Art History and Archaeology

Nero’s Golden House

Nero's Golden House

After Rome nearly burned to the ground in 64 CE, many citizens and senators became pessimistic about the future of their once great city. However, the energetic strength of mind that characterized the emperor, Nero, was not shaken by this tragedy. This strong willed emperor rebuilt much of Rome replacing damaged buildings and debris with studier structures designed to be more fire resistant. Not surprisingly, his swift and positive approach to the reconstruction of Rome quickly earned him the respect of the Roman Senate and citizenry. However, this respect immediately turned to outrage following the construction of Nero’s, so called “Golden House”. Built on prime real estate and perched atop one of the principle hills of Rome, this extravagant palace, called the Domus Aurea or Golden House, boasted a personal pool and vast gardens, as well as a towering statue of Nero himself as the Sun God Helios. The copious excesses displayed in the palace were seen by Romans as arrogant and uneconomical of the once praised emperor. Although, the Golden House was only in existence for forty some years after being replaced by a forum under Domitian, it influenced Roman architecture forever. What made the Golden House so divergent from Roman imperial norms that it was able to transform the perception of a once venerated emperor, into a despised villain who was now seen as someone who took advantage of the devastation of Rome?
The idea for the Domus Aurea arose from Nero’s yearning for a larger palace. He desired to join his palace on the Palatine, which he thought was too small, with the gorgeous and immense gardens on the Esquiline and the Oppius. Never before had an emperor built his palace in the center of Rome, simply because it was obnoxious and took up space for the citizens to live and work. Nero’s dream for his Golden house was put on hold due to the dense population living in the area, until the great fire of 64 CE. The thickly populated area on the Esquiline was devastated, and Nero could finally begin his construction of a palace that made him historically infamous. (5)
Nancy Ramage, a professor at Ithaca College, as well as many other scholars, believes the rumor that Nero may have contributed to the fire himself; or at least fiddled while Rome burned so he could make room for his enormous palace complex (9). Rome began to burn fiercely, with only one reprieve, for nine whole days. Out of the fourteen regions of Rome, only four survived untouched, seven were horribly devastated, and three quarters were completely destroyed and left in a pile of ashes.
When Nero began rebuilding, he resurrected the city with a austere and fire-safe building code; and of course, he turned to religious relief. Decorative efforts were made to propitiate the gods in his new buildings. During the rebuilding, the people responsible for the fire were suspected to have been part of a deviant Jewish sect, who hated humans and apparently foretold that the earth would soon be engulfed in flames. Whether this rumor is true or not, much unfortunate gossip began to spread throughout Rome about the starting of the fire. The most prevalent one was that Nero’s own agents had started the devastating fire, and that Roman soldiers were fanning the fires instead of trying to put them out. The fire was said to have continued only so Nero could rebuild Rome as “Neropolis.” Without a doubt, all of Nero’s good deeds were consumed by this unfavorable rumor and he has been a monster in history ever since. (6)
The location, extravagance, and overall mystique the imperial palace adorned itself with, affected the opinions of Roman citizens towards Nero. The emperor was viewed as taking advantage of the devastation that the horrible fire left behind; , or at least let it ravage the thickly populated quarter into devastation and rubble. The Domus Aurea played a significant role in Roman life and history; but there is much that is unknown about this palace. The extent of land that the palace covered is a controversial topic, and the dining hall and vast gardens as well as the overall grandeur appearance of Nero’s Golden House are all topics of speculation. With all the excavation and research gathered, the overall prevailing characteristic of the Golden House is wonder and awe.
