The Sky is Falling on the Domus Aurea

Things to Do, What's New — By Erica Firpo on March 30, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Earlier this morning, the sky was falling. Technically, it was a 645 sq ft section of the ceiling of the Domus Aurea, Emperor’s Nero infamous Golden Palace. The 1st century structure collapsed in a landslide, exposing areas of the once-buried palace to Rome’s spring elements. The Archaeological Superintendency reported it as the biggest collapse the monument has had in the past fifty years, with the City’s Civil Protection speculating that the collapse was most likely caused by water damage from the recent rains.

Damage, collapse and general destructiveness are not unfamiliar to the Domus Aurea, nor to Rome. In recent years, the Domus Aurea has been open and closed at least three times much like a revolving door in a hotel lobby. And Rome has also had rash of misfortune over the past decade including the collapse two sections of the Aurelian Walls at different times (by Castro Pretorio and Appian Gate) and the wall in Orti Farnesiani on the Palatine Hill.  Two questions should be asked: Is Rome falling apart and what is being done to save it?

Darius Arya, Executive Director of the American Institute for Roman Culture, responds:

No, Rome is not falling apart. There are a lot of sites that are remain at risk but  money is being dedicated to these sites to preserve the monuments and protect the viewers. It’s calamitous enough that a section of the Domus Aurea was damaged, can you imagine if someone had been injured or killed? That’s the responsibility of Rome.

For the Domus Aurea, intervention needs to be speedy but also well thought out so money isn’t wasted and the issues are resolved. The Ministero per I Beni Culturali (National Ministry of Culture) will be funding 2.5 million euro immediately – its not just for the archaeological site but for the safety of the general public. Remember, Nero’s multi-storied palace is buried directly beneath the Baths of Trajan—which is in a park, open and freely available to visitors. (It’s also important to note that many Roman monuments are no longer protected by marble, frescoes, roof tiles, drainage systems as they were in antiquity.)

What needs to be done is a coordinated, in-depth excavation of the entire upper floor of the Domus Aurea, basically peeling off the all the dirt and debris from the Baths of Trajan platform. In doing so, you’d finally resolve the long-standing issues of water infiltration that would allow a complete conservation project of the monument and its frescoes while learning more about the whole structure. This would take even time and money, but anything less could be an expensive stopgap.

On the flip side of destruction, Rome has recently opened many previously unavailable sites to the public. The House of Augustus, the Severan Palatine Palace extensions and the Barberini Vineyards, all on the Palatine hill are just a few of the monuments now open that were once off limits.  For those always looking to be in the know, keep your eyes peeled and sharpen your pencil to add the upcoming, but as of yet unknown, public openings of the Temple of Venus and Roma, the subterranean basilica by Porta Maggiore and the upper stories of the Colosseum.

photo courtesy of La Repubblica

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