Saturday, September 6, 2014


IN a race against time, archaeologists in Rome are trying to save Nero's famous "Domus Aurea" (Golden House) and its fabled octagonal dining room with "rotating ceiling" ... before it crumbles completely.

After two-thirds of Rome was destroyed by the great fire in 64 AD, Nero used fire-ravaged land between the Esquiline and Palatine Hills as the site for his new palace. 

It was not so much a palace as a "party villa" … a series of buildings scattered over a landscaped "countryside in the city" (rus in urbe) which included an artificial lake.

The main building was extravagantly crafted, and boasted rooms and hallways decorated almost entirely in gold, with marble and ivory encrusted ornamentation.

The architects in charge of the project, Severus and Celer, designed two of the principal dining rooms to flank an octagonal court, surmounted by a dome with a giant central oculus to let in light. 

It was a design element which Emperor Hadrian would expand upon in his design for the Pantheon.

The Domus Aurea had more than one banqueting hall, according to the Ancient Roman historian Suetonius. 

But the most extravagant one was a vast circular room which featured a "rotating ceiling."

Celer and Severus devised an ingenious mechanism, either cranked by slaves or perhaps powered by flowing water, which made the ceiling within the dome of the main banqueting hall rotate like the heavens, while perfume was sprayed and rose petals were dropped on the assembled diners. 

The rotating ceiling was painted with the stars and the planets by the artist Fabullus.

In his book De Vita Caesarum ("The Lives of the Caesars", best known in English as "The Twelve Caesars"), Suetonius describes the banqueting hall in detail:

"The main banqueting hall was circular, and its ceiling rotated slowly, day and night, in time with the heavens."

Suetonius goes on to write that when the lavish Domus Aurea was finally completed, Nero said, "Good, now I can at last begin to live like a human being!"

However, Nero did not enjoy the frescoed halls and gold-encrusted ceilings for too long. It was completed in AD 68 -- the year he committed suicide amid a revolt.

But for all its splendor, the Domus Aurea has been closed since 2005 for safety reasons … and a ceiling vault collapsed in 2010. Persistent problems with drainage and moisture threaten both its structural stability and its decorations. 

Recently, the archaeological superintendency of Rome embarked on the last phase of an ambitious restoration project. 

"We hope,” says superintendent Mariarosaira Barbera, “that the Domus Aurea can be visited again by 2018, and that it will last another 2,000 years."

Click here for a tour of Nero's Domus Aurea:

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