According to Pliny, a respectable historian at the time, the palace was known as the Domus Aurea due to the façade on the main palace being completely gilded with gold, mother of pearl, and gemstones. Nero extended his plans to include an entire valley surrounding a lake, which Vespasian built the Colosseum on some sixteen years later. Towards the south, Nero’s implausible countryseat in the center of Rome stretched as far as the Temple of Claudius on the Caelian Hill, which Nero apparently nearly destroyed in carrying out his dream abode. On the east, the palace extended towards the gardens of Maecenas. Towards the western edge of the villa, its grounds extended to the Palatine Hill and the Velia Hill. On the north end, the landscape gardens are thought to have stretched as distant as the Forum of Augustus. In the valley flanked by the Esquiline, Palatine and Caelian hills, an artificial lake was built (11). Pliny asserts numerous times that the Domus Aurea enclosed the whole town of Rome. A pasquinade of Nero’s Rome once complained, “All Rome is transformed to a villa! Romans, flee to Veii!” (10)
Tactitus and Suetonias insisted the most amazing part of Nero’s palace was that Severus and Celer, Nero’s architects, created a splendid heavenly landscape including gardens, groves, pastures, herds, wild animals and artificial rural isolation. (10) Essentially, Nero had his own private paradise in the center of Rome. A researcher named Boethius emphasized that the Domus Aurea was more so a landscape garden that had a villa in it, and that the landscape was the main component. Furthermore, Boethius emphasized that the Golden House was planned to take advantage of the land it was built on. (2)
The Domus Aurea was also one of the first grand concrete buildings faced with brick, and in its planning and vaults, the octagon as well as the rows of sellaria (or reception room) show beginnings of the Baroque style which later contributed to Domitian’s palace planning. (10) One must wander what an average Roman citizen would think of such splendid luxurious living taking place on the ground that was once covered by hundreds of Roman homes and shops.
Nero was seen as a megalomaniac in ancient times as well as present day. One can make this assumption due to the colossal gilded statue of himself as the sun god Helios. The statue was placed in the vicinity of the main entrance and reception area of the Domus Aurea in the large atrium of porticoes that divided the Roman streets, from the concealed and blatantly private villa on the Palatine Hill. According to Pliny, the bronze statue reached about thirty meters in height. (9)
Of course, one of the most notable aspects of Nero’s Golden House was the miraculous, rotating ivory-veneered dining hall. Apparently, the ceiling sprinkled flowers and perfume on the seated guests below, and the floor was heated. Like the rest of Nero’s dream home, the walls were all lavishly decorated with delicate frescoes. In 15th century, Raphael and his friends crawled into the barely unearthed passageways of the Golden House. After jotting their names on the walls, they copied the faint frescoes they found there. Ironically, the delicate plants, cupids, animals and various motifs were later copied onto the walls of the Vatican. (9) One could say that Nero got the last laugh, in essence; because of the nature of this lavish and high-class life style his palace promoted in contrast with the modest values of Christianity (even though the Vatican is anything but modest).ac991416
“Rome is fast becoming a palace! Move to Veii, citizens, unless Veii too has become a Palace,” was a retort recounted by Suetonius. This account is indicative of what a reaction towards a highly visible private expenditure like the Golden House would be. While it is widely accepted by scholars that the Golden House covered a large part of Rome (80 hectares), a professor from the University of Pennsylvania, Gregory Warden, thinks otherwise. In his essay, The Domus Aurea Reconsidered, he brings issues of topography and chronology to light within the Domus Aurea’s architecture. Warden also agrees with, Boethius, mentioned earlier, who emphasized that the Domus Aurea was more so a landscape garden, with the buildings being only components. Warden and Boethius both make these assumptions from the astonishing differences in architecture in the proposed map of the Domus Aurea. The most notable idiosyncrasy in the plan is the contrasting architectural styles of the eastern and western wings. The difference in these two sections is normally explained by the result of two architects, Severus and Celer, having different ideas for the palace. But, why would they not try to integrate their plans? (2) In sum, if Boethius and Warden are correct in their assumptions, the Domus Aurea would not have been so notable in history, and would not have made Romans despise Nero for the rest of history.
After Nero committed suicide at the age of thirty, Senators used to refer to emperors they disliked as “Worse than Nero,” and Christians saw him as the “Beast of Revelation,” and sometimes even the Antichrist himself (6). Certainly, Nero was not the Antichrist, but he may have been one of the worst Emperors ancient Rome ever sanctioned. In conclusion, Nero’s Domus Aurea made him go down in history as one of the legendary monsters, damned forever.


