The Domus Aurea—the imperial villa extending from the Palatine to the Esquiline, built under Nero after the great fire of AD 64—is historically tainted by the hostility and polemics of Roman rhetors toward extravagant building and private luxury in general, condemned as signs of vice and moral decadence. Nonetheless, the fabulous Golden House falls within the imperial tradition of establishing emperors as “builders” , and its excessive luxury—which included an enormous amount of marble on walls and floors, extensive use of gold leaf on stucco decorations, precious stones, ivory, and extraordinary artworks — marks the culmination of a general tendency, introduced under the Julio-Claudians, to lavishly decorate private spaces, as is clearly evidenced by the Sperlonga cave and the Baiae nympheum.1
In the present book Paul G. P. Meyboom and Eric Moormann offer, for the first time, a comprehensive overview of the paint and marble decorations preserved on walls and vaults of the pavilion that originally formed part of Nero’s Domus Aurea, the biggest palace in Rome during the first century AD. The pavilion, located in the Augustan Regio III alongside the southern slope of the Oppian Hill, preserves around 150 rooms, which are hidden underneath the modern Parco delle Terme di Traiano. Despite the fragmentary and uneven state of preservation of the pavilion , the accurate documentation provided by the authors has rendered it possible to appreciate all that is left today of Nero’s ambitious project of interior decoration, including paintings, stuccos and marble veneers. Particular attention is given to the chronology, typology and style of the painted decoration.
The book is in two volumes, (text and plates), with the first divided into eight chapters that follow the preface.
Chapter 1 (“ L’edificio sul colle Oppio: storia della scoperta e degli scavi”) serves as an overview of the history of the Domus Aurea during various chronological periods. A brief discussion covers the years after Nero’s suicide in 68 AD up to the time when Trajan had the rooms of the Oppian pavilion filled to build his Baths on the same site. With their rediscovery in the late 15 th century, the “grotesque” vault decorations became a source of inspiration for famous Italian artists. After the first excavations in the late 18 th century, a fine series of engravings were ordered with color reconstructions of the best preserved painted ornamentations —most of which are reproduced in the second volume of the book—, precious testimony of the paintings that are no longer visible today. Earlier scholars undertook further research in the rooms of the pavilion during the first half of the 20 th century; more systematic studies were carried out by L. Fabbrini 2 and a few others during the 1980s.
A synopsis of the results of all previous research is provided by the authors in Chapter 2 (“ Status quaestionis e silloge delle ricerche sull’edificio sull’Oppio”) with a table of relevant bibliography produced between 1706 and 2004, which is divided into seven distinct fields of information. Debated issues regarding the topography, the function, and the chronology of the pavilion are clarified with accurate coloured plans by M. Oberndorff and J. Porch (figs 0.7-0.10). Previous theories, which had considered the pavilion an official residence or a building devoted to Sol, are dismissed and the authors agree that its function was for entertaining, an opinion held by most modern scholars. Although there is consensus regarding the identification of the whole building as Nero’s main palace, the exact function of a number of rooms still remains unclear, as for example those of the upper story or the group of rooms around the rotunda 128, connected with Suetonius’ description of the round dining room with its revolving dome. The previous documentation of the pavilion’s painted decoration is discussed, with comments on the quality and accuracy of the watercolours produced from the 16 th to the 20 th centuries and on the more recent photographic evidence. An introduction to the Fourth Pompeian style of the paintings and their chronology is provided, but matters of chronology and style are treated in detail in the next chapter. An appendix to this chapter offers a selection of texts by Lucan and Seneca criticizing the emperor’s luxurious building (Domus Transitoria or Domus Aurea?), without, however, any substantial comments by the authors.
The next chapter (“Proposta per una cronologia del padiglione e delle decorazioni”) methodically investigates the possible phases of construction and decoration of the pavilion. With regard to the debated question on whether the pavilion could have been constructed in a single chronological phase, the authors, after reviewing all previous positions and on the basis of their personal observations on workshop activities, conclude that both the construction and the decoration of the building took place within the limited period of Neronian building activity, between AD 64-68, with some minor works perhaps carried out under Otho. In an appendix at the very end of the chapter, the architectural chronology of the pavilion recently proposed by L. F. Ball 3 is discussed and rejected by the authors.
