'Sphinx Room' at Nero's Domus Aurea re-emerges

Lavishly frescoed area unearthed after 2,000 years

(ANSA) - Rome, May 8 - A beautifully decorated room has been discovered at Emperor Nero's famed Domus Aurea (Golden House) in Rome and brought back to light after 2,000 years. The room is decorated with panthers, centaurs and a delightful sphinx. Experts chanced upon the fresh marvel in the fabled palace while they were doing restoration work on the vault of a neighbouring part of the structure.
    They dubbed the new area "the Sphinx Room". "It is the fruit of our strategy that focuses on conservation and scientific research," said Alfonsina Russo, the head of the Colosseum archaeological park that the Domus Aurea belongs to.
    The discovery was revealed to ANSA first.
    "It is an exceptional and thrilling find," Russo told reporters.
    The discovery was made in the last few months of last year, archaeologists and restorers told ANSA.
    It was made thanks to a platform erected to restore the vault of room 72 od the sprawling and sumptuous complex, one of the 150 rooms hitherto rediscovered in the grand House the controversial emperor built in 64 AD after the great fire that devastated Rome, in which he is generally but erroneously said to have fiddled.
    "We came across a large opening positioned in the northern corner of the covering of the room," said Alessandro D'Alessio, the official in charge of the Domus Aurea.
    The lamps the restorers had at their disposal did the rest, he said in describing the magical moment of discovery.
    "Lit up by the artificial light, there suddenly appeared the entire barrel vault of a completely frescoed adjacent room", he said.
    The restorers immediately decided to salvage the new room, with an intervention that ended at the start of this year, d'Alessio said.
    Much of the room, which is rectangular and covered in rich decoration including the vault, is still unfortunately underground, buried by tonnes of earth on the orders of the architects of Emperor Trajan, who built luxurious baths over Nero's former palace, archaeologists said.
    It will remain so, they said, because of fears for the stability of the complex.
    Among the decorations, on a white background, are elegant small figures divided into pictures bordered in red and golden yellow.
    In one scene we see the god Pan, in another a man armed with a sword, quiver and shield who is fighting a panther, and in another the small sphinx that is standing out on a pedestal, officials said.
    There are also stylized aquatic creatures, both real and imagined, architectural motifs of the time, vegetal garlands and branches of trees with delicate green, yellow, red leaves, as well as festoons of flowers and fruit and posing birds.
    This type of decoration, which is also found in the Domus on the Colle Oppio and in other rooms of the Golden House including the Cryptoporticus 92, has led experts to attribute the Room of the Sphinx to the so-called 'A' Workshop, which operated between 65 and 68 AD. The Domus Aurea has been yielding fresh wonders for years amid a series of closures for restoration.
    The golden palace of the ill-famed Nero (37-68 AD) first re-opened in June 1999 after 21 years in which it was Rome's best-kept secret - open only to art officials and special guests.
    Some five billion lire (2.5 million euros) were spent in refurbishing the visitable rooms filled with frescoes of weird animals like winged lions, griffins and tritons which led to the original coinage of the word 'grotesque', from the Italian word for cave (grotto).
    Architecturally, the Domus's 'piece de resistance' is the eight-sided Sala Ottagonale where Nero is supposed to have entertained his guests with his singing and lyre-playing on a rotating floor.
    According to Roman historian Suetonius, Nero surprised his guests by having marble panels slide back to shower guests with petals and perfume.
    When the Domus was completed, it actually stretched for 50 hectares and covered most of the neighbouring Palatine and Celian hills as well.
    Nero was reputed to have remarked that finally he was beginning to be "housed like a human being".
    After Nero's suicide in 68 AD the Flavian emperors who succeeded him proceeded to bury all trace of his legacy.
    The Flavian amphitheater, better known as the Colosseum, was built on the site of Nero's palace-side lake, while Trajan built his baths on top of the main part of the pleasure dome.
    The Colosseum is so-called because of the massive statue of Nero-as-Apollo, a colossus, that his successors dragged beside their own monument, after changing the head.
    The Domus also has a cherished place in Italian art history because Renaissance greats like Raphael and Michelangelo lowered themselves through the oculus on ropes to gaze at and copy the ancient wall drawings - a crucial stage in the full rediscovery of how to apply the laws of perspective to painting.
   

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