Nero’s Movable Feast

by wjw on October 1, 2009

A few years back, when we were in Rome, we visited the Domus Aurea, the Golden House built by the Emperor Nero during the last years of his reign. This fabulous 300-room palace was the centerpiece of Nero’s entertainment empire— walls were plated with fabulous marbles, or ivory, or frescos. A large part of the palace was plated with gold. Sliding panels in the ceilings could open to shower guests with flowers, perfume, or costly presents. Outside, in the gardens, was a 100-foot-tall plinth on which stood a colossal bronze statue of Nero himself. The palace was used 0nly for entertainment— there were no sleeping rooms.
On being taken for a tour of the palace, Nero is said to have remarked, “Now at last I can live like a human being!” (By that time there were revolts brewing in the provinces and he had only a few months to live, whether as a human being or not.)

The emperor Vespasian, a practical military man who didn’t think much of this kind of extravagance, later built public baths atop the palace, and built the Colosseum in the gardens. (It’s named after the Colossus of Nero, the huge statue right next to the stadium.)

But the Golden House was never actually demolished. It’s still there, its costly gold and marble facade stripped away, but otherwise quite intact, under the Esquiline Hill.

When Kathy and I visited, the Golden House had been opened for the first time in decades. We wandered through the mazelike structure, admiring the architecture and the frescos, which themselves have an interesting history.

The Romans were experts at art depicting nature, and had discovered the laws of perspective (though they didn’t use perspective much). In the middle ages, well diggers broke into the Golden House and saw the frescos left behind when the palace was abandoned. No one connected the underground structure with Nero, and it was just called “the Grotto.”

Italian artists were lowered into the structure to study the art, and began to copy the style of the frescos they found there. The style was called “grotesque,” meaning “from the Grotto,” and helped to fuel the artistic revival of the Renaissance. One artist went so far as to wear a toga when painting.

(The top picture above is from the Domus Aurea. The picture below features grotesque art from the 18th Century.)
Among the glories Nero placed in his palace was supposed to be a revolving dining hall, with a starscape painted above, that revolved in time with the revolution of the earth. This was one of those legendary wonders that everyone assumed did not actually exist.
Until. They. Found. It.
Archaeologists have uncovered the round dining room, 50 feet across, which rested on a four-meter-wide pillar worked by “four spherical mechanisms” (ball bearings?) that were presumably powered by water.
“This cannot be compared to anything that we know of in ancient Roman architecture . . .
“The heart of every activity in ancient Rome was the banquet, together with some form of entertainment. Nero was like the sun, and people were revolving around the emperor.”
The ancients were, y’know, smart. They could build cool and clever stuff. Here’s yet another story of how they were underestimated by us rational modern types.
Lektu October 2, 2009 at 2:13 am

"The ancients were, y'know, smart. They could build cool and clever stuff. Here's yet another story of how they were underestimated by us rational modern types."

Yeah. No one thought the ancients capable of something like the Antikythera mechanism until it was found…

Anonymous October 2, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Re the ancients being smart: go back and read (or reread) Poul Anderson and L. Sprague de Camp (among others).
Synchronicity: my lady friend and I went to Rome last week, but we couldn't visit the Golden House (you have to book far in advance, and our one-week stay was a spur-of-the-moment thing).
I didn't get to throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, either, but I know I'll be back. Wonderful city.

Mark October 2, 2009 at 1:53 pm

[Fe] Smart ancients? Pah. It was aliens, the same ones who built the pyramids and Stonehenge. [/Fe]

Ty October 2, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Oh yeah?

If they were so smart, how come they're all dead? Huh? Answer that!

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