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Reconstructing the octagonal dining room of Nero’s Golden House

  • David Hemsoll

‘As has so often happened in the history of architecture, it was the advent of new materials and new methods that stimulated and shaped the new theoretical approach.’ J. B. Ward-Perkins, 1970

‘We aim to create a clear, organic architecture whose inner logic will be radiant and naked, unencumbered by lying faces and trickery.’ W. Gropius, 1923

Few discoveries have made more impact on the history of Roman architecture than that of the octagonal hall of Nero’s Golden House (begun c. A.D. 64), which was found early this century buried within the sub-structures of the Baths of Trajan on the slopes of Rome’s Oppian Hill (Figs 1 and 2). The hall, a large-scale domed rotunda fashioned from brick and concrete, has swiftly assumed the privileged position as the embodiment of a fundamental breakthrough in design and aesthetics. For many it represents an abandonment of rectilinear planning and post-and-lintel construction in favour of a much less inhibited handling of interior space, which was made possible by recent advances in brick and moulded concrete construction. So unexpected is the design that it has been declared a ‘revolution’ in architecture. Indeed, the supposedly advanced planning of the octagon and the chambers around it has been contrasted with the more conventional layout of other parts of the surviving wing of Nero’s Golden House in an attempt to show just how sudden the pace of change may have been.

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1 For the discovery of the hall, see Nuova Antologia for 16 June 1914, pp. 655-61.

2 Ward-Perkins, J. B., ‘Nero’s Golden House’, Antiquity XXX (1956), pp. 21719 ; Ward-Perkins, , Roman Imperial Architecture, 2nd edn (Harmondsworth 1981), pp. 10001 ; MacDonald, W. L., The Architecture of the Roman Empire, 2nd edn (New Haven and London, 1982), pp. 3846 ; McKay, A. G., Houses, Villas and Palaces in the Roman World (London, 1975), pp. 13031 ; Sear, F. B., Roman Architecture (London, 1982), pp. 10102 .

3 Warden, P. G. Cf., ‘The Domus Aurea Reconsidered’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, XL (1981), pp. 27178 .

4 MacDonald, op. cit. (n. 2), p. 38.

5 Giovannoni, G., ‘La cupola della Domus Aurea Neroiana in Roma’, Atti del I Congresso Nazionale di Storia dell’ Architettura (1938), pp. 36 , gives the diameter as 14.68 m; MacDonald, op. cit. (n. 2), p. 292, gives it as 14.70 m. The Roman foot is here taken to measure 0.296 m.

6 I am very grateful to Mark Wilson Jones for supplying me with this example.

7 MacDonald, op. cit. (n. 2), p. 202, gives the height up to the springing, of the concrete dome as 5.10m (= 17.2 ft), and the total height of the hall as 9.60 m (32.4 ft).

8 Giovannoni, op. cit. (n. 5), gives the height as 4.50 m (= 15.2 ft).

9 The standardization of column sizes has been investigated by Jones, Mark Wilson and will now be discussed in ‘Designing the Corinthian Order’, Journal of Roman Archaeology, 11 (1989). The principles are set out briefly in Davies, P., Hemsoll, D. and Jones, M. Wilson, ‘The Pantheon.’ triumph of Rome or triumph of compromise?’, Art History, X (1987), pp. 13353 . Columns of the Corinthian Order are normally multiples of 12 ft in height, with their shafts multiples of 10 ft. The diameter is normally one eighth the shaft height, and so for a 12 foot column would be 1¼ ft.

10 Giovannoni, op. cit. (n. 5), gives the dimensions of two of the openings as 3.70 m (12.5 ft) and 3.84 m (13.0 ft).

11 Vergil, , Aeneid, 1, 697 (Dido amid royal hangings); Horace, , Odes, III, 29, 15; Rufus, Q. Curtius, Life of Alexander, IX, 7, 15; Daremberg, C. cf. and Saglio, E., Dictionnaire des Antiquités Greques et Romaines (Paris, 1875–1919), I.2, pp. 1269-82, s.v. Coena.

12 On the mosaic decoration see Sear, F. B., Roman Wall and Vault Mosaics (Heidelberg, 1977), p. 92 .

13 I am most grateful to Dottoressa Fabbrini for drawing my attention to this matter.

14 Adriani, A., Repertorio d’ Arte dell’ Egitto Greco-Romano, ser. C, I-II (Palermo 1963–66), pp. 145-46.

15 Joyce, H., The Decoration of Walls, Ceilings, and Floors in Italy (Rome, 1981), p. 91, fig. 96.

16 Cameron, C., The Baths of the Romans (London, 1772), pl. 65 ; reproduced in Lehmann, K., ‘The dome of heaven’, Art Bulletin, XXVII (1945), pp. 127, fig. 28; Cameron, pl. 59; Lehmann, fig. 27. See also Cameron, pl. 60; Mirri, L. and Carletti, G., Le Antiche Camere delle Terme di Tito (Rome, 1776), pls 38 and 58; Ponce, N., Description des Bains de Titus (Paris, 1786), pls 37 and 57; and Peters, W. J. T. and Meyboom, P. G. P., ‘The roots of provincial Roman painting; results of current research in Nero’s Domus Aurea’, in Roman Provincial Wall Painting of the Western Empire, ed. Liversage, J. (Oxford, 1982), pp. 3374 , pl. 2.17. The half-dome of the apse in one of the rooms off the peristyle was once decorated as an umbrella-like canopy (Mirri and Carletti, pis 8 and 9; Ponce, pis 7 and 8; Lehmann, fig. 37), while the ceiling decoration of one of the corridors was decorated as a wooden grid supporting a whole series of fabric squares (Mirri and Carletti, pl. 56; Ponce, pl. 55).

