Immediately after the fire of 64 AD, which destroyed most of the centre of Rome, Nero built a new imperial residence. This was far bigger and more luxurious than the previous one, the Domus Transitoria. Its walls were decked with gold and precious stones, giving it the name the Domus Aurea or Golden House. Designed by the architects Severus and Celeres, the new palace was immense: it covered the Palatine, Velia and Oppian hills and the valley where the Colosseum was later built.
The astronomic orientation of the building confirms the theory that Nero saw himself as the sun god and therefore frequently used symbolism of the stars and sun. The head of his colossal statue, too, was surrounded by a corona.
Nero’s successors constructed other buildings within the unfinished complex, such as the Colosseum on the site of the artificial lake and the Baths of Trajan, which replaced palace buildings that burned down in the year 104. During the Renaissance, parts of the substructure and ground floor rooms of Nero’s palace were exposed, revealing many ancient works of art, including the Laocoön group in 1506.
All memory of the palace was lost during the later Empire and Middle Ages. Renaissance painters exhaustively studied the finely detailed, imaginative frescoes from Nero’s time in the subterranean chambers which they called grottoes, and derived a new style known as grotesque painting from them. Unfortunately there is very little left to see. Parts of the decoration survive only in the Nymphaeum, where the vault shows a mosaic depicting Odysseus and the Cyclops Polyphemus.
Domus Aurea: Guided Tours & Tickets
Today visitors can view the labyrinthine but well-lit subterranean palace only by booking a tour lasting approximately 45 minutes in Italian or English, or in other languages with an audio guide. A passage system consisting of a corridor and cryptoporticus with adjacent rooms, some of which are decorated with frescoes and stucco with garlands, tendrils, birds, putti at play, mythological scenes and landscape views, leads to the octagonal hall.
This hall represents a revolution in building technology. Instead of round arches, simple pillars at the corners of the octagon are sufficient to support the hemispherical vault, which is 14m/46ft in diameter and made of cast mortar. The rectangular openings between the supports serve as alcoves and entrances and terminate in horizontal lintels to provide additional support for the semi-dome, which has an oculus at the highest point to admit sunlight.
Archaeologists are still debating whether this is a central living and dining area or a room for contemplating works of art. A small rectangular adjacent room is decorated with stucco and paintings.
The luxury of the 80ha/198-acre palace, of which 150 rooms have been made accessible to date, was recorded by the emperor’s biographer Suetonius (c. 70-130): »The main dining hall was circular, and its ceiling rotated day and night like the universe … The dining rooms had ceilings made of movable ivory plates with holes, so that flowers could be scattered or perfume sprayed onto the guests from above.«
Reconstruction Videos of Domus Aurea: