After the fire of AD 64, which destroyed much of the center of Rome, the emperor Nero had built a new residence with walls covered with marble, sometimes decorated with gold and precious stones, deserving the name Domus Aurea.
It was designed by architects Severus and Celer and decorated by the painter Fabullo. The huge complex contained endless vineyards, pastures and forests, an artificial lake, looted treasures in the cities of the East and precious ornaments, including a colossal statue of the emperor in the guise of the Sun God.
On the death of Nero, his successors tried to bury and erase all traces of the building. The luxurious rooms were stripped of coatings and sculptures and filled with earth up to the times and were built over the Great Baths of Titus and Trajan. In the valley below was built the Colosseum. The lavish decorations in fresco and stucco of the Domus Aurea remained hidden until the Renaissance.
At that time, some artists fans of antiquities, including Pinturicchio, Ghirlandaio, Raphael, Giulio Romano and Giovanni da Udine, descending from above in what they thought were the caves began to copy the decorative motifs of the time. For this reason, the decorations were called "grotesque." With the rediscovery began the problems of the conservation of paintings and stucco work, which faded quickly because of the humidity and ended up being forgotten.
Only after the discovery of the frescoes of Pompeii scholars became interested again in 1772 and the grotesque Roman excavations were resumed in the Domus Aurea.
The architects Severus and Celer built the pavilion of the Domus Aurea in a dominant position on the southern slope of the Oppian Hill, oriented east-west and set into an artificial cut in the hillside; it was linked to the valley of the lake by a series of terraces. The southern façade, about 240 metres of which is currently documented, was preceded by a single-pitch Corinthian portico.
Sunlight flooded the rooms opening onto this southern front, but even inside the complex light penetrated into the rooms through peristyles and courtyards, as well as through windows opening into the walls and vaults.
This fundamental feature of the architectural project was definitively lost when Trajan turned the building into a vast underground container, filled with earth and rubble and reinforced with massive walls that cut through the larger rooms; it served as a foundation for the bath complex built on the summit of the hill.
Recent studies have definitively ascertained that the pavilion’s centre of symmetry was the Octagonal Room complex, and we can thus estimate a total façade length for the whole building of about 370 metres.
According to the ancient authors, Nero’s palace, built after the fire of AD 64, originally covered such a vast area – 80 hectares – as to be identified with much of the ancient city:” … the Domus Aurea embraced the whole of Rome…“ (Pliny, Natural History, XXXII, 54)and in another passage it is said that it“… extended so far that it surrounded the city” (Pliny, Natural History, XXXVI, 111)
Today, with the exception of some buildings and other isolated structures attributed to the complex during recent archaeological excavations and scattered between the Palatine and Caelian Hills, it is the “small” portion preserved on the Oppian Hill that gives us an idea of the size and lavishness of the emperor’s residence.
The pavilion, or more accurately what remains of this complex building, is subdivided into 150 rooms, and has a total length of about 250 metres and a width ranging from a minimum of 30 to a maximum of 60 metres. To appreciate its exceptional size, suffice it to think that, including the galleries of Trajan, it has an area of about 16,000 square metres, the equivalent of around three football pitches.
The fresco and stucco decorations on the walls and vaults are calculated to cover about 30,000 square metres, an area thirty times as large as the Sistine Chapel. The palace presents such different characteristics in terms of both architectural development and the choice of decorative motifs on the walls and ceilings, that it can be clearly divided into a West Wing and an East Wing.