Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Domus Aurea Ceiling Collapses

A section of Nero's Domus Aurea collapsed today leaving a gaping hole in the garden that sits above the buried structure. Luckily, the Domus Aurea was under repairs at the time and no tourists were inside, and as of the latest reports, no one was injured. Water damage is the likely cause of the collapse and the integrity of the entire structure is now in question. Damage is nothing new to Nero's palace, which was destroyed not long after it was built. Some parts of the structure were buried and those are the areas people can visit today. For decades, though, the structural integrity of the palace has been in doubt. Water damage and algae infestations have closed the site in the past, sometimes for years, and it it any one's guess how this new disaster will effect the future of the site.

Unfortunately, money is most likely at the root of today's collapse. Italy, Greece, Turkey and many other nations around the world are in the unenviable position of having a rich cultural heritage without possessing the means to protect it. These countries have hundreds of acres of exposed archaeological sites that require, above all else, money to maintain. Pompeii is perhaps the most famous example. There you have a small city that requires constant maintenance and millions of dollars just to keep it from falling apart, let alone preserved. Where this money is supposed to come from is a good question and one that will probably be asked again after today's collapse. Finding money for the preservation of ancient sites is sometimes quite difficult. In countries like Italy, which is inundated with archaeological sites, how is the country supposed to support them all? Not too long ago when Italian authorities started charging admission to the Roman Forum, people were far from pleased. In reality, though, sites like the Forum can't exist as archaeological parks free and open to everyone. People can't be trusted to leave ancient monuments well enough alone and lack of funds only serves to damage sites for future generations.
Of course, I must give you a history lesson. Nero stared construction on his Domus Aurea (golden house) after the great fire of Rome in 64 CE. The fire cleared large areas of timber construction, giving Nero the room to pursue his architectural fantasies. Unfortunately, not much of the original structure remains and little has been excavated; much was torn down in antiquity or is now covered by post-antique construction. It is estimated that the Domus Aurea was between 100 and 300 acres in size and according to ancient sources (and archaeological remains) it was richly decorated. It obviously wasn't made entirely of gold; the name stems from the rich accouterments and gilding that was found throughout the palace. Other famous attributes of the Domus Aurea were of course the revolving dining room, the Colossus of Nero and the large lake. For all its splendor, the Domus Aurea was short lived. Nero committed suicide in 68 CE and the victor in the civil war that followed, Vespasian, was a different kind of man and emperor. Vespasian rightly viewed the Domus Aurea as a contemptible exercise in greed and excess. Vespasian would gain fame by converting the site of Nero's lake into the Colosseum, the name of which was derived from the Colossus of Nero that stood near by. The colossus remained, but its dedication to Nero did not; it was rededicated to and altered to look like the sun god Helios. Today, the only accessible areas of the Domus Aurea are beneath the Baths of Trajan. These remains house wonderfulFourth Style frescoes that helped inspire Renaissance and Neo-Classical artists.