Beneath the surface of the Esquiline hill, close by the Colosseum, lie the remnants of Nero's fabled Golden House, crushed and buried by his successors in their campaign to obliterate his memory. The Baths of Trajan, built above its ruins early in the second century A.D., were part of this campaign, which had begun with the erection of the Colosseum on the site of Nero's lake and the hasty building of the Baths of Titus nearby. Martial echoed the feeling of the time when he wrote of the dedication of these two: 'Rome has been restored to herself, under thy governance, Caesar; that is now the delight of the people which was once a master's.'
Nero began his Golden House after the fire Of A.D. 64 had destroyed much of Rome. With its gardens and porticoes it covered not only part of the Palatine but also much of the Esquiline and Caelian hills, stretching across the low-lying site of the Colosseum and around to the Forum on which its vestibule opened. This vestibule, wrote Suetonius, 'was large enough to contain a colossal statue of the emperor a hundred and twenty feet high and it was so extensive that it had a triple colonnade a mile long.' The palace received the name 'Golden House' from the amount of gilding used in its decoration. On its walls and ceilings the famous painter Fabullus was kept so fully occupied that Pliny said 'the golden Palace of Nero was the prison house of this artist's work.'
The palace was still unfinished when Nero died in A.D. 68. One of his short-lived successors set aside funds to carry it on and Vespasian and Titus lived in it for a little while, but they were more concerned with restoring the grounds to public use than with housing themselves magnificently. The actual palace buildings had never covered the Colosseum's site.
A fire in A.D. 104 damaged the Golden House so severely that Trajan felt no compunction about levelling part of the site, filling in the lower floor as a foundation, and building his baths above. Possibly he meant to do this had there been no fire. The vestibule opening on the east end of the Forum was finally destroyed by Hadrian in A.D. 121, before he built the Temple of Venus and Rome on a portion of its location. After this the palace appears no more in the history of the ancient world, but is left to the legends of the Middle Ages.
When the long darkness began to lift in the twelfth century, these buried rooms seem to have been forgotten, though the name of Nero haunted Rome. The Mirabilia and the Graphia located his palace at such different places as the Lateran and the circus across the Tiber near Saint Peter's. The medieval tower of the Milizie was popularly known as the place from which Nero watched Rome burn, and the great ruined Temple of the Sun or Serapis on the Quirinal was often called the Frontispizio di Nerone, Façade of Nero.
The ruined Baths of Trajan above the actual Golden House were long named the Baths or Palace of Titus. The underground rooms there, belonging to the Golden House, were finally discovered late in the fifteenth century, when the reviving interest in ancient times and art spurted on the search for antiquities. Artists flocked to study the newfound paintings although the rooms were filled with debris and earth to the springing of their vaults. The earliest known sketches from these paintings are those of the anonymous artist of the Codex Escurialensis, about 1491. Early in the sixteenth century Raphael and his assistant, Giovanni da Udine, were so enchanted by the light and fantastic paintings and the delicate stucco reliefs that the master employed the same type of decoration for the Vatican loggie which were painted under his direction in 1517-1519. As Nero's buried rooms were called caves or grottoes, the style of their decoration was called 'grotesque'--a term usually applied today to the fantastic and incongruous forms associated with medieval carvings.
High up on the walls near the great arch which spans the long corridor in the eastern wing of the Golden House, generations of artists have written or scratched their names, sometimes with dates. The earliest date is 1495, accompanied by an almost unreadable name. Giovanni da Udine's name is there, Domenichino's, and that of Carl van Mander of Holland, who so vividly described Marten van Heemskerck's delight in Rome. Many artists of the sixteenth century and later have left sketches of the decorations they saw here and in other buried rooms.
No thorough excavation of the Golden House was made in these early days. The Roman art dealer, Mirri, who published a collection of engravings from its paintings in 1776, had to have sixteen rooms partially excavated in order to have drawings made for his engravers. More scientific excavation of part of the palace began in the early nineteenth century and fresh excavations are still going on.
