ITALY GOLDEN PALACE
Pier Paolo Cito  /  AP
Journalists take part in a press tour inside Roman emperor Nero's Golden Palace in Rome, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007. The sumptuous residence, also known by its Latin name, Domus Aurea, will partially reopen to visitors next week, this time also offering rare insight into archaeologists' efforts to preserve the 1st-century imperial residence from decay and humidity. (AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito)
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updated 1/31/2007 10:11:46 PM ET 2007-02-01T03:11:46

Nero's Golden Palace will partly reopen to visitors next week, offering rare insight into archaeologists' efforts to preserve the first-century imperial residence from decay and humidity.

Visitors will have access to half of the palace, wandering through a maze of underground passageways, officials said Wednesday. They can also climb a 43-foot scaffolding and take a close look at the building's frescoed vaulted ceilings, as restorers and archaeologists work to clean the paint.

"People will have the chance to get to know the monument itself and the efforts to maintain and preserve it," said archaeologist Irene Pignatelli, leading a press tour of the palace. "The aim of this type of visit is to show how the residence can be assaulted (by weather), how to intervene and what happens after the restoration."

Guided tours or no more than 20 people start on Feb. 6. Visitors are required to wear helmets as they walk through the largely underground complex.

The sumptuous residence — also known by its Latin name, Domus Aurea — rose over the ruins of a fire that destroyed much of Rome in A.D. 64 and was completed in A.D. 68, the year the unpopular Nero committed suicide amid a revolt.

After an 18-year restoration, the palace reopened in June 1999. Two years later, it was briefly closed to the public after part of the ceiling collapsed. The Domus Aurea closed again in 2005 after days of heavy rains threatened to cause the collapse of parts of the building.

The palace has been plagued by structural problems, including humidity. In the winter, humidity in the palace ranges from 82 percent to 98 percent, Pignatelli said. "You can almost swim in the Domus Aurea."

High humidity causes the walls to break and creates crusting. Algae and fungus are also appearing on the frescoes, she said.

Restorers work to remove some humidity — but not all.

"The frescos would suffer even more if all of a sudden the environment became completely dry again," said Angelo Bottini, the state's top official for archaeology in Rome. Bottini added that further restoration is being planned, especially on the external structures of the palace, to remove earth and tree roots.

The vaulted ceilings were once encrusted with pearls and covered with ivory — luxuries that were funded by heavy taxation that Nero levied on Rome's population, said Pignatelli. Marble and other precious materials were imported from Greece, Egypt and other parts of Asia, while inhabitants of the area were expropriated to build the 198 acres residence.

"We have to imagine this place as full of light, luxurious, with precious colorful materials and golden leaves," Pignatelli said. "Today, we only see what time and decay have given back to us."

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