Domus Aurea  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Domus Aurea (Latin for "Golden House") was a large landscaped "portico villa" built by the Roman emperor Nero. The frescoes it was decorated with -- discovered in the 1480s -- have become the blueprint for the grotesque sensibility in the visual arts.

The frescoes' effect on Renaissance artists was instant and profound (it can be seen most obviously in Raphael's decoration for the loggias in the Vatican), and the white walls, delicate swags, and bands of frieze — framed reserves containing figures or landscapes — have returned at intervals ever since, notably in late 18th century Neoclassicism, making Famulus one of the most influential painters in the history of art.

The discovery of Nero's Golden House was as important to Renaissance art as the rediscovery of Pompeii was to Neoclassicism. Both had been preserved untouched for more than 15 centuries.


Contents

History

The Golden House was built in the heart of Ancient Rome by the Roman emperor Nero after Great fire of Rome, which devastated Rome in 64 AD, had cleared away the aristocratic dwellings on the slopes of the Esquiline Hill. The villa has become known as a place of debauchery. "Nero gave the best parties, ever," archaeologist Wallace-Hadrill told an interviewer when the Golden House was reopened to visitors in 1999 after being closed for years for restorations. "Three hundred years after his death, tokens bearing his head were still being given out at public spectacles - a memento of the greatest showman of them all." Nero, who was obsessed with his status as an artist, certainly regarded parties as works of art. His official party planner was Petronius.

Frescoes covered every surface that wasn't more richly finished. The main artist was one Famulus (or Fabulus according to some sources). Fresco technique, working on damp plaster, demands a speedy and sure touch: Famulus and his studio covered a spectacular amount of area. The nature of these drawings have become known as grotesque.

After Nero's death, the Golden House was a severe embarrassment to his successors. It was stripped of its marble, its jewels and its ivory within a decade. Soon thereafter, the palace and grounds, encompassing one square mile, were built over: the Baths of Titus were already being built on part of the site in 79 AD. On the site of the lake in the middle of the palace grounds, Vespasian built the Flavian Amphitheatre, which could be reflooded at will, with the Colossus Neronis beside it. The Baths of Trajan, and Temples of Venus and Rome were built on the site. Within 40 years, the Golden House was completely obliterated, buried beneath the new construction, but paradoxically this ensured that the painted "grotesques" would survive; the sand worked as effectively as did Pompeii's volcanic dust to preserve them from their perpetual destroyer, damp.

Renaissance

When a young Roman inadvertently fell through a cleft in the Esquiline hillside at the end of the 15th century, he found himself in a strange cave or grotta filled with painted figures. Soon the young artists of Rome were having themselves let down on boards knotted to ropes to see for themselves. The fourth style frescoes that were uncovered then have faded to pale gray stains on the plaster now, but the effect of these freshly rediscovered grottesche decorations was electrifying in the early Renaissance, which was just arriving in Rome. When Pinturicchio, Raphael and Michelangelo crawled underground and were let down shafts to study them, carving their names on the walls to let the world know they had been there, the paintings were a revelation of the true world of antiquity. Beside the graffiti signatures of later tourists, like Casanova and the Marquis de Sade scratched into a fresco inches apart (British Archaeology June 1999), are the autographs of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Martin van Heemskerck, and Filippino Lippi. (Underground Rome, in The Atlantic, 1997)

It was even claimed that various classical artworks found at this time - such as the Laocoön and his Sons and Venus Kallipygos - were found within or near the Domus's remains, though this is now accepted as unlikely (high quality artworks would have been removed - to the Temple of Peace, for example - before the Domus was covered over with earth).

The frescoes' effect on Renaissance artists was instant and profound (it can be seen most obviously in Raphael's decoration for the loggias in the Vatican), and the white walls, delicate swags, and bands of frieze — framed reserves containing figures or landscapes — have returned at intervals ever since, notably in late 18th century Neoclassicism, making Famulus one of the most influential painters in the history of art.

References

See also




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