Charlotte Eaton left an enthusiastic description of the rooms she was able to see in 1817-1818:
'The Thermae and Palace of Titus,' she wrote, 'were built within the ruins, and on the site of the wide-spreading buildings and pleasure-grounds of Nero's Golden Palace. . . . We entered a damp and dark corridor, the ceiling of which is still adorned with some of the most beautiful specimens that now remain of the paintings of antiquity. Their colouring is fast fading away, and their very outline, I should fear must be obliterated at no very distant period, so extreme is the humidity of the place, and so incessantly does the water-drop fall. By the light of a few trembling tapers elevated on the top of a long bending cane, we saw, at least twenty feet above our heads, paintings in arabesques, executed with a grace, a freedom, a correctness of design, and masterly command of pencil that awakened our highest admiration, in spite of all the disadvantages under which they were viewed. Insensible of the penetrating damps and chilling cold, we continued to stretch our necks with admiring the Faun, the Nymph, the Bacchante, the Mercury, the Loves and Graces, the twining flowers and fantastic groups of gay imagery, which the classical imagination of the Roman painter had assembled seventeen centuries ago.'
Mrs. Eaton's comment suggests the worst drawback of the decorative scheme--the use of motifs so light and small in scale that their delicate detail can scarcely be seen in rooms of such great height.
Besides employing the foremost painters to decorate his palace walls, Nero enriched it with movable sculpture as well. Many of these pieces remained there during the reigns of Vespasian and Titus, but Trajan later moved some of them to his baths above.
The Elder Pliny, shortly before his death in A.D. 79, noted in his Natural History one of the most famous of the statues there: 'The Laocoön, which stands in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a work to be preferred to all that the arts of painting and sculpture have produced. Out of one block of stone the consummate artists, Agesandros, Polydoros, and Athenodoros of Rhodes made, after careful planning, Laocoön, his sons, and the snakes marvellously entwined about them.'
This group, perhaps a Roman copy of a Hellenistic work of the second century B.C., represents the punishment of Laocoön, Apollo's disobedient priest at Troy, crushed, with his sons, by monstrous serpents sent by the angry god.
After Pliny's reference, more than fourteen centuries of silence closed about the group. Then, in 1506, a Roman gentleman by the name of de Fredis, digging out inconvenient ancient walls in his vineyard in the neighbourhood of the Baths of Trajan and probably in the buried rooms of the Golden House itself, came upon this marble comparatively undamaged. It was recognized immediately from Pliny's description.
Julius II claimed it for a jewel of the papal collection, and Rome celebrated a festival in its honour. The leading sculptors of the day, including Michelangelo, examined it, and though they concluded that Pliny had been wrong in thinking it wrought from one block of marble, they agreed that it was'most excellent and deserving of every praise'. Discovered just at the beginning of that baroque movement which was so near akin to the art of imperial Rome, it exercised a profound influence upon the work of sculptors and painters alike and helped to shape their style.
Among various poems celebrating its discovery, one by Cardinal Sadoleto records vividly the feeling with which scholars welcomed the statue:
'From heaped-up mound of earth and from the heart
Of mighty ruins, lo! long time once more
Has brought Laocoön home, who stood of old
In princely palaces and graced thy halls,
Imperial Titus. Wrought by skill divine
(Even learned ancients saw no nobler work),
The statue now from darkness saved returns
To see the stronghold of Rome's second life.'
For more than two centuries the group remained a centre of interest. It was discussed at length by Winckelmann in his pioneer studies in art history ( 1764); it furnished theme and title for Lessing's study of the principles underlying the various forms of art ( 1766), and it supplied Goethe with the subject for his critical essay on the Laocoön (1798).
Eventually its very fame endangered it. When Napoleon, in 1797-1798, demanded from Italy a selection of her most prized works of art, the Laocoön was among those taken. With such treasures as the Apollo Belvedere, the Venus de' Medici, and the bronze horses from Saint Mark's in Venice, it was brought in triumph to Paris and placed in the Louvre. The fate of the looted works was, for a time, uncertain, but after Napoleon's final defeat in 1815 the French restored as much as possible to the former owners. The sculptor Canova, who came to supervise the removal of the treasures belonging to Roman collections, wrote on October 5, 1815: 'We removed this day the two first statues of the world, the Apollo [Belvedere] and the Laocoön.'
Since then the Laocoön has survived a period of adverse criticism as exaggerated as the earlier praise, to be recognized more justly now as a magnificent example of that restless, dynamic baroque element which has appeared again and again in the history of art throughout the ages.