An Account of the Things of Yucatan by Diego De Landa

       Fray Diego De Landa’s Account of the Things of Yucatan was written between the years 1563 and 1572, shortly after the end of the Spanish conquest.  The text can be described as a complete record of Maya culture.  Now a controversial figure in history, De Landa was a Franciscan friar who arrived after the conquest and was responsible for bringing Catholicism to the Yucatan civilizations.  He violently imposed his beliefs onto the indigenous Maya and publicly destroyed thousands of Maya manuscripts.  In 1562 he held the infamously vicious auto-da-fe, which led to his return to Spain where he was forced to defend himself against the Council of the Indies for unwarranted violence and going beyond his authority. His condemnation by the council led him to write the Account of the Things of Yucatan through which he defended his actions by cataloging everything he could remember about the Maya.


         De Landa begins his account with a description of the region of the Yucatan, including geographic information and a map, and the ancient history and information from before and after the Spanish conquest.  He continues with Maya residential living, clothing, food, drink, agriculture, seeds, trade, currency, genealogy, mathematics and number systems, marriage, inheritance, childcare, priests’ duties, sacrifices, skull modification, self-mutilation, sciences, festivals, and feasts.  War, military practices and leaders, punishments for criminals, education, women’s’ chastity, death, funerals, and the afterlife are also described.


        He continues with the Maya year count and its deity associations and the Maya calendar’s century. He also describes the sacrifices corresponding to each year in the calendar in great detail.  The flora, fauna, water sources, fish, snakes, poisonous animals, bees, birds, large and small animals and soils of the region are also discussed.  The following passage from Yucatan Before and After the Conquest by Diego De Landa describes auto-sacrifice in Maya culture:

At other times they practice a filthy and grievous sacrifice, whereby they gathered in the temple, in a line, and each made a pierced hole through the member, across from side to side, and then passed through as great a quantity of cord as they could stand; and thus all together fastened and strung together, they anointed the statue of the demon with the collected blood. The one able to endure the most was considered valiant, and their songs of tender age began to accustom themselves to this suffering; it is frightful to see how much they were dedicated to this practice. (De Landa 47-48)

The passage shows the descriptiveness of De Landa’s account as well as the bias and defense he utilizes through his writings.  De Landa describes the ritual from a sixteenth century European stand point by exaggerating the bloodshed and worship of “demons,” instead of attempting to understand the religious devotion the Maya had. He is offering his experience as alleged evidence in defense of his violent actions towards his brutal treatment and torture of the Maya, as he explains his fear towards their dedication to auto-sacrifice.

            Although De Landa’s account is considered a primary source for understanding Maya culture and religion, one cannot forget the biases the writer inexorably held.  As a result of De Landa’s actions, the once booming Maya civilization is now understood by many modern people as lost or forgotten.

John William Waterhouse, Lady of Shalott, 19th ce.

John William Waterhouse, Lady of Shalott, 19th ce.

John William Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott exudes emotions of regret and pain.The sorrowful girl is letting go of the chain- or is she holding on? The two extinguished candles in the boat conjure up memories of loss, while the third lit candle is fluttering. She is looking past the viewer, and below our world into a dark place. The cursed woman has just stepped into the boat knowing her certain death is approaching. This moment is described in the poem Lady of Shalott by Alfred Tennyso..

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Through the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.

Here is a link to the full poem:

Patrons and Artists in the Renaissance

The two artworks in discussion are Giotto, Arena Chapel, c. 1305, Padua, Fresco, and Michelangelo, Sistine Ceiling, 1508-1512, Vatican, Fresco. Although these frescos both cover the insides of chapels and exhibit religious content, the Patron for each artwork was of great influence and each had quite different motives. One must also notice the contrasting usage of space and style in each chapel due to the transformation in thought and increasing yearning for classical forms seen in the Renaissance.

The patron for the Arena Chapel in Padua was Enrico Scrovegni, a wealthy banker known for charging exorbitant interest rates to his clientele. Without a doubt, he had committed the sin of usury, other wise known as greed. In order for Scrovegni to make up for his sin, he dedicated the Arena Chapel to the Virgin of Charity. Above the entrance doors, one can see a fresco of the Scrovegni on his knees along side an Augustinian Monk, offering a small model of the Arena Chapel to the Virgin Mary, who is being accompanied by two other unidentified deities (below).


Many visitors to the chapel must have been somewhat irresolute about the prominent placement of the greedy patron himself among the blessed heavens in the fresco. The portraits of Scrovegni and the Monk are early examples of the interest in portraiture that will take hold in the fifteenth century. Giotto himself and portraits of his assistants may be included among the blessed human figures. The involvement of the patron to such a foremost extent in the chapel indicates how important the idea of indulgences were at the time, as a ticket into heaven.


Giotto, Arena Chapel, 1305

            The patron for Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was no other than Pope Julius II. Under the reign of Pope Julius II, an artistic revolution spread through Rome, and in his determination to transform Rome from a medieval city into a classical city, he replaced St. Peter’s Basilica with the Sistine Chapel in order to embody the majestic grandeur and religious drive of his regime. Because of the Pope’s interests in ancient Rome, any ancient remains were investigated, including Nero’s Golden House. The discovery of the sculpture Laocoon and his Sons was a great influence on any artist that viewed it (below).

Laocoon & His Sons

Laocoon & His Sons

An immediate impact was made on the depiction of nude figures by the classical sculpture of passionate exertion and theatrical muscular energy. Michelangelo was most certainly influenced by Laocoon and his Sons, as he painted the dramatic muscular nude figures seen in the Sistine Chapel only two years after viewing the classical sculpture. Another ancient work that influenced the human figures in the Sistine Chapel was the Belvedere Torso. The muscular twisting bodies of young men that decorate the ceiling are reminiscent of the classical Belvedere Torso and the Laocoon to an extent that is almost immeasurable.  Pope Julius II influenced the content of the Sistine Chapel furthur than helping to uncover classical sculpture which influcned Michelangelo, though. One can notice acorns and medallions throughout the intertwined figures on the ceiling. The acorns are symbolic of the Pope’s family name, delle Rovere, which translates to oak. The medallions are reminiscent of trophies, and symbolize Julius’s military campaign through out Italy at the time. Pope Julius II certainly exercised a decisive authority over the execution of the Sistine Chapel, from choosing the artist, Michelangelo, to paint it, and how the subject matter would be treated.


Michelangelo, Sistine Ceiling, 1508-1512, Vatican, Fresco



            The grandeur in the Sistine Chapel is immense compared to that of the Arena Chapel, but naturally these distinct differences in energy and the degree of classicism are due to the ever-increasing desire for classical forms in Italy. In the fourteenth century, Giotto was ground breaking in his application of weighted figures and expressive, classicizing cloaks on his human figures. And almost 200 years later, Michelangelo is surpassing Giotto’s innovative classical concepts, displaying powerful muscular, nude human figures throughout the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The discovery of classical sculpture that took place in the sixteenth century influenced the art being made to such a degree that there were nude human bodies inside of a chapel, which is an idea that would most certainly never be considered in the more medieval fourteenth century.

Depictions of the Moon Goddess in Maya Vases

        Differences in style and content between two Maya vases– Kerr 559 and Kerr K2733- will be  analyzed in this post.  A focus on the moon goddess Ix Chel in each vase’s imagery reveals multiple attributes of the deity.  On Kerr 559 Ix Chel alludes to fertility, and on Kerr K2733 the lovely deity is reminiscent of her sexuality and promiscuity.

ImageKerr 559 (above) is located at the Museum of Fine Arts at Boston as, “Moon Goddess giving birth to rabbit. Goddess O helps the rabbit nurse.” The polychrome vase’s dimensions are a height of seventeen centimeters, a diameter of ten and one half centimeters, and a circumference of about thirty-three centimeters.  The vase is in good condition except for a few minor surface scratches.

