Underneath Rome’s Oppian Hill, today a modest public park marred by unclever graffiti, where young men idly kick around a soccer ball, elderly couples walk their dogs, and transients build charcoal fires, part of the greatest palace in the history of the Eternal City lies buried.
The palace is called the Domus Aurea, or Golden House, erected by and for Nero. When the 30-year-old emperor’s crazed world exploded in A.D. 68, and he ordered a subject to drive a knife through his throat, gasping, so they say, “What an artist dies in me,” his palace may not even have been completed. The next few emperors reconfigured or ignored it, and in 104 Trajan reused the palace’s walls and vaults to create a suitable foundation for his famous baths. For the next 1,400 years the entombed palace was utterly forgotten.
Around 1480 a few excavators began digging on the Oppian Hill and found what they thought were the ruins of the Baths of Titus. One of them fell through the dirt, landed in a pile of rubble, and found himself looking up at a ceiling still covered in sumptuous frescoes. Word spread across Italy. Great artists of the Renaissance—Raphael, Pinturicchio, Giovanni da Udine—climbed down into the hole to study (and later replicate in palaces and the Vatican) the repetitive ornamental motifs that would eventually be termed grotesques, after the grotto-like conditions of the Domus. More digging begat more wonderment: long, colonnaded hallways overlooking what had been a vast park and artificial lake; traces of gold and shards of marble quarried from Egypt and the Middle East that once covered the walls and vaulted ceilings; and a magnificent octagonal room with a domed roof, constructed fully six decades before the completion of Hadrian’s exalted Pantheon.