In the rebuilding of the city the emperor secured for himself the lion's share; and his Golden House, domus aurea, of which we possess such beautiful remains, occupied the whole extent from the Palatine to the Viminal, where now the central railway station has been erected. Its area amounted to nearly a square mile: and this enormous district was appropriated, or rather usurped, by the emperor, right in the centre of a city numbering about two million inhabitants. Of the wonders of the Golden House it is enough to say that there were comprised within the precincts of the enchanting residence waterfalls supplied by an aqueduct fifty miles long; lakes and rivers shaded by dense masses of foliage, with harbors and docks for the imperial galleys; a vestibule containing a bronze colossus one hundred and twenty feet high; porticoes three thousand feet long; farms and vineyards, pasture-grounds and woods teeming with the rarest and costliest kind of game; zoological and botanical gardens; sulphur baths supplied from the springs of the aquae Albulae, twelve miles distant; sea baths supplied from the waters of the Mediterranean, sixteen miles distant at the nearest point; thousands of columns crowned with capitals of Corinthian gilt metal; thousands of statues stolen from Greece and Asia Minor; walls encrusted with gems and mother-of-pearl; banqueting-halls with ivory ceilings, from which rare flowers and precious perfumes could fall gently on the recumbent guests. (..) All these details sound like fairy-tales, like the dream of a fertile imagination; still they are described minutely by contemporary and serious writers, by Suetonius, by Martial, and by Tacitus. Suetonius adds that the day Nero took possession of his Golden House, he was heard to exclaim, "At last I am lodged like a man."
Rodolfo Lanciani - Ancient Rome in the light of recent discoveries - 1888
Walls supporting Terme di Traiano and including a pavilion of the Golden House
Descending the Mons Caelius, we came against the
vestiges of the Palazzo Maggiore, heretofore the Golden
House of Nero; now nothing but a heap of vast and
confused ruins, to show what time and the vicissitude of
human things does change from the most glorious and
magnificent to the most deformed and confused.
John Evelyn's Diary and Correspondence in 1644
Where are now those rare pieces of Antiquity which Histories rather mention than we find now in Rome? as the Curia Hostilia, the Golden House of Nero, the Theater of Pompey, the Forum Nervae, the Septizonium, the Tower of Maecenas, the Circus Flaminius, the Circus Maximus (..) and a World of other such rare buildings whereby the Romans thought to have eternized their memories; if you ask for these things in Books you shall find their names only, if you look for them now in Rome, you shall find no marks at all of them: which makes me cry out with Petrarch: Crede mihi aliis quam lapideis fundamentis eget gloria, ut fit mansura: believe me, true permanent glory stands in need of other Foundations than those of Stone.
Richard Lassels' The Voyage of Italy, or a Compleat Journey through Italy in ca 1668
The principal building of Nero's park lies half buried but almost intact under the baths of Trajan.
Rodolfo Lanciani - The ruins and excavations of ancient Rome - 1897
(left) Holes in the ceiling and in the wall through which some halls were first explored; (right) graffiti, including some of the late XVIIIth century (from an introductory video to the visit of the site)
Excavations being made at S. Pietro in Vincula, among the ruins and remains of the Palace of Titus, in the hope of finding figures, certain rooms were discovered, completely buried under the ground, which were full of little grotesques, small figures, and scenes, with other ornaments of stucco in low-relief. Whereupon, Giovanni going with Raffaello, who was taken to see them, they were struck with amazement, both the one and the other, at the freshness, beauty, and excellence of those works, for it appeared to them an extraordinary thing that they had been preserved for so long a time; but it was no great marvel, for they had not been open or exposed to the air, which is wont in time, through the changes of the seasons, to consume all things.
Giorgio Vasari - Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects: Life of Giovanni da Udine - 1568 - translated by Gaston du C. De Vere in 1912
The holes, thro which Raphael, Giovanni da Udine and others penetrated on occasion of the discovery of the Arabesques, still exist and are pointed out by the custode.
