Imagining Domus Aurea

Even those with the most vibrant imaginations would perhaps struggle to look at a bare brick wall and imagine the beautiful decorations and frescoes that would have once adorned them. But that is exactly the scenario that archaeologists have been battling with at the ancient site in Rome that was once home to Nero’s epic villa, Domus Aurea, which was a vast residence at the heart of Rome that was known to be adorned with inlaid gold, gemstones and polished marble.

Well, that is until now, as excavations have unveiled a stunning mosaic on a huge decorated wall, measuring 16 m by 5 m. The mosaic depicts a character with protruding ears that experts believe may be the poet Virgil. The character is surrounded by allegorical figures, as well as another character that may be Apollo or Diomedes. The vastness and glory of the mosaic has given experts, including Rita Volpe, the supervisor in charge of the restoration project, an insight into the grandeur of Domus Aurea and the Baths of Trajan, allowing them to design a 3D reconstruction, showing just how vast Nero’s Rome residence was (shown below).


It is hoped that the area will be opened to the public in 2017, when visitors will be able to see excavations, including the huge mosaic, and imagine the magnificence of the baths and villa all those years ago through 3D and interactive displays.


A little more about Domus Aurea

In 64 AD, the Great Fire of Rome all but destroyed the city as it burned uncontrollably for six days under the heat of the Italian summer sun. In the wake of the destruction, Nero (the Emperor of the time, who was blamed for starting the fire) claimed the city centre for himself, building a luxurious residence on the ashes, which he called Domus Aurea. It was possibly one of the most refined residence of the time, being decorated with inlaid gold, gemstones and marble, and it also incorporated lush farmland, lakes and forests, covering around 80 hectares from the slopes of Palatine Hill to the gardens of Maecenas on Esquiline Hill.

However, after Nero’s death in 68 AD, Domus Aurea, the construction of which was funded by heavy taxes, was returned to the people of Rome through a project to redesign the site on which the villa stood. For example, where the Stagnum Neronis Lake once stood, the Colosseum was built, and Domus Aurea was redesigned as the Baths of Tito and the Baths of Trajan on the Colle Oppio.

This restructuring meant that even the most imaginative historians have struggled to visualize the grand beauty and luxury of Domus Aurea, the magnificence of which has only been seen through glimpses provided by precious artefacts, mosaics and frescoes.

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