Nero: An Early Fan of the ‘Natural’ Style?

Nero, the ruler of Rome from 54 to 68AD, did not create the Roman garden style, but his reign marks a high point in its development. There is no doubt that the son of promiscuous Agrippina was a tyrant and a murderer, rightly condemned by almost every historian, but there is one quality that it is difficult to deny to him – he really was an artist. Rome of his time consisted of dark and narrow streets, densely packed with tall buildings, erected without any plan, each to its owner’s taste. This ugly, ‘formless’, according to the historian Tacitus (Annals, XV, 38), look of the ‘capital of the world’ offended the emperor, who settled on a radical measure. Contemporary sources report, that in 64AD he ordered to start a fire in Rome. The fire, causing countless casualties and openly spread by individuals who claimed they had ‘orders’, raged for about two weeks. It burned to the ground two thirds of the ‘eternal city’. According to Tacitus (Annals, XV, 39), Nero was staying in Antium (Anzio) when it started, and did not return to the city until the flames reached the imperial palace. He therefore could not have seen the beginning of the fire, yet a characteristic rumour was persistently circulated that when he saw the flames, he went to the stage of his private theatre and, playing a harp, sang verses about the destruction of Troy.

Roman coin, British Museum

Whatever the exact course of events, Nero achieved what he wanted. The massive ruin was cleared, the rubbish dumped in the Ostian Marshes, and building started again, but in a different, measured style. The streets were widened, the height of buildings restricted, and open spaces and colonnades were created. The main building material was stone, resistant to fire. Water was conducted everywhere, and special officials were appointed to oversee that it was available in sufficient quantities for public use.

Dove and a jewellery box mosaic, Pompeii, Naples Museum, by Tyler Bell

Simultaneously Nero embarked on another project, possibly the primary reason for the fire. Since the emperor’s palace and the surrounding area were destroyed, he started building its replacement that became known as the Domus Aurea (‘Golden House’) due to its lavish decoration. It was built on a grand scale and, according to historian Suetonius, all parts of it were overlaid with gold and adorned with gems and mother-of‑pearl (Suetonius, Lives, Nero, 31). The dining rooms had ceilings of ivory whose panels could turn and shower down masses of rose petals. They were also fitted with pipes through which guests were sprinkled with perfumes. The main banquet hall had a circular dome that ‘constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens’. The palace had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water. Suetonius reports that when it was finished, Nero said no words of approval apart from ‘that he was at last beginning to be housed like a human being’ (Lives, Nero, 31). With all its extravagance, the Domus Aurea was a treasury of artistic innovation that continued to influence the European art profoundly for many centuries.

Mosaic floor with slaves serving at a banquet, Dougga, 2nd century AD by Dennis Jarvis

Both Tacitus and Suetonius also relate that a special landscape was created for the Domus Aurea, again on a grand scale. The building work was overseen by skilful architects, Sever and Celer, who ‘wanted to subdue nature to art’ and were relentlessly spending colossal sums of money (Annals, XV, 42). According to their daring plan, the palace was surrounded by tilled fields, vineyards, pastures and woods, with great numbers of wild and domestic animals, as well as an artificial lake. Tacitus points out that this included special ‘places of solitude’, surrounded with forest on one side, and offering an open view of a large space and a perspective on the other (‘in modum solitudinem hinc silvae, inde aperta spatia et prospectus’). All this was constructed in places that previously did not have anything of this kind.

Sever and Celer even attempted the truly impossible: they offered Nero to connect the lake Avernus with the mouths of Tiber by cutting through a mountain chain a passage a hundred and sixty miles in length, and wide enough for two ships to pass each other. Nero, ‘with his passion for the incredible’ (Tacitus, Annals, XV, 42), agreed, and the work of digging the stony ground and breaking passes through solid rock commenced. It involved thousands of prisoners and slaves brought from every part of the empire. Unsurprisingly, the result was a complete disaster: after incalculable expense and a huge amount of effort, the useless plan was abandoned. The results of the ‘mad extravagance’ can still be seen today.

In spite of all this, the example of the Domus Aurea captivated the imagination of Roman aristocracy and the fashion quickly spread. Everywhere for the sake of creating views the landscape was altered – lakes were drained, mounds were erected or cut down to the ground, and open fields were planted with forest. Poet Statius (65-95AD) tells about these efforts in a poem Silvae where he describes a villa in Sorrento that belonged to his friend, Pollius Felix:

There was a hill where now is a plain, a wilderness

Where you now shelter; where you see tall trees now

There was once no dry land: the owner has tamed all…  («Silvae», II, 2 from Poetry in Translation).

Roman Villa in the Bay of Verige, Brijuni Islands, Croatia, 1st century BC – 1st century AD by Carole Raddato

What Nero created in the Domus Aurea, was done in every wealthy Roman house, of course, on a much smaller scale. The main feature of the gardens of this time was an artificially created landscape, that framed a villa. In the style of this period the view was supremely important. Though not lacking in grandeur and noble simplicity, rus in urbe (‘countryside in the city’, Suetonius, Lives, Nero, 31) was a triumph of art, not of nature. Nature was treated rather like a slave to be tamed, and bent to frame the villa that was at the centre of the picture.

Image credits: featured image – the Domus Aurea by William Warby

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