Image  Kerr K2733 (above) is located at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  Like Kerr 559, this vase is also polychrome except Kerr K2733 is a few inches larger all around.  The vase has a height of fifteen and one half centimeters, a diameter of fifteen centimeters and a circumference of about forty-nine centimeters.  The damage and erosion on the vessel is extensive, making it necessary to include a sketch of the surface detail.

Repetition in both vases is used to create unity.  Kerr K2733 has a series of three large circular forms seen in the far left figure, and serpent’s body loops to the center and right.  The undulating form of the vision serpent throughout the composition is similar to the repetition of deities in Kerr 559.  There is an equal amount of space between each figure creating equal distances of order and harmony in Kerr 559.  Instead of cluttering the scene with glyphs and iconography the artist(s) chose to create an orderly scene that was easily read.  On each vase the eyes are guided smoothly along the composition despite differences in their use of repetition.

The proportions and naturalism in each vase are different.  Kerr 559 has realistic proportions, except for the rabbit that is idealized and contrasts starkly with the realistic proportions of the deity and midwife. It is possible the artist did not wish to place emphasis on the rodent.  The rabbit’s limbs are more human than rabbit, and his eyes are simple circles, which stand out from the realistic human figures and elegant proportions. Differences in realism between figures on Kerr 559 indicates more than one artist was at work on this vase.  The imagery on Kerr K2733 is detailed but less naturalistic.  Kerr KS733’s subject matter has an effect on the degree of naturalism and realism seen in the imagery.  The artist spent no time worrying about proportion- the anthropomorphic creature under the vision serpent is much larger than the moon goddess, indicating the world painted here is not of this realm. 

Ix Chel can be seen in both vases accompanied by her rabbit.  In Kerr 559 the moon goddess is giving birth to the rabbit in the scene to the left, and in the subsequent scene she is holding the rabbit on her lap while facing goddess O, helping goddess O nurse the newborn rabbit.  The focal point of the composition is the Moon Goddess, since she has the darkest coloring and appears more than once.  In Kerr K2733, Ix Chel and her rabbit are tangled between a loop of the celestial monster, and she is sitting on a crescent moon.  There are three other loops on the celestial monster that have images of deities in each, but the moon goddess stands out from the scene.  Her poised and carefully drawn figure contrast with the cluttered and organic imagery surrounding her.  The emphasis placed on Ix Chel and the rabbit in both vases indicates the importance of the moon goddess to the Maya.

There are stark differences in the style of the vases.  Kerr 559 is a logical, narrative scene, while Kerr K2733 is abstracted and ambiguous.  Kerr Number 559 has two separate scenes, clearly separated by the chair, or throne, in the center of the image: the birth scene, and the nursery scene.  In comparison, Kerr K2733 has no beginning or end, and “Neither was it intended to be narrative or instructive; rather, the image functions to transform an ordinary container into an object that focuses power through ritual.  It is addressed not to a human user, but to the gods called forth in ritual” (Schele).  The stylistic differences indicate a difference in usage and ownership. 

Due to the complex imagery on Kerr K2733 Linda Schele has commented on it in her book Blood of Kings.  Kerr K2733 is associated with ritual, indicating the ownership was that of priests and ritual enactors.  The cluttered, unrealistic imagery is depicting the Maya underworld of Xibalba, and therefore does not need to be understood by humans (Schele).  The celestial monster that spans the length of the vase guides the eye flowing throughout the image, surrounding multiple deities.  There is no clear focal point within the scene, enabling the viewer to focus on the aesthetically pleasing organic lines and shapes.  In contrast, Kerr 559 is clearly showing a connection to fertility, birth and childcare. Kerr 559 also has celestial imagery but the artist chose to focus on Ix Chel and not a multitude of characters.

Due to the excellent physical condition of the piece, I believe Kerr 559 was kept in a domestic setting such as a house or a form of nursery.  The potential of the vase being kept and used in a domestic context such as a nursery may allude to Maya childcare norms. The narrative scene on the vase denotes that Maya women, of elite status, kept midwives to care for their infants and children.  The narrative also indicates the vase’s production purpose as an expectant mother’s gift or newly born child’s gift. 

