Gold for the price of silver

This blog post is dedicated to Lady Trowelsworthy, without whom none of this would have been possible. Your Ladyship, you are a star

This weekend, the madness overtook me.

This happens sometimes.

Awesome mosaic museum, but it’s 2000 miles away in Gaziantep? No problem. Really cool and rarely-played play being produced, but it’s in Newcastle? Be rude not to. Loop playing…well, most places. Yep. I’m going to see them in Yorkshire, Liverpool, Glasgow (if I can get a ticket) and Iceland!

This time it was the combination of the opening on an infamous and long-inaccessible Roman archaeological site, and the fact that two of my friends were going, making me chew my knuckles with envy. But it was in 5 days time…in Rome.

Oh well, why not.

My two digging buddies, Kathryn and Badger happened to be on holiday in Rome at the same time (not together) and were meeting up to pay this visit. This is like a solar eclipse, the perfect alignment of two entities, in this case, one from Canada and the other from the US. Even better, there are few people I’d rather visit an infamous and long-inaccessible Roman archaeological site with so it was just too good to pass up, especially when Badger started taunting me on Facebook.

So off I went. On a day trip to Rome. This does actually sound crazier than it was in the end. Yes, I had to leave home at stupid o’clock to catch an early flight and, yes, it was a long day, but actually it was fine, if a little tiring.

And this is what it was all for.

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The Domus Aurea. The Golden Palace of Nero. You remember Nero; barking mad, played the fiddle, bit of a pyromaniac*.

The Domus Aurea is what you get to do if you happen to be the master of all you survey. You take over great swathes of land, in the middle of the metropolis no less, and build yourself a giant, ostentatious, marble-clad pleasure palace. Expense!? Pah! Inconvenience!? Phooey!

The land on which Nero built had previously been occupied by a smaller palace and by the urban villas of Roman families but the great fire that tore through Rome in 64CE swept all that away leaving a convenient area for this new Imperial pied-à-terre. There have long been stories about Nero’s possible involvement in that fire so perhaps this should be considered it a little suspicious.**

Suetonius, that arch Roman gossip-monger, reports (60 or so years after the fact):

There was nothing however in which he was more ruinously prodigal than in building. He made a palace extending all the way from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which at first he called the House of Passage, but when it was burned shortly after its completion and rebuilt, the Golden House. Its size and splendour will be sufficiently indicated by the following details. Its vestibule was large enough to contain a colossal statue of the emperor a hundred and twenty feet high; and it was so extensive that it had a triple colonnade a mile long.***

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So it was pretty big.

There was a pond too, like a sea, surrounded with buildings to represent cities, besides tracts of country, varied by tilled fields, vineyards, pastures and woods, with great numbers of wild and domestic animals. **

This “pond” took up the area that is now home to the Colosseum so, clearly, “pond” is a relative term.

Anyway, our visit. Together with Kathryn, Lord Trowelsworthy, and assorted family members, we donned our hard hats and headed in.

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In the rest of the house all parts were overlaid with gold and adorned with gems and mother-of‑pearl. There were dining-rooms with fretted ceils of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes.***

Ok, the gold, marble, ivory fretwork and perfume sprinklers no longer exist, but an amazing quantity of beautifully painted plaster survives.

There is also moulded plaster appliqué, much of which would originally have been gilded, and ceiling mosaics.

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This is all the more amazing because conditions  in the site are far from ideal. Following Nero’s death, the Domus Aurea was a bit of an embarrassment to the new Flavian Emperors, so they stripped out all the costly materials for use elsewhere, had the ground levelled and built large new public buildings on the site. As well as the aforementioned Flavian Amphitheatre known as The Colosseum, these also included the great Baths of Titus.

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The remaining buildings were preserved by being buried under these later constructions but since their rediscovery in the fifteenth century, water ingress has caused increasing damage. The site has suffered even further as, during the Facist era, Mussolini had a public park built around the Baths of Titus, i.e. right over the top of the Domus Aurea, and the roots of the many trees planted in this park have opened up holes through which water makes its way into the building below. The site is plagued by damp and running water, causing the frescos to decay and to become dislodged, so it’s unclear how much longer it would survive without significant intervention.

Running water was visible in a number of places and at one point we seemed to be in a little rain shower.

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The hard hats were necessary because the condition of the structure is pretty poor, with chunks having actually fallen out of the walls.

The site has actually been closed to visitors since 2008, having been open periodically before then, and it is now only open at weekends until August. The plan over the next four years or so is to completely remove the overlying park and carry out emergency repairs and ongoing resoration in order to safeguard the future of this important Roman building. If you want to see it this year, you’ll need to get a wriggle on.

When the edifice was finished in this style and he dedicated it, he deigned to say nothing more in the way of approval than that he was at last beginning to be housed like a human being.***

Phew! It sounds like Trimalchio’s Feast!

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So was it worth hopping a flight to Rome for? Of course 🙂 It’s only 900 miles, or 2.5 hours, so what the heck****. And I was lucky enough to have two of the best people to make this visit with. Kathryn and Lord T, I salute you both and wish you a smashing rest-of-holiday 😀

Oh yeah, and that tree near the site entrance is a loquat tree.

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* this is all slander, innuendo and outright invention. Probably. Possibly.

**Again, this is almost certainly slander of the most slanderous type. The fire was accidental and a not-uncommon occurrence in ancient cities. The really notable thing about this particular fire was the sheer extent of the damage caused.

*** http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Nero*.html

**** Please don’t hate me for this. I’m well aware of how lucky I am to be in a position to be able to do this. It’s just that I believe in taking legitimate opportunities where they arise. It could all go horribly wrong next week and then I’ll have to go back to not being able to do this.

For more information on the project to save and restore the site see here http://archeoroma.beniculturali.it/cantieredomusaurea/en/

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