By Federico Schiaffino
Taking a fantastic journey through time, attempting a sort of mediumistic contact with one of the most controversial figures in history, we imagine how the Golden House that Nero had built in record time in A.D. 64, a few months after the terrible fire that destroyed entire neighborhoods of the city, must have been. At its feet near the Via Sacra rose a 35-meter high gilded bronze statue that portrayed the emperor as the Sun God, while the present area of the Colosseum was occupied by an artificial lake surrounded by arcades; above, the Domus in its exceptional grandeur, laid out on two floors and set in a park of almost 80 hectares filled with gardens, viååneyards and orchards, populated by domestic animals and tamed beasts, all around a profusion of fountains, baths, temples and waterlilies that extended as far as the eye could see. But the point most permeated with mystery, that has made more than one scholar rack his brains with its indecipherable rebus, remains without a doubt the by now legendary triumphal dining room (an octagonal room dominated by a throne), covered by a wooden dome with an open oval vault “impluvium” (open to the sky to let in the natural light) and with a floor that rotated thanks to a complicated hydraulic system.
Let’s sit among the guests in the graces of the emperor – lying languidly on triclinia set up in the side rooms – to enjoy the show. Announced by a showering of petals, Nero appeared as if by magic seated on his throne on the rotating stage in his favorite costume, the solar costume of Apollo the Bard, a figure with which he identified himself perfectly to the point of believing that he was the living incarnation of the god Helius. Suetonius tells us that the birth of the emperor was blessed by the sun that had just dispelled the darkness. His eagerly awaited existence, according to the court astrologists with messianic hope, would have led men back to the light of the divinity radiating from the dazzling figure of his emanation on earth, the solar prince who would inaugurate a new period of power and prosperity. And so the palace inhabitated by this Apollo with blond hair, blue eyes and a reddish beard was conceived as God’s terrestrial dwelling with every nook and cranny covered in gold, the metal forged by the sun. In front of his guests Nero, accompanied by the cither, sang lyric compositions written by his own hand dedicated to the exploits of Troy, Homeric heroes and the shining hair of his wife Poppaea. Even though he wasn’t blessed with the gift of singing, he tried to educate his voice in all ways possible – without, however, much success. As compensation, his extraordinary qualities as an actor earned him the fame of a tragic hero that, even though tainted by a certain dose of prejudice, has made it all the way to us. Cinema (like the memorable Quo Vadis? interpreted by Peter Ustinov) has always dwelled upon, almost with morbid pleasure, the cruelty of the blood-thirsty tyrant, leading spectator of the massacres in the arena that he peremptorily ordered with the thumbs down. Actually, Nero preferred chariot races, music and poetry to the fights between the gladiators and the wild beasts, passions lived completely with mystic fervor inspired by the savage Dionesian myth that brought him to commit acts of unchained social licentiousness.
Ever since he was a child, Nero waited until the sun went down to dress up as a slave and roam around the sleeping city with a band of debauchees including literary men and actors of the court indulging in every possible form of evil: they hit those passing by, they robbed, they raped. His biography, marked by intrigue and blood, is, on the other hand, known to all: he didn’t hesitate to kill his brother Britannicus (with a plate of poison mushrooms), legitimate heir to the throne, his mother Agrippina, guilty of excessive meddling in matters of the state (stabbed by a hired killer), his faithful advisor Seneca, his friend the writer Petronius and his very own wife Poppaea, killed by a mortal kick in the pregnant stomach. A spiral of violence which he ends up being a victim of himself when, having repressed some in-house conspiracies with blood after the famous fire in Rome (though attributed to his distructive madness, he skillfully made the responsibility fall on the Christians), a revolt of the army in Spain forced him to commit suicide by the hand of a slave. This, in short, was the human drama of the mad emperor who, like Caligola before him, threw discredit on the iron moral rules of the Roman Republic – rigorously protected by the Senatorial class – prompting his citizens to moral laxness.
To understand the complex personality of the emperor and, consequently, the mysterious origin of his gilded kingdom, a deeper analysis that crosses over the merely objective facts of history is necessary: in this sense, Nero becomes the protagonist of a theatrical tragedy continually outstetched towards the dream of the impossible, the leading actor of a scenic representation where the delirium of omnipotence and the extreme cult of beauty take form under the astounded gaze of the observer. The Domus Aurea, in the unlimited ambitions of its inspirer and the architects responsible for realizing it (the audacious and ingenious Severus and Celer) was destined to summarize, with its uninterrupted game of bizarre functions emulating nature (visions of seas, lakes and cultivated fields), the whole of creation, a world within the world. The dazzling decorations of the rooms, entrusted to the violent brush of aristocratic painter Fabullus, dared to venture beyond the limits of reality, reproducing the chimeras created by the human mind: monstruous beings like griffins, centaurs, sphinxes, dragons and wood fawns, disturbing creatures that populated the emperor’s nightmares, who (according to an obscure legend) was assaulted every night by terror for the terrible crimes that he committed.
Everything in the “grotesques” (the word comes from the grottoes on the Oppian hill where the Domus was layed out) was magic, game and illusion that spread out in a labyrinth of rooms frescoed with swirls and fantastic figures, vibrant in their bright colors – red, blue and golden yellow. It was a type of painting that sparked a considerable fascination among the figures of the Renaissance who went down with torches into the grottoes buried under the Oppian hill to admire up-close the Neronian paintings and to “steal” their original style. Some of them left their signatures on the walls written in lampblack such as Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Domenico da Bologna and Giovanni da Udine. Even Michelangelo and Raphael let themselves down with ropes into the bowels of the Domus: the first to inspect, on orders from Julius II, the statue of the Laocoön (today in the Vatican Museums) discovered during the excavations, while the artist from Urbino went down to study the original frescoes, later reintroduced in the decorations of the Vatican rooms. The fashion of the “grotesques” returned in the 18th century when going down into the dark and humid rooms of the palace in ruins (sacked and filled with earth during the time of Trajan) was considered, with the usual coquetry of the time, a thrilling undertaking, a society game that was talked about in the salons.
After the 19th century excavations and a long period of deterioration that culminated in 1981 with the closing of the archeological area to the public, the Domus Aurea reopened its doors in 2000 after the restoration works executed by the Superintendence of Rome. As a result of the humidity and sudden changes in temperature, the frescoes were covered with a layer of mould and were therefore reduced to mere shadows of what they originally were, and the slippery, dark tunnels could no longer guarantee the safety of the visitors. For this reason the Palace was closed again to the public and subjected to further restoration capable of guaranteeing safety conditions to the building and visitors alike.
The silence that has fallen on the Domus Aurea in the past years has without a doubt contributed to the sense of “palpable” mystery that lies within its walls and the curiosity of all those who haven’t been able to get in. This honor has been given to only a few lucky souls like director Martin Scorsese, writer Ian McEwan and Ex-Minister of the Arts Walter Veltroni, who, it is said, were all dazzled by the unparalleled splendor of the Neronian palace. When the long restoration will be finally completed, this enthusiasm will surely affect the thousands of visitors who will come to visit the secret rooms of the Domus Aurea, central nucleus of the vast archeological site baptized by some, in light of the last important discoveries, the “Park of the Wonders.”