The moon goddess symbolizes fertility and childbirth in Kerr 559, but she has other attributes not indicated by this vase.  The moon goddess also alludes to a variety of things like weaving, creation and destruction, disease, and sexual promiscuity (Sigal).  In Kerr K2733 the moon goddess is representing sexuality, and not strictly maternal attributes as in Kerr 559. The organic lines surrounding the moon goddess in Kerr K2733 exude sensuality. Male deities placed around the moon goddess within the loops of the vision serpent conjure ideas of promiscuity.  Further, the sun god was her husband, and is among the convolution of deities in this image (Schele).  

The celestial imagery on each vase is both formally beautiful and alludes to the moon goddess and her rabbit.  When viewing both vases different attributes of the moon goddess are shown: fertility on Kerr 559 and sexuality on Kerr K2733.  The artists that made these vases represent different perceptions of beauty, style and technique among the Maya. The differences between depicting the same deity indicate room for experimentation and new ideas about what was beautiful among the ancient Maya.  Further, the contrasting imagery of the same deity, Ix Chel, on each vessel indicates the multifaceted characteristics of deities prevalent in Maya religious beliefs. 

Codex Ixtlilxochitl

ImageCodex Ixtlilxochitl

European Paper Manuscript, Early 17th century Image

            The Codex Ixtlilxochitl is a combination of fragments linked to Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl, a seventeenth century historian and successor of the leaders of a pre-Columbian city Texcoco. Previously the codex was in three distinct parts. The third segment is believed to be in Ixtlilxochitl’s writing, yet there is disagreement over who assembled the codex, as it has been passed among numerous owners.  The Codex Ixtlilxochitl was obtained from the same source as the Codex Magliabechiano. 

            The subject of the Codex Ixtlilxochitl shows a calendar of yearly rituals performed by the Aztecs throughout their calendrical year. A specific deity or other Aztec figure represents every one of the eighteen months illustrated in the codex. Aztec religion, like most Mesoamerican cultures, had a cyclic nature dependent upon calendrical practices and rituals.  The first section dates from around 1600, and is recognized as a reproduction of a portion of an early cultural index reflecting Aztec rituals.  Eighteen monthly feasts are illustrated and expressed in Spanish, along with two distinct, vibrant images of Quetzalcoatl, and two funeral rites.  The second segment is Juan Bautista Pomar’s (a descendant of Tetzcocan sovereigns) rendition of Aztec gods and other components of their traditions.  Four complete portraits of Tetzcocan lords, Tlaloc (the Aztec water god/top right image), and a depiction of Tetzcoco’s Templo Mayor are illustrated.  The third and final fragment of the Codex Ixtlilxochitl is a literary rendition of the Aztec calendar.

            The Codex Ixtlilxochitl is written in Spanish, contained on twenty-seven sheets of European paper, and accompanied by twenty-nine visual aids. Reflecting the early colonial artistic style of New Spain at the time of its production, this work combines Spanish script with Aztec imagery. The style and medium of the codex are of European influence, but the subject matter is focused on the Aztec past. A page of the codex depicting a priest in the guise of Tlaloc dressed in imperial clothing reflects the colonial artistic notion of transculturation.  The figure of Tlaloc is standing in European contrapposto and has three-dimensional shading characteristic of European art, yet is adorned with Aztec ornaments and dress.

            The existence of the Codex Ixtlilxochitl demonstrates the transculturation occurring between Europeans, mestizos (mixed) and indigenous people in the seventeenth century. This codex serves as a cultural translator in a sense, making the Aztec calendrical rituals more comprehensible to Europeans, and giving a face to prominent Aztec deities.  The desire by Europeans to understand Aztec culture and not simply obliterate it is made clear in this assemblage of work.  The history of multiple owners and creators adds to the historical essence of the Codex Ixtlilxochitl, making this work a representation of Aztec culture from many standpoints.