness and he committed suicide rather than be flogged to death, as the Senate had decreed.
It is believed that the area of the actual Domus Aurea stretches from the Colosseo metro stop all the way to Termini station, which is quite a walk. Only one wing has been excavated, and much of the rest currently sits under some very prime Roman real estate or simply doesn’t exist any longer. The palace was originally surrounded by a vast complex of fountains, with hot and cold running water in the baths and one room that showered visitors with flower petals and perfume as they entered. It is also believed that a large part of the façade and the greater part of the interior decorations were coated in solid gold, as was the thirty-five meter statue of himself that Nero had installed in the main court.
Regardless of the fact that the Domus had to have been fabulous and had cost an unimaginable amount of money and effort, it sat empty for a decade after Nero’s death and most of its decoration was plundered before being filled to the roof with earth and rubble to provide a foundation for more practical buildings that ran less risk of causing the ultimate death of their builders. The thirty-five meter tall ‘Colossus of Nero’ had a new head added and was hauled across the street to stand in front of the Flavian Amphitheatre – lending its name to what we now call the Colosseum.
The currently excavated part of the Domus became the foundation for the baths of both Trajan and Titus and you will actually enter the Domus through one of the arched brick tunnels built by Trajan to help support the weight of the baths he built above.
The excavated part of the palace that you are able to tour (across the street from the piazza Colosseo) was originally conceived as a guest wing containing no permanent accommodations and is currently covered by around nine feet or so of earth, grass and trees belonging to the park under which it lies.
This park is the major reason for the Domus having been closed for so long, as the roots of the trees were causing havoc in the excavation and the building, the moisture from the earth and the living things were causing havoc in the excavation and the building, and the breath of the thousands of tourists was causing havoc in the excavation and the building. They are working diligently to resolve all these problems, with the depth of the earth and vegetation covering the Domus expected to be reduced from around nine feet to three feet by 2018; in the meanwhile, you get a great tour of an unforgettable site where you can view archaeological work actually in progress.
Take a sweater; it is surprisingly cool nine feet underground and you will be able to see your breath in the air pretty much throughout the tour. The sounds seem muffled by the earth and if the space is smaller than you had imagined, that is because most of the walls that you see were built by Trajan and Titus as further support for the baths they built on top of the Domus. Claustrophobia would be a bad thing to bring with you on the tour.
The tour runs through most of the rooms that are safe to enter and in which no one is actually working, making its way to the huge octagonal room with its oculus on the eastern side of the excavation – which was originally flanked by two enormous dining rooms – before turning back.
When it began to be rediscovered in the fifteenth century, artists like Raphael and Michelangelo flocked to be lowered into the gloom and view the uncovered frescoes and decoration remaining in the Domus, driving the Italian Renaissance, dragging the Western world out of the Middle Ages and very heavily influencing the decoration of buildings from that period, including the Vatican.
The tours of the Domus Aurea run all day Saturday and Sunday, are planned through at least the end of this year and are conducted in several languages. Please do this if you go to Rome. Period. It is completely worth an hour and a half or so of your time, the cost of the ticket (which is around twenty euros) and even the requirement that you wear a lunch lady hairnet and bright yellow construction helmet inside the excavation.
Our guide, Tina, was good-natured and informative, striking a perfect balance between the time required to actually complete the tour and the need to satisfy everyone’s request for photographs, and advised us that thirty percent of the ticket price goes directly to conservation of the Domus Aurea.