Had a most brilliant day today. We went to Rome on our own. We were very early ashore, just after seven and got the shuttle bus into town. We wanted to get the 801 train from Civitavecchia to Roma Termini. It takes about 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes depending on whether it’s a fast train or not. The 801 was not a fast train, but that was ok. It was perfectly comfortable and only cost 4.6 euro each. So cheap compared to the UK railways. It was quite overcast and even a bit drizzly when we set off but the forecast was hopeful.
By the time we got into Rome at 920, the weather was clearing up and we had a pleasant 20 minute walk to the area on the Oppio hill where Nero’s Domus Aurea was built. That was to be our first stop of the day. I had booked a tour for 11am. We were a bit early so we had a look at the exterior of the Colosseum and a coffee and croissant on the hill above. The Rome Marathon was underway and the finish line was just at the Forum, with the finishers coming around the Colosseum. Pretty spectacular.
I had visited the Domus Aureus 12 years ago with Lucy on our first trip to Rome when she was preparing for university. At that point, the excavations were in reasonably early stages, it was very wet down there and quite a building site. In fact the excavations closed pretty quickly after that and didn’t open again for some years. I had heard that a lot of work had been done in the interim and I was really keen to see it, especially as I’d heard some parts were accented with virtual reality effects. Bob had never been.
We were taken down for a 75 minute tour in groups of about 20 people, 15 minutes apart.
The Domus Aurea is a fascinating site. Nero had it built in 4 years after 64AD when there was a great fire that destroyed large areas of the city. It stretched over a huge area, covering 3 of Rome’s hills, maybe 40 hectares and it incorporated the enormous palace, a large lake, orchards, gardens, rivers. It also included a colossal 35.5m bronze statue of Nero as the sun god which was placed just outside the palace. There are thought to be 2 “wings” of the palace. The domestic wing which was on the Palatine hill and which is totally lost and the entertainment pavilion, consisting of perhaps 300 rooms which was on the Oppio hill and in the valley where the Colosseum now stands. It is this pavilion which has been excavated and which is still being excavated. The rooms were originally sheathed in a dazzling white polished marble and there were innovative windows and light wells. Ceilings were either painted or covered in mosaics which included gold leaf and previous stones which glittered and shone, hence the name “Golden Palace”. The extravagance knew no bounds. Ivory veneers were also used. The two architects, Celer and Severus, were geniuses. Their innovations were later widely copied by the Renaissance architects. In fact the mosaiced ceilings were later copied by the early churches to create the apses.
One of the highlights of the palace was a great octagonal hall, surmounted by a oculus to let in light. One of the rooms off the hall, was a nymphaeum with a waterfall and pool, others were dining rooms. The function of the ceiling with its circular hole is a mystery. There are many theories about it: one that it rotated to show the positions of the stars and planets somehow; other accounts say that the ceiling under the dome revolved and perfume sprayed and rose petals were dropped on the guests. It is still a mystery. There is a revolving room in the Palatine palace so who knows….
Anyway, it was a fabulous visit. There had been a massive amount of work in the 12 years between my visits. One half of the palace was excavated and dried out and the fragments of murals were still visible, this included the octagonal hall. The work involved has been huge. When Nero fell from grace and committed suicide, his memory was forever damned, “Damnatio Memoriae”. This meant his likenesses were removed, his name removed from monuments and records, he literally was wiped off the record. And this included his palace which became a huge embarrassment to his successors. Over 10 years, Trajan stripped out all the marbles and ivory, the gold leaf, and the rooms were totally filled in with earth and rubble right up to the vaulted ceilings as part of the foundations for the Baths of Trajan, a huge thermal complex built for the public. The gardens and great lake were filled in and drained to make the site of the Trajan Amphitheatre, (Colosseum). Within 40 years, the palace was completely obliterated and buried. Weirdly, this in a way protected the frescos.
It was largely forgotten until the 15th Century when a young man fell through a hole in the hillside and found himself in a decorated “cavern”. It was one of the halls. As I mentioned, as the fame of these painted grottoes spread, artists lowered themselves down into the rooms to view and copy the visible decorations. They copied them and these copies have been invaluable to the archaeologists in knowing what they looked like 500 years ago when they were in better shape than they are now. The work today goes on above and below ground. They are completely replanting and remaking the Oppio park above the palace so that it does not weigh so heavily on the palace below and planting it with plants that are not dep rooted because the roots of previous plants and trees were coming down and damaging the roofs. Underground it is a constant battle against dampness and the cold, damp air, now that the earth has been removed from many of the rooms. I mean. Imagine the work involved in emptying these huge chambers of piled up earth and debris……
Our guide was very good and gave us a lot of information. We saw a short film at the start of the tour which was projected onto one of the walls which showed recreations of what the palace would have looked like. And in one of the large halls, we sat on stools with virtual reality eye masks and headphones on and as we looked around, we saw the decorations come back to life, the walls in front come down, and we walked out onto the terrace and looked down on Nero’s gardens and the valley. It was absolutely amazing and I actually felt quite tearful and emotional for some reason.
If you are in Rome, I would recommend that you do get tickets to go around the Domus Aurea. It is an amazing experience.
After that we came out just as the marathon was ending. People were wrapped in tin foil all around us!!!! We went to have lunch at the Divin Ostilia, wine bar/restaurant nearby. I’d eaten here before and been very impressed by the food and wine. We shared stuffed courgette flowers (stuffed with cheese and anchovies) deep fried in a sort of filo pastry. Then I had spaghetti with Gran Padano and Parmesan cheese and lots of black truffle, and Bob had gnocchi smothered in mozzarella and parmesan. Both were absolutely delicious and sooooo rich. I washed mine down with two glasses of a delicious red wine. Bob had beer. It was really good.
After lunch we headed through the crowds past the forums and up the Corso to the Pantheon. It was hard to hurry after such a meal. We got there and it was quite busy but we got in. Lovely lovely marbles in there. Such a special place. Then we walked back, past the Trevi fountain (madhouse) to Termini which took about 30 minutes. We walked miles today.
Got the 1612 train back to Civitavecchia and arrived about 1730. Shuttled back to the ship and sat on deck till nearly 8pm sorting out photos and talking to the girls while I still had phone signal.
We had dinner in the restaurant but I was sooooo tired, I couldn’t make the show and we turned in about 1030. Love Rome. Such a good day.