With Chapter 4 (“Le decorazioni dipinte: stili pittorici e botteghe”) the authors enter the core of their topic, that is, the decorative work in the pavilion. Since they convincingly maintain that the decoration of the building occurred within the span of four years, the stylistic differences of the painted compositions are explained as the simultaneous activity of various workshops. The decorations are considered on the basis of certain general factors: technique, colour preference, and recurring decorative patterns and motifs. The authors recognize the activity of three distinct workshops, A, B and C (illustrated in the architectural plan, fig. 0.12), each one using a different version of the Fourth Style. Workshop A is characterized by a monumental and architectural style which demonstrates a predilection for the use of the basic colour triad of yellow, red and blue in saturated hues, against a white background (figs 50, 55, 114, 115). This workshop was mostly active in the east wing, but also in rooms in the center of the pavilion and in the west wing. Workshop B uses an ampler colour palette and a more expensive gamut of pigments, which produce hues of green, purple, orange and pink, and its activity is concentrated around the pentagonal court 80a (figs. 74, 80, 87). Workshop C produces miniature style architectural elements on monochrome black, yellow and red backgrounds, to decorate the rooms around the peristyle in the west wing (figs. 31, 32, 33, 35). The authors dismiss all previous attributions of various wall decorations to the painter Famulus—connected by Pliny the Elder with the Domus Aurea ( HN 35.120)—with the possible exception of the megalographiae which originally decorated the Golden Ceiling of the pentagonal court’s main room (fig. 80).
The following chapter (“Rapporti fra le decorazioni e le funzioni degli ambienti”) explores the authors’ efforts to establish a relationship between the quality of the decoration and the function of the pavilion’s rooms. From their analysis it seems that the amount of marble veneers of the walls constitutes the main criterion for defining the hierarchy of the rooms and their function. The extensive use of marble also stresses the difference between the more luxurious decoration of the Domus Aurea and the Campanian buildings, a practice that, according to the authors, “fa vedere una nuova moda nell’applicazione di materiali costosi che fanno ricordare i palazzi storici dell’Oriente”(p. 29).
Chapters 6 (“Le decorazioni parietali in rapporto con il IV Stile pompeiano”) and 7 (“Le decorazioni delle volte”) provide a detailed analysis of the decorations on the walls vaults and ceilings of the pavilion, corroborating the research on the typology and chronology of the Fourth Style. The two major categories of wall decoration — marble wall panels and mosaics or wall paintings, although often combined—are described in separate sections with comparisons taken from Pompeii and Herculaneum. The painters follow the traditional horizontal division of the painted systems, but the use of stucco relief to frame painted panels or to emphasize architectural elements is considered an innovative element of the Domus Aurea decoration. The major painted schemes used are the typical Fourth Style “facciata da parata” and the “stile a campi”, with juxtaposed panels separated by architectural or ornamental frames and bands. Nonetheless, as the authors suggest, the two styles are never mixed within a same decorative zone. Figured panels on the walls are rare because they are substituted by marble paneling, but a few mythological scenes, often associated with the world of Dionysos, can be found on the vaults, very badly preserved today (figs 28, 33, 37, 80).
A large section of the book is devoted to the stylistic and typological analysis of the vaults and ceilings of the pavilion. After a very extensive survey of the development of ceiling decoration from the Archaic period and up to the 1 st century AD—too long I believe for the purpose of the present volume —the authors discuss the Domus Aurea decorations in comparison with the four major composition schemes of the Fourth Style, concluding that “il periodo del IV Stile è stato il culmine della storia della decorazione antica di soffitti e volte” (p. 131). The most popular scheme is the coherent central composition of the vault, which is used by all three workshops. Candelabra were occasionally used by workshops B and C and, rarely, the most traditional patterns of parallel and symmetric compositions. It is to the authors’ credit that, in their final chapter (“Descrizione degli ambienti e delle loro decorazioni”), they provide a complete catalogue with elaborate descriptions of all the decorations of the pavilion and shorter descriptions of the architecture.
This book offers an important contribution to the understanding of the Domus Aurea decoration both as a valuable testimony of the traditional Fourth Style’s systems and its more distinctive innovative expressions, formed within the specific context of the pavilion, where decoration indeed defined hierarchy. The new architectural plans of the pavilion and the colour reproductions of the old engravings and watercolors of parts of the decoration no longer preserved today are particularly valuable. Regrettably, the original photos of the parts of the decoration that actually exist are of poor quality, taken, in most cases, by the authors themselves. We may also regret the absence of any kind of technical photography likely to enhance the remaining traces of colour, and of scientific analyses of the paintings that would allow us to better evaluate the nature of the colors used by the three different workshops. Although the authors tend to repeat similar kinds of information in several sections of the book (as particularly evident in chapters 4-7), their constant practice of providing conclusions at the end of each chapter and section helps the reader focus on the major points. The text is full of useful notes, contains an exhaustive bibliography up to 2010, and a thematic index.
1. J. Elsner, J. Masters (eds), Reflections of Nero. Culture, history and representation, Chapell Hill; London, 1994.
2. L. Fabbrini, “Domus Aurea: il palazzo sull’Esquilino”, LTUR II, Roma, 1995.
3. L.F. Ball, The Domus Aurea and the Roman Architectural Revolution, Cambridge, 2003.