Rome: Esquiline: grotesque and mosaics

(February 2020, with Kasia, Michalina and Michał)

What is the truth about Nero is hard to say. The history, as you know, is written by the victors, and Nero’s rule did not end well for him – in this sense he was a loser. Did he really have no artistic talent? Certainly he was interested in art, which in case of many emperors we use to consider as a virtue. He certainly did not set fire to Rome, nor did he watch the fire as entertainment. He almost certainly organized a rescue and food supply operation, and made his palaces available to ordinary citizens as a shelter. He certainly liked luxuries, he probably had a high opinion of himself. Probably, to the end he was very much liked by ordinary citizens, although disliked by the powerful – and perhaps it was this dissonance that caused that so much effort was put into it that he would be remembered badly.

Perhaps it was the fire of Rome and the great reconstruction associated with it that was the beginning of the end of his rule. Because large-scale, with wide streets and the use of stone (which were to prevent future fires), with unimaginable verve, it was absolutely unbearable for the imperial treasury. Hence new tributes and taxes, which were a short way to revolts in the provinces that eventually ended the rule of the last emperor of the first dynasty.

But it is the gigantic, probably covering the whole center of ancient Rome, with internal gardens and even a large artificial lake, in the place where the Colosseum is now, occupying ancient hills, from Palatine to Esquiline, the palace built after the fire, Domus Aurea – the golden house is perhaps even a greater victim of Nero’s end and historical memory. It was built very fast, but still not fully completed before his death, after his death sentenced to oblivion by his successors of the Flavian dynasty. The famous amphitheater was built on the place of the artificial lake, and a significant part of the palace was covered with earth and used as foundations for the later built Trajan baths. Among the forgotten buildings and never actually put into service, perhaps this palace deserves the title of one of the most influential in the history of art.

Even that famous amphitheater built on the site of the artificial palace lake, people began to call the Colosseum from the colossal statue of Nero, which stood nearby. During the Renaissance, “caves” (in Italian “grotti”) were suddenly discovered in Esquiline hill, which led to rooms with richly painted walls – which, of course, are the interiors of Domus Aurea. The style of the paintings was fascinating – it was called grotesque – just from the word “grotto”. The most famous of those times visited the caves – Michelangelo and Raphael. Raphael’s decorations in the Vatican vividly resemble the ancient ones from Domus Aurea. Nero’s style conquered the world.

Only recently, the underground interiors of Domus Aurea appeared on the Rome sightseeing map, occasionally closed and saved from collapsing under the weight of the thermal baths and the park (a dwelling place for many homeless people) that rests on them, recently reopened, although, fortunately, not yet widely known, it’s not easy to book an entrance. We managed to do this with Kasia.

In Domus Aurea also for the first time golden and colorful mosaics were used to decorate ceilings and walls, which previously were only reserved for floors in a much less refined version. And, paradoxically, despite the fact that Christians strongly suffered during his rule, that style found its way from palaces of Nero to much later Christian churches. And in the churches of Esquiline the mosaics are triumphing. So, we looked up at them with Michalina and Michał. At those in Santa Prassende from the ninth century, as well as those in Santa Maria Maggiore, slightly overwhelmed by the gold from Columbus ships surrounding them, dating back to the fifth century, and on our way we also looked at the horned Moses by Michelangelo in San Petro in Vincoli.