National Geographic : 2014 Sep
90 national geographic • September 2014 Today, following the partial collapse of its roof in 2010, the Domus Aurea is closed to the public until further notice. Staff show up daily to tend to the frescoes and patch the leaks, their cult- like labors unseen by the park’s pedestrians 25 feet overhead. Until he recently retired, a Roman architect named Luciano Marchetti oversaw the activity at the Golden House. One morning Mar- chetti stood in the chilly underground darkness of the octagonal room at the eastern end of the palace complex. Holding a flashlight, he gazed up at the vaulted, eight-sided ceiling, 50 feet from one corner to the next, externally buttressed by the arches of adjacent rooms and thereby hover- ing without visible support, like a UFO. “I’m so moved by this,” he said quietly as he pointed to the self-sustaining flat arches over the doorways. “This is an architectural sophis- tication that had never been seen before. The Pantheon is marvelous, of course. But its dome sits on a cylinder, which they built up brick by brick. This dome is held up by structures you don’t see.” Sighing, the architect then muttered a Latin phrase: Damnatio memoriae. Canceled from memory—the fate of the palace as well as the accomplishments of its owner. To the immediate southwest of this wing of the Domus Aurea, just across an ever hum- ming Roman boulevard and directly on top of where Nero’s artificial lake had been, sits the Colosseum. The world-famous amphitheater, built by Vespasian in the years following Nero’s suicide, was apparently named for the more than 100-foot-tall bronze statue of Nero depicted as the sun god—the Colossus Neronis—that once loomed over the valley. To- day the Colosseum receives upwards of 10,000 visitors each day. The PR-savvy shoe manufac- turer Diego Della Valle has donated $34 million toward its refurbishment. From the Colosseum’s ticket sales, a small stream flows to fund the ongoing restoration of the dank and shuttered palace across the street. Just to the west of the Colosseum sprawl the lavish imperial ruins on the Palatine Hill. In April 2011 the Special Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome opened an ex- hibit at the Palatine and other locations nearby devoted to the life and works of Nero. On display for the first time were the monster king’s many architectural and cultural contributions; also un- veiled, on the grounds of the Palatine itself, was a recently excavated chamber believed by many to be Nero’s famed coenatio rotunda, a rotating dining hall with sweeping views onto the Alban Hills. The exhibitors knew that any show about the notorious Nero would attract visitors. They had not anticipated a turnout greater than any since the superintendency hosted its first exhibit a decade before. “Well, he’s good box office,” observes Roberto Gervaso, the bald and hawk-eyed 77-year-old author of the 1978 biographical novel Nerone. “They’ve made lots of films about Nero, but they couldn’t resist making a caricature of him. There’s no need to do that—he himself was a bit of a caricature anyway. Such picturesque deprav- ity attracts a biographer. I could never write a biography of St. Francis! And I would certainly rather go to dinner with Nero than Hadrian.” Tonight Gervaso is stuck with me for a dining companion. We sit outside, just a hundred yards from the slumbering Domus Aurea, at Osteria da Nerone, one of the few structures in Rome that bear the emperor’s name. “The restaurant is always full,” says Gervaso, insisting there’s a con- nection. “He was a monster. But that’s not all he was. And those who came before and after him were no better. The true monsters, like Hitler and Stalin, lacked [Nero’s] imagination. Even today he would be avant-garde, ahead of his time. “I wrote my book 35 years ago precisely be- cause I wanted to rehabilitate him. Maybe you could do more.” Well. One is hard pressed to “rehabilitate” a man who, according to historical accounts, ordered his first wife, Octavia, killed; kicked Robert Draper is a contributing writer with the magazine. To visually capture Rome, Richard Barnes photographed the ancient architecture and Alex Majoli depicted modern-day life.