Overlay of Trajans baths on the Oppian Hill
Suetonius claims this of Nero and the Domus Aurea:
When the edifice was finished in this style and he dedicated it, he deigned to say nothing more in the way of approval than that he had at last begun to live like a human being.
Statue of a muse
in the newly reopened Domus Aurea
Though the Domus Aurea complex covered parts of the slopes of the Palatine, Esquiline, Oppian and Caelian hills, with a man-made lake in the marshy valley, the estimated size of the Domus Aurea is an approximation, as much of it has not been excavated. Some scholars place it at over 300 acres (1.2 km2), while others estimate its size to have been under 100 acres (0.40 km2). Suetonius describes the complex as "ruinously prodigal" as it included groves of trees, pastures with flocks, vineyards and an artificial lake—rus in urbe, "countryside in the city".
Nero also commissioned from the Greek
Zenodorus a colossal 35.5 m (120 RF) high bronze statue of himself, the Colossus Neronis. Pliny the Elder, however, puts its height at only 30.3 m (106.5 RF). The statue was placed just outside the main palace entrance at the terminus of the Via Appia in a large atrium of porticoes that divided the city from the private villa. This statue may have represented Nero as the sun god Sol, as Pliny saw some resemblance. This idea is widely accepted among scholars but some are convinced that Nero was not identified with Sol while he was alive. The face of the statue was modified shortly after Nero’s death during Vespasian’s reign to make it truly a statue of Sol. Hadrian moved it, with the help of the architect
Decrianus and 24 elephants, to a position next to the Flavian Amphitheater. This building took the name "Colosseum" in the Middle Ages, after the statue nearby, or, as some historians believe, because of the sheer size of the building.
The Golden House was designed as a place of entertainment, as shown by the presence of 300 rooms without any sleeping quarter. Nero's own palace remained on the Quirinal Hill. No kitchens or latrines have been discovered.
Rooms sheathed in dazzling polished white marble were given richly varied floor plans, shaped with niches and exedras that concentrated or dispersed the daylight. There were pools in the floors and fountains splashing in the corridors. Nero took great interest in every detail of the project, according to Tacitus' Annals, and oversaw the engineer-architects, Celer and Severus, who were also responsible for the attempted navigable canal with which Nero hoped to link Misenum with Lake Avernus.
The style of wall paintings in Domus Aurea inspired Raphael's Vatican Stanze
and 18th-century Neoclassicism alike.
Some of the extravagances of the Domus Aurea had repercussions for the future. The architects 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 an early use of Roman concrete construction. One innovation was destined to have an enormous influence on the art of the future: Nero placed mosaics, previously restricted to floors, in the vaulted ceilings. Only fragments have survived, but that technique was to be copied extensively, eventually ending up as a fundamental feature of Christian art: the apse mosaics that decorate so many churches in Rome, Ravenna, Sicily and Constantinople.
Celer and Severus also created an ingenious mechanism, cranked by slaves, that made the ceiling underneath the dome revolve like the heavens, while perfume was sprayed and rose petals were dropped on the assembled diners. According to some accounts, perhaps embellished by Nero's political enemies, on one occasion such quantities of rose petals were dropped that one unlucky guest was asphyxiated (a similar story is told of the emperor Elagabalus).
The extensive gold leaf that gave the villa its name was not the only extravagant element of its decor: stuccoed ceilings were faced with semi-precious stones and ivory veneers, while the walls were frescoed, coordinating the decoration into different themes in each major group of rooms. Pliny the Elder watched it being built and mentions it in his Naturalis Historia.
Frescoes covered every surface that was not 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 assistants from his studio covered a spectacular amount of wall area with frescoes. Pliny, in his Natural History, recounts how Famulus went for only a few hours each day to the Golden House, to work while the light was right. The swiftness of Famulus's execution gives a wonderful unity and astonishing delicacy to his compositions.
Pliny the Elder presents Amulius as one of the principal painters of the domus aurea: "More recently, lived Amulius, a grave and serious personage, but a painter in the florid style. By this artist there was a Minerva, which had the appearance of always looking at the spectators, from whatever point it was viewed. He only painted a few hours each day, and then with the greatest gravity, for he always kept the toga on, even when in the midst of his implements. The Golden Palace of Nero was the prison-house of this artist's productions, and hence it is that there are so few of them to be seen elsewhere."