The Homes of the Emperors

Another brilliantly hot day in Rome, hotter even than yesterday. We wore summer clothes today which really helped. I now officially have blisters though. Walking 8 – 10 miles a day in the heat, over rough cobbles have taken their toll.

However, we are having a great time. Our first stop today was for coffee (of course) at a place opposite the Colosseum and near the Oppio Prk.

We had a tour booked to see the excavations of Nero’s Golden House – the Domus Aurea. Lu and I first visited this site about 15 years ago when it opened to public view for a very short time, before closing again. It was very much a worksite – we had to wear hard hats and there was water dripping down everywhere. Bob and I went a few years ago – before the pandemic – and more was open, but…. a lot has happened!

Nero built his palace over a huge, huge area after the great fire that decimated a great deal of the old city. It literally covered 3 of Rome’s hills and the valley between which is where the Colosseum is now. No expense was spared. Large numbers of craftsmen were brought from all over the empire to dccorate the rooms in the finest style. Maybe one team per room…. and there were perhaps 1600 rooms…. It was an amazing spectacle and showcase when finished, built in terraces down the hillsides with gardens and a huge lake (upon which the Colosseum was later built). The lake area was dominated by a huge statue of Helios the Sun God, a work of bronze covered in gold, over 100 feet high. Helios had the face of Nero.

The rooms were architectural marvels, angled and constructed to allow the influx of natural light and the ceilings were coated in gold and gems to catch that light and sparkle. Wow! When Nero was deposed and suffered the fate of Damnatio Memoriae (literally to be erased from the record as if you had never lived), that fate was extended to his wonderful palace. Which was raided by the Emperors Vespasian and Titus for the marbles and covered over by the Baths of Titus which literally buried it in the earth. Luckily, this burial meant people forgot about it, and this preserved sections, albeit underground and filled with earth and rubble.

In the 1500s, artists found the site and began lowering themselves down through burrowed holes into what appeared to be caverns or grottoes but were really the rooms of the palace. They copied the amazing paintings on the walls and reproduced them. Remember, perspective had been forgotten up till then. The Renaissance masters relearned it from the Roman painters

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the palace began to be excavated, and really only in the last 10-15 years that the excavations and restorations have become extensive. That work will be finished in 2025 at which point a large section of one part of the palace will be open. The painted rooms are in amazing condition, the paintwork as bright as it ever was…. except…… what has preserved them once the earth was dug away, has been the damp which created salt. The salt seeps out and covers the painted walls in an increasingly white film which makes it look as though the paint has faded. It hasn’t. It’s like the painting of the Forth Bridge to keep washing the walls so what will happen is that every year a few rooms will be washed and then the next year another few rooms, and so the paintings will cycle through brightness. The ambition and the artistry of the palace is just staggering. And to think you walk down 5m into what appears to be a ramp into the earth…. and then… there it is….

There are a few pieces of statuary found there, on display. Most of it is now in the Vatican Museum, taken as found by the artists. 5 of the most famous pieces of sculpture ever found were originally here, 4 of them now in the Vatican ie the Laocoon, the dying Gaul, Apollo, Aeneas fleeing Troy…..

One highlight in a visit is the brilliant use of technology to illustrate how the palace would have looked. At one point, you sit in a room facing a large bricked up wall, filled with rubble beyond, which would once have provided an arched opening, repeated across the huge expance of the building looking down over terraced gardens and the lake. You put on a virtual reality headset and you are transported to that room – you can look all around you at the landscapes as you move forward out of the arched openings into the terraced gardens and down to the lake. It’s an extraordinary and very moving experience which I can’t quite explain…. but the realism is amazing and you cannot help but feel moved. Emotional actually.. I highly recommend a visit to the Domus Aurea. You have to book online and it gets sold out, so book in advance. We saw people turn up who were so disappointed they couldn’t buy a ticket then and there.

