If you have not read “Alice in Wonderland”, you have most likely seen snippets of the Disney take on this classic Lewis Carroll tale: an ingenuous girl with an innate sense of curiosity enters this magical world and embarks on this madcap adventure involving a Cheshire cat, the Queen of Hearts and the Madhatter. It is the epitome escapist tale where the protagonist crosses the threshold into the fantastical place.
This is exactly how the Domus Aurea, Ancient Rome’s largest construction, was rediscovered at the end of the 15th Century when a young Roman lad plummeted through the ground in the Esquiline hillside. He found himself in what he believed to be an elaborately painted cave. That “cave” was a forgotten chapter from the infamous Emperor Nerone dating back to 64AD. Definitely not a cave, but a sprawling construction dedicated to affirming the power of the emperor. The golden underground labyrinth became a font of inspiration for Renaissance painters like Raphael and Michelangelo who ventured inside to study the magnificent frescoed walls. Indeed, this lead to the style of art known as “Arte Grottesca”, literally meaning cave art; however, the Domus Aurea is anything but.
Long ago, before a cringeworthy time in which world leaders asserted their power through snarky social media comments and televised political debates, emperors used architecture of colossal proportions to feed their ego and campaign. After a fire set most of Rome ablaze in 64AD, Nerone decided to make the most of a destroyed city to construct the Domus Aurea. It was to be a grand residence of golden frescoes and marble walls designed to host political guests as a flex of his power. Imagine 300 rooms over 50 hectares. He seemingly had a lot to compensate for.
Nerone increased taxation to fund his flex of power, causing inflation for the first time in the Roman Empire. To make matters worse, he went off to Greece two months after construction started and never lived in the palace. Finally, after committing suicide in 68AD, the people allegedly celebrated his death and removed every trace of his likeness from the city. Just like that, it vanished into legend and, as time went on, became a buried chapter of Roman history.
What to expect when you go:
Over the road from the Colosseum, you will see a park with a gateway heading up a small hill. This is the Colle Oppio park and the entrance to the Domus Aurea is just up the hill on the left. Be sure to book in advance (here) as this is a closed underground space accessible through a guided tour only. The first part of the tour has a presentation about the history of the Domus Aurea projected onto the ancient walls and gives you all the context you need to appreciate the experience.
The original golden splendor of the building is long gone, but don’t let that deter you from seeing the incredible grand design that was 25 times bigger than the Colosseum.
Un bacio x