Rev. Jeremiah Donovan - Rome Ancient and Modern - 1843
(left) Poster of the 2021 Exhibition: "Raphael and the Domus Aurea. The invention of the grotesques"; (right) video of the Exhibition showing the decoration of Stufetta (stove) del Cardinal Bibbiena, a small room in Palazzo Apostolico, which was decorated by Raphael and his assistants with motifs from the Domus Aurea
These grotesques, which were called grotesques from their having been discovered in the underground grottoes, executed with so much design, with fantasies so varied and so bizarre, with their delicate ornaments of stucco divided by various fields of colour, and with their little scenes so pleasing and beautiful, entered so deeply into the heart and mind of Giovanni, that, having devoted himself to the study of them, he was not content to draw and copy them merely once or twice; and he succeeded in executing them with facility and grace, lacking nothing save a knowledge of the method of making the stucco on which the grotesques were wrought. Vasari
That the chambers which are now visible were to be seen in the time of Leo X we learn from Vasari, who says that Raphael and Giovanni da Udine were wont to study there and copy the arabesques to assist their work in the Vatican Loggie. After this, neglect and the falling in of the soil caused these treasures to be lost till 1774, when they were again partially unearthed, but they were only completely brought to view by the French, who began to take the work in hand in 1811, and continued their excavations for three years.
Augustus G.C. Hare - Walks in Rome - 1874
Giovanni's sketches (the originals of which are now dispersed in various European collections) inspired his master, Raphael Sanzio, to produce the immortal creations of the Loggie Vaticane. Lanciani - The ruins etc.
(left) Entrance opened in the early XIXth century; (right) round wall supporting an exedra of Terme di Traiano and, detached from it, the church of S. Felicita which was discovered during the excavations
Baths of Titus and Trajan. We unite both because they are mentioned together by the Ancients, and were in reality united, those of Titus having been enlarged by Trajan and joined to his own. (..) Martial, who had often bathed in them, informs us that
he erected them on the site of the gardens of the golden
house of Nero. (..) Of the baths of Titus little remains except the substructions which had been part of the golden
house of Nero, excavated between 1811 and 1814. (..) Before entering we observe in the
outer area one of the rooms of the slaves who took care
of the baths: it was converted into a little church in the
VIth century, sacred to S. Felicitas and her seven sons
A small chapel, dedicated to Sta. Felicitas was discovered in 1813. It is like the chapels in the catacombs, and is decorated with the conventional frescoes of the Good Shepherd, Daniel in the lions' den, &c. There are also some faint remains of a fresco of the sainted patrons. Hare
The corridors were added by Titus,
the whole having been filled with rubbish in order to
give greater solidity to them as substructions. The last
of these corridors to our left forms an entrance into the
golden house. Donovan
Titus and Trajan used part of the Golden House for their baths, and the ruins of all these buildings are now jumbled up together, and the varying whims of antiquaries have constantly changed the names of each fragment that has been discovered. The more interesting of these ruins are on the southern slope of the Esquiline towards the Coliseum, and are most easily approached from the Via Polveriera. They are shown now as the Baths of Titus, or Camere Esquiline. Hare
When Trajan determined to erect a great bathing-establishment on the adjoining heights of the Oppian, he made use of this noble house to support the semicircular portion of the platform on the side nearest to the Coliseum. For this purpose he built a series of parallel walls, some at right angles with the masses of buildings already in existence, some sloping towards them, in the manner of buttresses, at an angle of 61°. Trajan's substructures are easily distinguished by their style of masonry, - a perfect specimen of opus reticulatum divided into panels by bands of bricks, - while Nero's walls are all in opus lateritium, with a coating of plaster. (..) It seems almost certain that these halls were used, or perhaps inhabited, even after their conversion into substructures, light and air being supplied by skylights opening in the terrace of the baths. Fifteen skylights open on the cryptoporticus alone. The cryptoporticus itself was discovered for the first time in 1813. (..) The arabesques of the ceiling have been published by De Romanis. Neglect, damp, and the smoke of torches have nearly effaced them. Lanciani - The ruins etc.
