Beyond military triumphs, the Romans were known for both their architectural and engineering prowess. And sometimes such scopes of expertise even reached obsessive and (we daresay) ‘decadent’ levels. The Domus Aurea (or Golden House) aptly harks back to this progress of Roman building skills in terms of excessive magnificence. Designed as a large landscaped portico villa, the expansive project (patronized by Emperor Nero) was started in 64 AD, after the Great Fire of Rome had destroyed many of the aristocratic and civic buildings – especially on the slopes of the Palatine Hill. And now after 2,000 years, the Roman palace is continuing to reveal its opulent legacy, this time in the form of the Sphinx Room. Bedecked with depictions of panthers, centaurs, and the namesake sphinx, the lavish section was found quite fortuitously when researchers were restoring parts of a neighboring structure.
The restoration work was focused on a vault of a section that had been rediscovered (among many other sections and rooms) from inside the Golden House. According to Alfonsina Russo, the head of the Colosseum archaeological park (that includes the Domus Aurea complex) –
We came across a large opening positioned in the northern corner of the covering of the room (the restoration area). Lit up by the artificial light, there suddenly appeared the entire barrel vault of a completely frescoed adjacent room.
Now while the light source, fortunately, illuminated the passage to the vault of the room, much of the space in itself, rectangular in plan, is still stashed under layers of the earth and soil – that were intentionally heaped on to make way for the luxurious baths above, built under the patronage of Emperor Trajan. Furthermore, the earth fill is presumed to maintain the structural integrity of the zone, which would prevent the archaeologists from making serious excavations inside the room (at least for the time being).
As for the discernable depictions of this ‘hidden’ Sphinx Room, the archaeologists have noted the representations of god Pan, a man equipped with a sword, quiver, and shield confronting a panther, and a sphinx atop a pedestal. There are complemented by paintings of stylized aquatic creatures, birds, and flora composed of trees, flowers, vines, and kaleidoscopic leaves. Incidentally, similar types of design motifs have also been found in other rooms of the palatial Golden House.
In fact, the very name ‘Golden House’ (or Domus Aurea in Latin), originally built between the period of 64 – 68 AD, is derived from the facade components of the building that were overlaid with gold leaf, along with complementary embellishments of rare gems and seashells. The ostentatious scale was however not just limited to these exterior facades. The two-storied Roman villa also incorporated stuccoed ceilings that were embedded with semi-precious stones and ivory veneers. These were accompanied by walls with grandiosely conceived frescoes and over 140 rooms with variant thematic elements (and 11-m high ceilings). For example, the ‘Golden Vault’ flaunted its gilded ceiling, marble panels and a scene from Greek Mythology involving the abduction of Ganymede by Zeus.
The ‘piece de resistance’ of Nero’s palatial complex however arguably pertained to the eight-sided Sala Ottagonale. According to 2nd century Roman historian Suetonius –
Parts of the house were overlaid with gold and studded with precious stones and mother of pearl. All the dining rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory, the panels of which could slide back and let a rain of flowers, or of perfume from hidden sprinklers, fall on his guests. The main dining room was circular, and its roof revolved slowly, day and night, in time with the sky. Sea water, or sulfur water, was always on tap in the baths.
Lastly, and interestingly enough, the very name Colosseum comes from the 100-ft high ‘colossal’ statue of Nero that was situated along with the original gateway to the Domus Aurea. According to most historians, this name was ascribed to the amphitheater by 10th century AD, thus leaving behind the original moniker of Amphitheatrum Flavium. Simply put, the original part of the Domus Aurea still survived through Nero’s humongous sculpture – since Vespasian had only replaced the head of Nero’s high gilt-bronze statue with that of Apollo (and his solar crown), instead of completely destroying the imposing artwork. Unfortunately, the colossal specimen had possibly been toppled by the later middle ages, only leaving behind its pedestal whose foundations can still be viewed.
The animated video made by Altair4 Multimedia gives us a quick tour through the ritzy interiors of the Domus Aurea. And we move to the last part of the video, it curiously shows flower petals being showered from the rooftop.
Image Credits: Parco archeologico del Colosseo