Birthplace of grotesque: visiting emperor Nero’s palace in Rome… and why you’ve never heard about it

Domus Aurea — the Golden House, Nero’s legendary palace — stood for only 40 years. Ask almost any tourist in Rome where it was — and you won’t get an answer. And yet it is still there, waiting silently underground, slowly being cleared of the rubble. Read on to to learn how to visit!

In 64 AD, most of central Rome burned down. Emperor Nero reportedly watched from a tower and fiddled. He blamed the fire on the Christians, but most historians name Nero himself as the arsonist… though there is no proof he did it. Some scholars even suggest that it was indeed some apocalyptically minded Christians to start the fire. In any case, Nero was quick to grab the ruined areas and build a gigantic villa that became known as the Golden House for all the gold used in its decorations.

Domus Aurea had it all — magnificent frescoes and marble-clad walls, a huge pool (where now the Colosseum stands), a colossal statue of Nero at the entrance, famous statues brought from Greece, huge gardens… One of the most luxurious palaces ever built and ridiculously expensive — when Nero entered it for the first time, he famously said, “At last I can live like a human being!” And he did, but not for long — in 68 AD Nero committed suicide when the Senate pronounced him a public enemy.

After Nero’s death, Domus Aurea quickly fell into disrepair — such was nobles’ hatred for Nero that they seemed intent on destroying his palace, too. The Flavians built an amphitheater on the site of the pleasure lake, and in 104, after another big fire, emperor Trajan built a bath complex on top of the palace. Domus Aurea was gone.

Or was it? In fact, rows of gigantic brick halls still survived under the new baths, filled in with sand like Pompeii was buried by ash. This preserved part of the palace, now completely underground, completely forgotten — until the late 1400s, when a young man accidentally fell through a crack in the ground and found himself in a huge vaulted room. Soon a trickle of Renaissance tourists began visiting the underground ruins.

Back then, you had to be tied to a rope and lowered into the pitch darkness of the palace. On the other hand, the frescoes were in a much better state — clear and colorful. Here we come to the “grotesque” part of the story: in Italian, the word for a cave is grotta, and the underground palace was very much like a cave. So the decorations inside it came to be known as grottesche — found in a cave. And what decorations they were! Strange animals, floral designs, abstract ornaments of all kinds. Naturally, artists were particularly eager to visit Domus Aurea: Raphael, Pinturicchio, Michelangelo… They were so impressed that they later recreated the grottesche in their works — in the Vatican, for example. That’s how weird, unusual designs came to be called grotesque.

Unfortunately, together with tourists arrived humidity. Frescoes started fading, and parts of the complex collapsed. In the late 20th century, Domus Aurea was in such poor shape that it was completely inaccessible… until very recently.

Since 2014, you can once again visit parts of Nero’s palace — and we definitely recommend that you do it next time you go to Rome. Perfectly preserved and mysteriously lit halls built of brick, beautiful wall paintings, a magnificent octagonal room, and a cherry on the cake — a VR presentation of Domus Aurea as it once was — all definitely worth the 16 euro entry ticket. Note that you can’t just turn up and enter: Nero’s palace can only be visited on a guided tour that you should book at https://www.coopculture.it/en/ticket.cfm?office=Domus%20Aurea%20Project&id=0&evento=268 . Make sure to book in advance in high season, though there are usually places for the first morning visit at 8:30 am. The entrance is not too easy to find, though it’s very close to the Colosseum: search for Biglietteria Domus Aurea on Google Maps.

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