Custode begins his round of them by showing the fragments found in the excavation and kept in one of the corridors; and amongst them some fragments of pillars exquisitely chiseled, and vases containing colours used by the ancients. (..) The excavated rooms amount to thirty, all of which were exquisitely painted in arabesques, a species of decoration introduced in the reign of Augustus, which have suffered much from damp and exposure. (..) All the arabesques of the golden house have been engraved (published) by Mirri and Garletti, and form a treasure of ancient art. (..) A hall is called the crypt of Sylvia from a painting of Rhea Sylvia and Mars with which its vaulted cieling had been decorated. Donovan
From "Nicolas Ponce et Fortunato Bartolomeo de Felice - Description des bains de Titus, ou Collection des peintures trouvées dans les ruines des thermes de cet empereur - 1786": a decorated stucco shell of a ceiling with the depiction of Venus and two Cupids
In one of the halls is a group representing Venus attended by two Cupids, with doves hovering over her. (..) A set of thirty engravings, published by Mirri, from drawings taken in 1776, show what the paintings were at that time, but very few now remain perfect. A group of Coriolanus and his mother, represented in Mirri's work, is now inaccessible. Hare
Decoration of ceilings
the light of a few trembling tapers elevated on the top
of a long bending cane, we still discern, at least twenty
feet above our heads, Roman eagles and other exquisite
arabesques, which are some of the most beautiful specimens that now remain of ancient art. They are mouldering on the mildewed walls: the absorbing moisture renders their decaying colours and fleeting forms every
day more indistinct, and leaves little room to judge of
their former perfection; but while the faintest outline
of these elegant creations remains, the beauty of their
design and composition must be perceptible. Their brilliancy and harmony of colouring have, it is true, disappeared; but their grace, freedom and correctness of design still excite our highest admiration, in spite of all
the disadvantages under which they are viewed; and the
delight which they awaken is heightened when we reflect
on the long succession of ages that have rolled away
since these tints and forms were hastily impressed on
the vaulted cieling of the golden house of Nero. Donovan
The principal remains, which are now exhibited by the dim torch of a solitary cicerone, are those of nine chambers, extending for 300 feet, and having on the north a kind of corridor, or cryptoporticus, whose vault is covered with paintings of birds, griffins, and flowers, ecc. Hare
All the paintings are Pompeian in character, and for some time were considered the best remains of ancient pictorial art in Rome, but they are inferior to those which have since been discovered on the Latin way and at the Baths of Livia (actually a section of Nero's palace on the Palatine). Hare
Only a few traces of these celebrated frescoes are now visible in the cryptoporticus, on the north side of the garden, and in the halls. They help us to appreciate the power possessed by the ancient house-decorators to increase the apparent extent of a limited space by perspective drawings of this kind. Lanciani - The ruins etc.
Over the door of each principal room is a window and in two are pedestals for statues, one of which is erroneously said to have been the Laocoon, a group which, as is well known,
was found in a vineyard between
the baths of Trajan and the Sette Sale. Donovan
More marvellous still was the ceiling of the state dining-room. It was spherical in shape, and cut in ivory, to represent the constellated skies, and kept in constant motion by machinery in imitation of the movements of the stars and planets. Lanciani - The ruins etc.
An excavation campaign led to the discovery in 1926 of a large octagonal hall covered by a dome; it was initially thought to be coenatio rotunda, a revolving dining-room described by the ancient writers. In 2009 it was identified on the Palatine hill in a more likely position.
Dome of Sala Ottagona
The dome of Sala Ottagona is an early example of the technique which was used for that of Pantheon. The central opening most likely directed a filtered light on the emperor. The hall was open towards the garden.
Ceiling of Achilles' Hall, thus named after the small painting shown in the icon of this way
In 1938 two halls adjoining Sala Ottagona were cleared from the materials which were stored inside them. Their decoration is very similar to that which we know only through the engravings made in the XVIIIth century.
Ceiling of Hector's Hall, thus named after a small painting showing the Trojan hero and his wife
The paintings of Domus Aurea influenced the decoration of many Renaissance and Mannerist palaces from
Loggia di Paolo III at Castel Sant'Angelo and Palazzo Farnese di Caprarola to Sixtus V's halls of Biblioteca Vaticana.
The interest for the decorated halls discovered in the 1930s was limited to art historians; the Fascist dictatorship was keen on emphasizing the role of emperors who led their armies in battle and Nero was not one of them. In the frame of the opening of Via dell'Impero the ruins of Terme di Traiano were surrounded by a garden with large trees and a grand entrance opposite Colosseo. Over time the roots of the trees penetrated into the vaults of Domus Aurea and caused the collapse of some of them. In addition the ground of the new garden increased the level of humidity inside the halls thus damaging the frescoes. The site was closed for safety reason for very long periods.
On the occasion of the reopening of the Domus Aurea to the public in 2021 the Sala Ottagona and the two adjoining halls housed an exhibition on Raphael and the Domus Aurea paintings. In some days visitors were allowed to visit the restored part of the whole monument.
Ulysses offering wine to Polyphemus in the ceiling of a nymphaeum, a monumental fountain which was discovered in 1957
The image in the background of this page shows a detail of the ceiling of Sala di Ettore depicting a satyr and a nymph.