From the Domus we walked down to an area behind the Colosseum to have lunch in one of my favourite restaurants in Rome, the Divin Ostilia. It is a tiny place that grew from a wine bar and deli and produces the most amazing food and wine. We sat outside, and ate. There were a lot of black truffle specials today. We started with 2 sorts of bruschetta: buffalo mozzarella with pork cheek, and black truffle with mozzarella…. superb. We also had fried courgette flowers stuffed with anchovies and cheese. Finally we shared a bowl of spaghetti with cacio pepe sauce and liberally covered in black truffle shavings. Everything was amazing and it’s not expensive. We could have stayed there all day.

But…. duty called and we headed back to the Palatine Hill and the Forum Romanum. We had a special pass good for the day, that as well as letting us enter the main areas, gave us entry to 8 “special sites”, areas that are usually closed to the public, and which are only open to very small groups with this pass so as to protect them. You buy the pass online. It’s about 16 euro each.

Our first stop up on the Palatine was the House of Augustus, the first Emperor, and adopted son of Julius Caesar. Quite a few of the rooms in his house are open to passholders and they are still working in there so I guess more will be available in the future. The preservation of the rooms are quite amazing. The colours are vivid, the painting superbly detailed showing panels painted with perspective to give an impression of windows looking out onto Rome. A docent took us round and there were only 4 people in our group, just one other couple plus Lu and me. It was amazing. The colours are so vivid still – just as they were 2000 years ago, original and unrestored.

We also visited the Temple of Romulus, down in the Forum, which has been preserved quite well as it became a church in the middle ages, the Curia Julia (the Senate House of Rome), and our pass let us enter the Imperial Forums adjoining the Forum Romanum. These are the forums of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Nerva and Trajan. That was quite a thrill to walk through these areas only glimpsed from above before.

We got a great view of Trajan’s Column, decorated with scenes telling the story of his victory over the Dacians. It was thrilling to see it closer than ever before, the amazing detail of the carved panels that curve around the column.

By now it was nearly 4pm and my blisters had erupted and we were both pretty tired. We exited the Forums and limped our way back to our apartment for a rest before dinner. A really memorable day and one I would strongly recommend you try and duplicate on a visit. Just remember to book ahead on the CoopCulture website. It must be said that the signage in the Forum and on the Palatine is absolutely appalling and the app that is supposed to guide you round does not work. Like us, you will wander about a bit to find the buildings you seek…..

Tonight we ventured out for dinner to an area of Rome on the Tiber, called Testaccio. It’s really interesting, a hill that slopes up from the river…. Unlike the natural hills of Rome however, the Testaccio hill is made up of a huge, huge pile of pottery shards formed from a scrap pile of amphorae. What would happen in ancient times, is that the boats, laden with goods would come up the Tiber from the sea, and having got to Testaccio would unload the cargoes. Much of the goods were packed in pottery amphorae and these would be smashed, their goods extracted and the shards dumped. A literal mountain built up. As time passed and the Roman times moved into the middle ages, houses and buildings were built on this fake hill….. Testaccio was born. In later times it became the meat market/butchery centre of Rome. Lots of heavily meaty and offally restaurants grew up here.

We have eaten here several times. First just Lu and me. Then as a family – we all like offal. There was a memorable occasion when the girls were teenagers and we came to a very traditional offal restaurant in Testaccio. The elderly owner was so bemused and entranced that these two blonde English girls were wolfing down his offal dishes, that he kept bringing us dish after dish of his specialities.

Tonight Lu and I went to Agustarello a Testaccio, rumoured to be the best offal restaurant in the area. It was certainly very friendly and welcoming, and quite modern as these places go. We were the first in at 7pm. It was rammed by the time we left at 9pm. We started by sharing a dish of sausage with tomato and beans (yum), then shared a dish of mixed offal cooked with soft onions (omg), and another shared dish of carbonara pasta with pork jowls. A side dish of artichoke Roman style. All were good, the carbonara my least favourite….. something lingering in the pork taste. We finished with an espresso made with sambucca. A really good dinner for about £45.

Taxied back to our area and had some gelato sitting out on the street. It’s still so warm. My feet were a lot better so I hope they hold up for tomorrow.