Enchantment lingers still beneath these arches in this quiet corner of the Palatine. Steep paths, slippery with pine needles, lead down into the deep shadows, where golden broom clings to the old bricks and fills the air with its honey scent. And by the same paths the visitor climbs up again to the ruins of the baths which Severus built above, and to the great curved wall of Domitian's exedra overlooking the Stadium. There is no easy entrance now 'through a house on the Via de' Cerchi' and no quick way to reach the shadow of these arches. But the very walls which bar entrance from today's noisy thoroughfares help to guard the remnants of romantic peace.
On the hill above, the convent of Saint Bonaventura stands beside the Baths of Severus, its high-perched garden with the famous palm looking toward their towering ruins as it has for centuries. Saint Bonaventura's garden is one of the few now remaining from the many which once filled the hill. In 1836 Frances Elizabeth Appleton, who was later to be Longfellow's wife, described these gardens ecstatically in her Journal: 'Passed a lovely morning most enchantingly wandering about the Palace of the Caesars. Flowers and green boughs were nodding in the wind from every broken wall and tall weeds and luxurious vegetation made the ground "one emerald". I had not been here before and was fascinated with the picturesqueness of the ruins. . . . After I had sketched and gazed till I was nearly sunstruck we rambled about the rest of the ruins of this Mount Palatine once all a palace now a most picturesque kitchen garden with here and there a jagged mass of brick looming up like a huge tombstone of the Past.'
Westward, beyond the Baths of Severus, rise the walls enclosing the sunken Stadium, named from the resemblance of its shape to the race track of a Roman circus. Though some sports may have been held here it is more likely that Domitian built it as a garden for his residential palace. The wall nearest the baths is broken by a curved box or exedra, once surrounded by a two-storied portico. Similar porticoes ran about the inner walls, making a pleasant shade where members of the imperial family or court could walk to watch the fountains playing in the garden or whatever activities might be going on. Only the stumps of brick columns, their marble facings long since re-used or burnt for lime, remain now to mark the line of the colonnade. The upper walls of the Stadium are gone, except at the ends and in the imperial box. On the lower floors of the exedra are still some faded paintings in blue and red, and in the semicircular corridor which runs behind it are glimpses of a vaulted ceiling beautifully coffered.
Some time near the end of the ancient empire or early in the Middle Ages changes were made in the Stadium's interior. Someone built a portico across it at right angles to its sides, and traces of the old columns still remain in the grass which now fills the enclosure. Someone, perhaps Theodoric, built an oval enclosure at its southern end. Though the Stadium's high walls have always stood erect, its sunken garden gradually became filled with the ruins of ages. Casual explorations by those who excavated in the Farnese Gardens beneath the Palace of Tiberius early in the eighteenth century left here comparatively little trace. The excavations of the late nineteenth century, however, uncovered its ancient level; since then time has carpeted it with grass where scarlet poppies wave.
If masses of ancient wall still stand on the southeastern corner of the Palatine, this is less true of the centre of the hill. Here the builders of the Renaissance, laying out gardens and building villas, dug into or demolished much of the remaining ruins in search of rare marbles or works of art, and then filled in and levelled off for their own uses. The eighteenth century saw a fresh wave of excavation here, followed by some more or less accurate restorations. And here today, especially in Domitian's residential palace, active excavation is still going on in rooms that have lain buried for centuries.
The site of much of this residential palace lay comparatively unexplored from the second half of the sixteenth century until the early nineteenth, because it was continuously occupied. The Villa Palatina, on part of whose site the Palatine Museum now stands, was begun soon after the middle of the sixteenth century and grew in size from time to time, incorporating ancient walls into its new structure. It has been called by the names of many owners from the time the Mattei bought it about 1560. The Spada and Magnana families owned it after the Mattei, and in the last quarter of the eighteenth century it belonged to the French abbé Rancoureuil, who did considerable excavation and much damage. In 1818 it came into the possession of the eccentric Scot, Charles Andrew Mills, whose name still lingers about the site. He covered it with a sham Gothic façade in the high romantic style and decorated it with the symbols of the United Kingdom, the Tudor rose, the Scottish thistle, and the Irish shamrock. In 1856 the property came into the hands of the nuns of the Order of the Visitation and was closed to visitors; in 1906 it was taken over by the Italian Government and excavation begun.
Demolition of the villa began in 1927, and as a result blinding light now plays upon fragments of the emperor's bare brick walls, long hidden by those of later days. But the old stone pines are being handled tenderly, and in time the scars of excavation will heal here as they have done already in the Stadium, so that it will be possible to enjoy both the remains of the imperial palaces and the beauty of the Palatine.
Domitian's residential palace was built around two peristyles or colonnaded open courts, both laid bare now to their old levels. About the lower courtyard rise bare walls, denuded long ago of all decoration. Fragments of their upper levels, now considerably restored, have always stood above ground, many of them actually incorporated in the walls of the Villa Palatina. The lower stories, though explored by the Abbé Rancoureuil in the late eighteenth century, lay almost entirely buried until after 1927. Of the few underground rooms which could earlier be seen, Rodolfo Lanciani wrote in the 1890's: 'The shimmering light which falls through masses of ivy from an opening in the middle of the ceiling makes these ruins very picturesque.'
These remnants of imperial Rome in the Villa Palatina gardens were proudly shown to select visitors by Charles Mills and doubtless by many another owner. Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, noted in her, Journal in 1828 that she had seen 'in the beautiful villa of Mr. Mills, on the Mount Palatine. . . . Some most interesting fragments of antiquity . . . mingled with trees and flowering plants.' In the same year she met there Madame Letitia Bonaparte, mother of Napoleon. 'There was something highly scenic in the whole scene, she wrote. 'Here was the mother of a modern Caesar, walking amidst the ruins of the palace of the ancient ones, lamenting a son whose fame had filled the four quarters of the globe.'
North and west of Domitian's residence lies the official or Flavian Palace, also bare and sundrenched in the centre. But the excavations are older here and along the edges there are grass and trees and vines. A few tall masses of this palace wall have always stood, spared by builders of long ago. The fragments of marble and the stumps of columns grouped about them have been unearthed and arranged in the course of successive excavations.
Underfoot here lie buried rooms of older times, dating from the days of the Republic to those of Nero. These rooms were filled and levelled off to serve as foundations for new buildings above, in a process beginning with Nero Domus Transitoria, built to connect the Palatine with the emperor's other properties. When this was burned in A.D. 64, Nero replaced it by later construction on the site, which formed a small part of the vast Golden House, extending to well over the neighbouring hills. Later emperors in their turn destroyed the Golden House and built above it, so that the foundations beneath Domitian's palace are a labyrinth of buried chambers, crushed centuries ago. Some of these rooms have been known since the excavations by the duke of Parma in 1724; some were found then but later closed up and almost forgotten; and some remained seemingly unknown until comparatively recent times.