The Julio Claudian | Roman Architecture | Second edition | (Part-02)

The Julio Claudian | Roman Architecture | Second edition | (Part-02)

The Julio-Claudians | Roman Architecture | Second edition | (Part-02)

The Julio Claudian | Roman Architecture | Second edition | (Part-02)


An immense number of mansions which had belonged to famous generals, still decorated with the spoils of war, were burnt; and temples of the gods, vowed and dedicated by the kings of Rome, and later in the Punic and Gallic wars; everything memorable and worth seeing from a former age that had survived (Suet., Nero 38).

Nero constructed emergency accommodation, threw open Agrippa’s public buildings, and even his gardens for the destitute, and brought food from Ostia and neighbouring towns.

However he earned no gratitude for this because there were rumours that the emperor himself had started the fire, and a story circulated that he watched the conflagration from the Tower of Maecenas and sang the Destruction of Troy on his private stage (Tacitus, Ann. 15.39). Although the rebuilding of Rome and the removal of refuse from the Ostian marshes took many years, it had a very positive effect on Roman architecture. First, brick-faced concrete emerged as a cheap and rapid method of building; and second, the new regulations enacted after the fire altered the city’s appearance for the better. Tacitus describes Rome at the time of the Great Fire (ad 64) as a city of ‘narrow winding passages and irregular streets’ which had encouraged the progress of the fire (Ann. 15.38). Now the dimensions and alignment of street fronts were regulated, the streets were broad, and the houses spacious. Their height was restricted, the fireproof stone was used, there were to be no party walls between buildings, and frontages were protected by colonnades. Vaulting was used instead of timber for ceilings, water was to be everywhere available, and fire fighting equipment was mandatory. Even so, some people lamented the lack of shade in the new city with its broad streets and reflected nostalgically on the narrow streets and high-built houses of the old city which were not so easily penetrated by the rays of the sun. All of this gives the impression that Nero’s new Rome resembled Ostia in terms of its building style and orderly layout. Tacitus praises Nero’s work of restoration (Ann. 15.43), although it was not completed on his death four years later or even on Domitian’s accession in ad 81 (ILS 3914).

Nero was not slow to take advantage of the destruction caused by the fire and immediately made plans for a vast new palace, the notorious Domus Aurea or Golden House. Suetonius’ description of it gives some impression of its splendour. A focal point of the park in which the Domus Aurea stood was the lake: ‘A lake, more like the sea than a lake, was surrounded by buildings looking like cities; as well as countryside with ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures and woods, filled with every type of domestic and wild animal’ (Suet., Nero 31). The grounds of the Domus Aurea covered 50 hectares (125 acres) and extended over the whole valley between the Esquiline, Caelian and Palatine hills. The park was so vast that a comic verse ran around Rome: ‘Rome will become a palace; migrate to Veii, citizens, unless the palace has reached Veii too’ (Suet., Nero 39). Such extensive grounds, which make it sound more like a villa than a palace, perhaps suggest as its model the Ptolemaic palace at Alexandria which occupied a quarter or a third of the city (Strabo, Geo. 17.1.8). Lucan’s description of its gilding and rich inlays is also reminiscent of the Domus Aurea (Lucan, Phar. 1.111–130). The park was approached from the Forum along the Sacred Way, which was straightened and lined with collonaded porticoes. At the end was a vestibule in which stood a gilt bronze statue with Nero’s features, 120 feet (35.52 metres) high, the work of the Greek sculptor, Zenodorus. The vestibule was so extensive that it was surrounded by a triple portico 1,000 feet (296 metres) long (Suet., Nero 31). After Nero’s death, the statue was not destroyed along with his other works, but was dedicated to the sun and became a sacred object’ (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 34.18.45).

A row of fountains was built against the west side of the platform of the unfinished Temple of Claudius, whose waters, supplied by a branch of the Aqua Claudia, cascaded into the lake. The most remarkable survival is an entire wing of the palace which was later incorporated into the foundations of the Baths of Trajan built largely on the high ground to the north (Figure 8.1). Its existence was not suspected until it was stumbled upon by accident in the late 15th century. Its discovery had a profound effect on Renaissance art and many famous artists climbed down to visit it, notably Pinturicchio, Raphael and Michelangelo, all of whom carved their names onto its walls. Raphael’s Vatican loggia was particularly influenced by the frescoes of Famulus, who was responsible for most of the paintings in the Domus Aurea.

He always wore his toga while painting and because he worked only a few hours each day practically his whole output is in the Domus Aurea (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 35.37.37). Nowadays the rooms are damp and gloomy, the walls mildewed and the paintings faded. In these dimly lit rooms, it is difficult to imagine the former splendour of the great palace. Yet in terms of art and architecture, the building was undoubtedly revolutionary.

