Lifestyles of the Rich and Imperious in Rome
Lovers of ancient Rome have another treasure to behold as the home where future Roman Emperor Augustus lived in about 30 BC is now open to the public.
Located on the Palatine Hill overlooking the Roman Forum, the house features four rooms that have been breathtakingly restored since they were discovered half a century ago. Vividly colored frescoes that experts say are among the best surviving examples of Roman art adorn the walls.
The Palatine Hill was where all the VIPs of the period chose to live.
"When in English you say 'palace,' it comes from here. It was the palatium, the ancient palace of Augustus and all emperors of Rome," says Francesco Rutelli, Italy's culture minister and a former mayor of Rome.
"It's an incredible place. ... You have a stadium here, you have the house of Augustus, the house of [his wife] Livia, you have the terme, ancient baths," Rutelli says during a tour of the site. "I think we have much to learn, much to teach and much to preserve."
The discovery of a single fragment of painted plaster nearly 50 years ago led archaeologists to a mound of rubble. After careful digging, they found exquisite frescoes originally commissioned by Augustus, commonly known as Octavian.
Gianna Musatti was among those who helped restore the home of Augustus, the great-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar who became the first emperor of Rome.
"These frescoes are among the most beautiful we have in Italy," Musatti says. "They are on a par with Pompeii, and they are of excellent quality because the future emperor could hire the best painters of the time."
In 31 BC, Augustus' forces triumphed over the armies of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. His ascension to power effectively ended the republic and gave rise to the Roman Empire.
But his first home on the Palatine was sober — in fact, the historian Suetonius described it as modest. The frescoes, while done in vivid shades of red, blue and ochre, are far from ostentatious.
One of the four restored rooms is decorated with scenes of an elegant garden. Another, called the "room of the masks," has a theatrical theme with a trompe d'oeil stage with two doors ajar and comic masks peering from small windows with a garden behind.
Some sections of the frescoes were found intact, while others were painstakingly pieced together from thousands of tiny fragments. Musatti says 90 percent of the decorations have been restored and that everything visible is original.
The pigments retained their brilliance partly because the frescoes were buried under rubble for centuries and kept safe from the degenerative effects of humidity, Musatti says. To prevent sudden changes in temperature and humidity that could damage the frescoes, authorities have decided to allow only five visitors in at a time.
Last November, as restorers were surveying the foundations of the house, they came across a 50-foot-deep cavity with a vaulted ceiling encrusted with mosaics and seashells. The grotto was deemed too ornate to have been part of a home, and some archaeologists think it may be the sacred cave where ancient Romans believed a she-wolf nursed the city's founders, Romulus and Remus, and where the city itself was born.
"Traditions, legends, faiths and history go together in Rome," Rutelli says. "The myth of the foundation of the city was not only myth, because we discover ... the very place where the entrance door of the origin of Rome was created eight centuries before Christ."
Although the underground chamber — known as the Lupercale, from the Latin word for wolf — has yet to be excavated, visitors to the area have an abundance of sites to see. A $16 ticket buys access to the Forum, the Palatine Hill and the nearby Colosseum, and proceeds go toward funding further archaeological work.
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