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Biblical Archaeology Review 47:4, Winter 2021

Strata: Nero’s Aesthetics in the Renaissance

Renaissance thinkers and artists looked for their inspiration in the classical civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. Unsurprisingly, this cultural and intellectual revival (or “rebirth,” which is the literal meaning of the period’s name) started in Italy to bring back some of the norms and values of classical learning. In the visual arts, the Renaissance meant a return to the aesthetics of classical antiquity, producing such iconic masterpieces as Michelangelo’s David. So where exactly did the Renaissance masters find the classical models to imitate?

Currently on display in Rome, the exhibit titled Raphael and the Domus Aurea: The Invention of the Grotesques celebrates the rediscovery, in the late 15th century, of Emperor Nero’s Roman palace. Commemorating also 500 years since the death of the great Italian painter Raphael Sanzio, it explores how the ancient palace’s amazing frescoes influenced the Renaissance masters.

Known as the Domus Aurea (Golden House), the extensive and richly decorated complex was built by Nero after the devastating fire of 64 C.E. but was largely filled in and obscured already in antiquity, to erase the memory of the infamous ruler. When rediscovered, the buried spaces were called grottoes, and the decorative motifs in them became known as grotesques. The latter term has been used ever since for imitations of the patterns of Roman wall decoration.

This interactive, multimedia exhibit is installed in Octagonal Hall of the ancient residence, which sits on the Oppian Hill in the heart of ancient Rome. It is now part of the area’s archaeological park, which also includes the Colosseum.

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