Its exterior must have resembled the many villas depicted in Pompeian paintings, because one or two column bases still survive (no. 1 in Figure 5.7) indicating that, like them, it had a columnar facade. A glance at the ground plan shows up many of the building’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, the octagonal room (16) is undoubtedly a piece of architectural ingenuity. However, its bold shape creates an architectural jumble behind it. Similarly, the main suites opening off the big five-sided courtyard in the middle of the façade (12) are well-designed and in each case, the middle room is given greater prominence than the flanking rooms. Yet once again there is a jumble of awkward-shaped rooms behind. The architects/engineers, called Severus and Celer (Tacitus, Ann. 15.38-43), showed their skill in good groupings, rhythms and novel solutions, but not in overall planning. However, it may be that they had to contend with an earlier building on the site which may be represented by the oblique wall running at a NE angle from the centre of room 9. The block of seven rooms south of courtyard (6), which were perhaps bedrooms, show the best organisation. The shapes and sizes of the rooms repay close attention. They are alternately wide (2 and 4) and narrow (5) with a particularly wide room in the middle (3). This room and the two rooms next to it have a square-sided recess, presumably for a bed. The recesses in rooms 2 and 4 face south, whereas the recess in rooms 3 faces north towards the courtyard. The rhythm continues in the lapsed room (5) and the room corresponding to it on the west side. There is a further rhythm in the way the rooms are alternately short and long. The cryptoporticus (7) on the north side of the courtyard (6) is also interesting. Because it was built against the hillside it had the dual function of the corridor and sustaining wall.

Also opening off courtyard (6) was a large barrel-vaulted triclinium or dining room (8) whose lunette would have towered over the peristyle of the courtyard to light the rooms behind. At both ends, it had a screen of columns. At the far end was a nymphaeum, a barrel-vaulted room (9) much smaller than the triclinium with a fountain at the end. Covering the upper parts of the walls and extending to the springing of the vault was a mosaic frieze, 2.20 metres high, which ran unbroken around the walls of both the larger and the smaller barrel-vaulted rooms, a total length of 65.84 metres. It was bordered at the top and bottom by a row

Figure 5.7  Rome, Domus Aurea or Golden House of Nero, ad 64–68: plan

of cockle shells. The vault of the smaller barrel-vaulted room was covered in brown pumice to give the appearance of a rustic grotto. In the centre of the vault is an octagonal panel filled with a mosaic of polychrome glass tesserae showing Odysseus offering wine to the Cyclops. The idea of a cave glimpsed through a garden peristyle is not new, but the ensemble, like Tiberius’ grotto at Sperlonga, is another outstanding example of the skill of Roman architects in introducing nature into a domestic setting

The five-sided courtyard (12) used to be seen as the focal point of the wing as a whole. However, a second courtyard has been found to the east which suggests that the wing was longer than previously thought and that the octagonal room (16) was its centre. The colonnade may have continued around the courtyards or perhaps the courtyard contained a building with somewhat taller columns in the manner of villas depicted in Pompeian wall paintings, for example, the House of Lucretius Fronto. Immediately behind the centre of the five-sided courtyard is a large vaulted room (11) flanked on each side by a symmetrical suite of lesser rooms. The large room was called the room of gilded ceiling because of the painted and gilt coffered panels made of moulded relief stucco which decorated its vault. The vault is the one Raphael and other artists clambered through to make the drawings which inspired so much Renaissance stucco work.

The group of rooms to the east of the five-sided courtyard is centred around a large octagonal domed room (16). Here the architect had two problems. The octagonal room and the rooms which opened off it created a series of awkwardly shaped triangular and irregular rooms behind. Second, the building ran very much closer to the hill on the east side than on the west. The result was that there was no room for a courtyard to balance that on the west side. Instead, the cryptoporticus (14) abutted directly onto the rooms behind the octagonal room. These rooms were therefore not only awkwardly shaped but also badly lit. The architect to some extent overcame the problem by ingeniously piercing downward sloping light wells into the upper part of the northern wall of the cryptoporticus and opening a corresponding set of light wells lower down in the southern wall opposite. In this way shafts of light were directed from the edge of the hill into the rooms immediately south of the cryptoporticus. An equally ingenious device was used to convey water for the waterfall in a room (15) which opened off the octagonal room. Water from the top of the hill was ducted across the cryptoporticus via an arched bridge.

The octagonal room (16) is perhaps the most revolutionary architectural concept in the whole house. Its domical vault, which was cast in horizontal layers of opus caementicium, is supported on eight brick-faced concrete piers, originally adorned with stucco and marble pilasters (Figures 5.8 and 5.9). Although it begins as a domical vault, it becomes a hemispherical calotte higher up, with an unusually wide oculus. The dome is stabilised by the five radial rooms surrounding it, whose sides form a series of triangular pillars connected to the dome by prismatic wedges. The surrounding radial rooms are lit from five light wells over the extrados of the dome (Figure 5.8). The result is that, if one stands under the dome, the radial rooms are bathed in light, although the oculus appears to be the only light source.

