One of the more recent attractions in Rome is actually one of the more ancient. The Golden House (Domus Aurea) of Nero, what remains of it, has been excavated and the ruins are now available for public viewing.
Though re-discovered during the Renaissance, they were the subject of a massive restoration project near the end of the 20th century.
Constructed in 64 AD after the devastating fire that burned two-thirds of Rome (at which legend has it Nero fiddled), Domus Aurea is an archaeological treasure trove. At one time many parts were covered with gold foil and the ceiling festooned with ivory and jewels by the extravagant emperor. Alas, these are not on display. They were stripped from the palace shortly after Nero’s death.
The original palace and related structures covered 350 acres that included a man-made lake, vineyards and the house itself. Terming the villa a house, however, is misleading. Domus Aurea contained 300 rooms, but is thought to have had no sleeping quarters. None that were intentional, at least. No doubt many passed out where they were during the parties for which Nero was famed.
It was the original site of the huge statue Nero had made, bearing his own likeness of course, that was later relocated to outside the Colosseum. The bronze base of the 40m/130ft statue can still be seen there.
Though much has been destroyed over the centuries, there still remains of Domus Aurea enough to satisfy anyone looking to spend an interesting hour or two tour in a cool place. That’s always welcome in Rome, where the temperature can be in the mid-80s even in late October.
The underground, audio-guided tour offers enormous, fresco-covered vaults and many rooms to explore. The frescoes painted by Fabullus, a noted artist of the period were executed in a style popular in Pompeii, the doomed city not far from Rome.
The Renaissance artist Raphael used them as models for some of his own work, and many Renaissance artists – including Michaelangelo – went to visit the (then) newly discovered palace frescoes. Both artists left their signatures scratched in the walls, to be later joined by such luminaries as Casanova and the Marquis de Sade.
The tour shows a wide variety – some areas of Domus Aurea are shadowed ruins with barely visible carvings. Others are fully restored golden and marble walls with largely intact paintings and fireplaces.
Grottos abound in the underground area, but the most impressive portion is unquestionably the Octagon Room. Here Nero, a great fan of Greek art, housed a statue of the Dying Gaul, which can now be seen in the Pallazo Altemps museum.
Outside Domus Aurea, there are gardens and a reconstruction of the octagonal room that allow the visitor to clearly imagine what living there must have been like.