How crowdfunding could see Nero’s villa re-emerge into Rome’s sunlight

The – With the Italian government strapped for cash, Rome is becoming increasingly creative about how it preserves its heritage. Since 2014, companies funding restoration projects have been offered tax breaks via the Art Bonus scheme. Luxury label Tod’s bankrolled the Colosseum’s current restoration, while Fendi, better known for fur than philanthropy, picked up the tab for the Trevi Fountain’s refurb. But the site of Domus Aurea, Nero’s fabled House of Gold, is taking a different route – crowdfunding.

So far, the donations amount to €3,685 from 75 people. Not bad… but the rescue project has been costed at €31 million. Hungarian archaeologist, Mihaela Iaslau, who works at the site, hopes that by raising awareness in this way, a sponsor might be found. He says: “Crowdfunding is a kind of advertising to attract some private investment.

Nero’s palace has been closed since damage by flooding in 2010, but it has recently reopened for guided weekend visits, in groups of up to 25 people, to raise awareness of the problems at the site (50% of ticket sales goes into restoration too). Booking is currently until August, but it’s likely to continue beyond the summer.
Rome-based archaeologist Darius Arya emphasises the importance of allowing people in to see the work in progress, and adds: “It allows people to have an insight into what is going on.”

Built around AD64, the Domus Aurea was less a villa, and more of a city. After Nero’s death, his successor, Trajan, destroyed the building and it gradually became buried, until the part you can visit today was excavated in the 1930s.
This is a visit to an archaeological rescue-job in progress. Every time it rains, the parkland that today covers the 2,000-year-old roof of the palace becomes 30% heavier. Water and tree roots are eating away at its caverns.

A sun-dappled garden with twisted wisteria and remnants of Roman walls marks the entrance to the palace today.
Visitors are given hard hats, adding to the sense that this is an extraordinary visit. Inside, water drips through the ceiling. It’s clear the archaeologists are fighting a battle underground. The frescoes are glossy with water. Where now there are walls of rubble, once there were views onto flower-filled gardens and marble statues. The deepest part is 16 metres underground, and the chill makes it feel like a dungeon. In the Sala della Volta Dorata (Room of the Golden Vault) faded paintings glow, framed by stucco. During the Renaissance, Raphael and Pinturicchio crawled along the top of the rubble in this room to study the works.

The tour finishes with a model showing how the €31m will fund a lighter, better-draining garden to top the site. The hope is palpable: perhaps showing the public what is being lost will ensure Domus Aurea’s survival.

Abigail Blasi
“How crowdfunding could see Nero’s villa re-emerge into Rome’s sunlight”
May 2, 2015