£25 million appeal to save Emperor Nero's lavish palace, which sits on a hill opposite the Colosseum, from collapse
By Nick Squires,
Covered in gold leaf, it was once a magnificent symbol of the wealth of ancient Rome, but two thousand years on, cash-strapped Italy has launched an appeal for £25 million to preserve a vast palace built by the Emperor Nero.
The Domus Aurea, loosely translated as the Golden House, is a sprawling complex of interconnecting dining halls, frescoed reception rooms and vaulted hallways perched on a hill opposite the Colosseum.
In the centuries since it was constructed by the tyrannical and vainglorious Nero, who was famously said to have played his lyre while Rome was engulfed in flames, it was built on by successive emperors so that it is now virtually underground.
A modern-day park sits on top of the palace and is doing grave damage to the structure – mature trees have sunk their roots into the vaulted roof and water drips from the often sodden soil onto fragments of Roman fresco and ancient brickwork.
The danger of structural collapses means the enormous palace has been closed to visitors for nearly a decade, and in 2010 the collapse of a section of roof renewed fears for the monument's future.
But on Wednesday archaeologists from the cultural heritage ministry announced a bold plan to strip away the existing park, cutting down trees and removing hundreds of tonnes of soil, in order to replace it with a landscaped garden designed to protect the palace below from further damage.
The new garden would be planted on a much thinner stratum of soil, meaning that it would exert far less weight on the palace and less water would percolate into the building.
The project is scheduled to take four years, after which the palace will be reopened to the public.
There is just one snag – the government has no money to donate to the project, so archaeologists are looking to a private company or corporation to pick up the tab.
"The state has very limited resources unfortunately," said Dario Franceschini, the minister for cultural heritage, speaking in a high-ceilinged, octagonal hall at the heart of the palatial complex.
"This is an opportunity for a big company to sponsor an extraordinary project, which will capture the world's attention. It would be scandalous if no one comes forward," he said.
Nero, who was known for his lavish tastes, ruled from 54AD to 68AD and had the palace built as a potent emblem of his power and wealth.
Five years ago archaeologists found what they believe to be the remains of a banqueting room that was able to rotate – a novelty that Nero had built to impress his guests.
The 50ft-wide dining area was underpinned by a broad pillar and a mechanism that allowed it to slowly rotate, matching an account by the historian Suetonius, who described a dining hall that revolved "day and night, in time with the sky".
"This was not just an imperial residence," said Mariarosaria Barbera, a cultural heritage official, explaining that it covered a vast area and incorporated ponds, parkland and pavilions.
"Nero's idea was to create 'rus in urbe' – a piece of the countryside right in the heart of the city. It included a lake, which was later drained and on which was built the Colosseum," she said.
A team of 70 experts has spent three years restoring the interior of the palace, chipping away calcium deposits left by the incursion of rainwater and cleaning the remaining frescoes, which depict Roman nobles reclining at banquets as well as gods, goddesses and nymphs.
Replacing the parkland above the palace with a specially designed garden would stop water dripping down into the interior and drastically reduce the humidity, which damages the frescoes.
The eventual reopening of the palace might help rehabilitate Nero, who has historically been portrayed as a megalomaniac and sadist.
He may have had his mother murdered, and kicked to death his pregnant wife, but he also rebuilt large parts of ancient Rome after the great fire of AD64.
"He has a bad reputation, but he had his merits – among them his desire to turn Rome into a great metropolis after the fire," said Dr Barbera.
Nero's enjoyment of his palatial residence was to prove short-lived.
Just after it was finished in AD68, he committed suicide by stabbing himself in the throat, after the Roman Senate and his legions rebelled against him.
The palace has exerted a fascination ever since – in the ceilings there are numerous holes, hacked away by artists in the Renaissance so that they could lower themselves into the interior on ropes to survey the sumptuous decorations.
Among those who explored the cavernous palace were Michelangelo, Raphael and Pinturicchio, who left graffiti and signed their names.