17 Horace, , Satires, II, 8, 54-56; Servius, , Commentary to Vergil’s Aeneid, 1, 697 ; cf. Daremberg and Saglio, loc. cit.

18 Pliny, , Natural History, VIII, 74, 196 ; cf. IX, 63, 137.

19 See e.g. Athenaeus, , Deipnosophistae, IV, 138B; Ester, 1, 5-7; Daremberg and Saglio cf., op. cit. (n. 11), V, pp. 671-77, s.v. Velum; Lehmann, op. cit. (n. 16), pp. 11, 22-24; Smith, E. B., The Dome, a Study in the History of Ideas (Princeton, 1950), pp. 52-54, 79-83; Architectural Symbolism of Imperial Rome and the Middle Ages (Princeton 1956), pp. 107-29, 145-51.

20 MacDonald, op. cit. (n. 2), p. 202, gives the diameter of the oculus as 6 m (20.3 ft). The Pantheon oculus measures 30 ft, and the internal diameter of the building measures 150 ft.

21 Lehmann, op. cit. (n. 16), p. 20, fig. 58.

22 Joyce, op. cit. (n. 15), fig. 95.

23 Fabbrini, L., ‘Domus Aurea; il piano superiore del quartiere orientale’, Atti della Pontifica Accademia Romana di Archeologia, Memorie, XIV (1982), pp. 5-24.

24 Prükner, H. and Stolz, S., ‘Beobachtungen im Oktogon der Domus Aurea’, Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Römische Abteilung, LXXXI (1974), pp. 323-39, suggest the grooves may have served as tracks for a rotating structure, and propose some sort of inner dome.

25 Nero, 31, 2: praecipua cenationum rotunda quae perpetuo diebus ac noctibus vice mundi circumageretur.

26 Cf. Fabbrini, op. cit. (n. 23), p. 20. For the Boscoreale mural see also Engemann, J., Architekturdarstellungen des Frühen Zweiten Stils (Heidelberg 1967), fig. 11; pl. 33. A very similar second-style mural has been discovered at Oplontis, and an elaborate fourth-style version of the composition survives in the House of the Alcove, Herculaneum; for illustration see Lyttelton, M., Baroque Architecture in Classical Antiquity (London, 1974), pl. 95.

27 Ward-Perkins, op. cit. (n. 2), p. 169.

28 Lyttelton, op. cit. (n. 26), pp. 70–79.

29 Hemsoll, D., ‘The architecture of Nero’s Golden House’ to be published in Art and Architecture of the Roman Empire (provisional title), ed. Henig, M. .

30 See Jashemski, W. J., The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius (New York, 1979). pp. 92-94, 151-53; Rakob, F., ‘Ein Grottentriklinium in Pompeji’, Mitt. Deut. Archäol. Inst, LXXI (1964), pp. 182-94.

31 Carettoni, G., ‘Costruzioni sotto l’angolo sud-orientale della Domus Flavia’, Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità, III (1949), pp. 48-79; Ward-Perkins, op. cit. (n. 2), ill. 25; MacDonald, op. cit. (n. 2), fig. 2.

32 Plutarch, Lucullus, 39, 3.

33 Engemann, op. cit. (n. 26), fig. 4, pl. 56.

34 Engemann, op. cit. (n. 26), figs 4, 12, pls 39–43.

35 Neuerberg, N., L’Architettura delle Fontane e dei Ninfei nell’ Italia Antica (Naples, 1965), pp. 146-47; F. B. Sear, op. cit. (n. 12), pp. 45-47; Giuliani, C. F. and Guaitoli, M., ‘Il ninfeo minore della villa detta di Cicerone a Forrnia’, Mitt. Deut. Archäol. Inst., LXXIX (1972), pp. 191-219.

36 Adriani, op. cit. (n. 14), pp. 162–71, pl. 86–95.

37 Deipnosophistae, V, 196A–197C.

38 L’Orange, H. P., ‘Domus Aurea, der Sonnenpalast’, republished in Likeness and Icon; Selected Studies in Classical and Early Medieval Art (Odense, 1973), pp. 292-312; Studies on the Iconography of Cosmic Kingship in the Ancient World (Oslo, 1953), pp. 28-34; Lehmann, op. cit. (n. 16); Hemsoll, op. cit. (n. 29).

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