For a long time, there was speculation that the upper storey of this room was the circular dining room described by Suetonius whose roof revolved slowly, night and day like the heavens (Suet., Nero 31). However, in 2009 a tower-like room was found in the Vigna Barberini on the slopes of the Palatine Hill overlooking the Colosseum, which may be the room in question. The room is circular, 16 metres in diameter, and surrounded by a wall more than 2 metres thick. The dining part is reconstructed as a circular open-air room whose roof is supported by eight columns and whose circular floor is rotated. The mechanism is below the floor.

Figure 5.8  Rome, Domus Aurea of Nero, octagonal room, ad 64–68

Figure 5.9  Rome, Domus Aurea of Nero, ad 64–68, octagonal room: axonometric view from below, section and plan. (After A. Boethius and J. B. Ward Perkins, Etruscan and Roman Architecture [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970]).

In the centre stands a 4-metre-wide pillar with two sets of eight masonry arches connecting it to the wall, one above the other. Combined with the outer walls the two sets of arches create a very stable structure. The structure survives only to this height because the upper part, the dining room itself, has been dismantled and everything of value removed. A close examination of the tops of the upper eight arches, which radiate like the spokes of a wheel, reveals that exactly in the centre there is a cavity 0.30 metre deep and 0.16 metre wide. This is thought to have held the pivot around which the floor above revolved. On the top of each alternate arch are five cavities, making 20 in all. These are thought to have encased bronze spheres, in effect the ancestors of modern ball-bearings. Very fine clay found in the cavities served as a lubricant so that the spheres could turn without coming out of their slots. This suggests that there was a circular moving floor above that could rotate around the central pivot. The moving floor is reconstructed as a complex work of carpentry, covered perhaps with marble paving. To make the floor rotate some sort of mechanism would have been required. The excavators claim to have found traces of this mechanism and suggest that water was the power source, as lime deposits were found on certain stones. Certainly, a branch of the Claudian aqueduct, called the Aqua Neronis, reached the Palatine near here and part of it is still visible where it crosses Via di S. Gregorio. It is therefore conjectured that a large water wheel was activated by the aqueduct and its force was transmitted using shafts and gears to the mobile floor, turning it at a slow and regular speed. Little survives of this mechanism apart from imprints of metal objects and an iron fixture set into the masonry, because any metal was salvaged when the building was abandoned. This ingenious complex was uncovered by a team of French and Italian archaeologists.

The Domus Aurea was Nero’s greatest architectural achievement and one which was to have a profound influence on future Roman concrete structures. The work was done in haste, as the poor quality of the bricklaying and the thick mortar joints shows. Ironically it is noticeable that the brick facing of the substructures of Trajan’s Baths, which frequently cut across the Neronian walls, is easily distinguishable because it is more finely laid, even though it was never intended to be seen. Significantly, the builders of the Domus Aurea chose brick as a facing material instead of opus reticulatum because it was recognised as a material suited to rapid construction. Second, the Domus Aurea is significant because of its novel, some would say revolutionary, use of concrete. It is an architecture in which interiors become more significant than exteriors and, to use an expression of John Ward Perkins, ‘the emphasis has suddenly shifted from the solids to the voids.’7 It was an architecture where space, light and dramatic effects were of the greatest importance. Third, Nero’s reign was of great significance because of the methods used in the rebuilding of Rome after the fire of ad 64. The new fire regulations produced an urban landscape very different from the old one, with its tortuous alleys and precarious tenement blocks which once provoked the ridicule of the Campanians (Cicero, De lege Agraria, 2.96). Although very little is known of the appearance of Nero’s new Rome it can perhaps be imagined by looking at the tall apartment blocks of brick-faced concrete built a few decades later in Ostia. These buildings with balconies, open courtyards and rooms with vaulted concrete ceilings, ranged along broad straight, paved streets may give some impression of the appearance of the newly rebuilt capital. In Rome itself, the only street which gives some idea of Nero’s new Rome is Trajan’s Markets (Figure 8.5).

The career of this extraordinary emperor ended abruptly in ad 68 when his Domus Aurea was scarcely complete and the reconstruction of Rome cannot have progressed very far. He was forced to flee the city and only a few kilometres away on the Via Cassia he committed suicide. His dying words, ‘What an artist dies in me!’ (Suet., Nero 49), are perhaps a fitting epitaph for his reign. The caprices of Nero and his predecessors had fostered much innovation in art, architecture and engineering. Indeed the architectural developments which took place during the reign of Nero could well be described as revolutionary, and as such had far-reaching consequences for the future of Roman architecture.




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