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Rome attempts to fiddle with Nero's nasty reputation

HE MAY have murdered his mother and two wives, castrated his best friend, forced Roman aristocratic matrons to have sex with slaves in public and used the burning bodies of Christians to light up the night sky. He may even have set a match to Rome and sung ditties on a hillside as it went up in smoke. But the remains of an immense palace that reopened in Rome yesterday after nearly 20 years of restoration, have shown the more positive side to Nero; not just the embodiment of depravity but a great architectural and artistic innovator.

The Domus Aurea, or Golden House, was Nero's monument to himself, built, with no expense spared, after the fire that destroyed Rome AD64. It was covered with marble and gold and the entrance was marked by a golden statue of the emperor, 30 metres high.

Built in just four years, Nero's palace was innovative in its proportions and its sheer luxury, and broke new ground in architecture and fresco painting. Most of it was destroyed soon after Nero's suicide AD68. What remained, hidden under big public baths on the Oppian Hill, was the pleasure palace, discovered in 1494. It once looked out over the site of the Colosseum, where a vast lake, the Stagnum Neronis, formed the centre of an immense park.

The Domus Aurea has been closed to the public since the early Eighties, for restoration and assessment as how to prevent further climate and water damage. The underground structure is not so much ruins as huge caverns, some 12 metres in height. It takes imagination to mentally remove the big sustaining walls erected later to support the Baths of Trajan overhead and which cut mercilessly through Nero's palace. The original spaceswould have been suffused with natural light.

Only 1,200 square metres of the 30,000 square metres of frescoed walls have so far been restored. Almost all of them were painted by Nero's chosen artist, Fabullus, whose mastery of perspective and trompe- l'oeil, his use of fake windows and fake frames, inspired Renaissance artists. The remaining decorations, most of which are grandiose mythological themes that Nero identified with, are still covered in salt encrustations or discoloured by water seepage. Recovering them is expected to take at least another decade.

The complex was intended to host hundreds of statues that had been plundered by Nero from Greece and Asia Minor. The most famous of these, the Laocoon, which was rediscovered in the 16th century, is now in the Vatican Museum.

One of the most impressive chambers is the Octagonal Room. Covered with a circular dome, that could reportedly slide back and release a shower of petals on to Nero's guests, it also had a movable floor.

"Certainly Nero has had some pretty bad press down the ages. I think in our discoveries here we see that for all that he was a real innovator. His desire for grandeur made him always seek the new, seek to push back the boundaries," said archaeologist Silvia Cavazzini. Adriano La Regina, the superintendent of archaeology for Rome, is not so tender. "He undoubtedly had aristocratic tastes but this doesn't take away from the fact that he was one of the nastiest tyrants in history. Hitler was also a lover of art and architecture."

Several of the rooms carrythe signatures of artists and writers who visited the Domus Aurea in previous centuries.

To celebrate the reopening of the Domus Aurea, the Italian capital is hosting three days of cultural events dedicated to ancient Rome, including a special screening of the classic film Quo Vadis? which starred Peter Ustinov as Nero.