I haven't seen this much excitement over a site's opening since the Colosseum's underground was unveiled back in 2010. And you know what? Having toured both, the excitement over the Domus Aurea may be even more merited.
First, the basics. Emperor Nero built his palace back in 64AD. (Yes, he's the "fiddled while Rome burned" guy; although that's an urban legend, you can't deny his, erm, ingeniousness in using the land conveniently cleared by the fire for his dream palace). The property, which included open gardens and pastures as well as rooms and galleries, stretched all the way from the Palatine Hill to the Esquiline. Some scholars place it at 300 acres.
And let's just say that the term "Golden House" doesn't even begin to describe the property's dazzle and opulence. "The vestibule of the house was so big it contained a colossal statue 120 feet high, the image of Nero; and it was so extensive that it had three colonnades a mile long. There was a lake too, in fact a sea, surrounded with buildings as big as cities," Suetonius wrote. (Nota bene: The Colosseum later was built on the site of that lake). "Behind it were villas with fields, vineyards and pastures, woods filled with all kinds of wild and domestic animals. In the rest of the house everything was coated with gold and adorned with gems and shells. The dining-rooms had fretted ceilings made of ivory, with panels that turned and shed flowers and perfumes on those below. The main banquet hall was circular and constnatly revolved day and night, like the heavens. He had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water."
In other words: Nero would have killed on MTV's Cribs.
Buried underground (and with other structures, including Trajan's baths, later constructed on top of it), the Domus Aurea was largely forgotten until its rediscovery in the 15th century. Visitors included the artists Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and Raphael — all of whom were inspired by the palace's frescoes and decorations and whose resulting work helped shape the direction of the Renaissance.
But the Domus Aurea has struggled since then. Among the biggest issues has been water drainage: whenever it rained hard (and sometimes when it didn't), water would soak through the park, right above the Domus Aurea, into the palace's 2,000-year-old ceiling. The site closed in 2005; it reopened in 2007, but out of concerns for visitors' security, was closed again almost immediately. And in 2010, after heavy rains, a 645-square-foot section of the ceiling caved in.
When I heard about the latest collapse, I figured the Domus Aurea would never be properly restored enough to recover. And I definitely didn't think it would open to the public anytime soon.