Palatium: House of Augustus

The House of Augustus (Domus Augusti) was the home of Rome’s first emperor and was located on the most sacred area of the Palatine next to the Temple of Apollo. In fact, the house must have stood above the Lupercal, the sacred cave where, according to legend, the twin founders of Rome were suckled by the she-wolf. Augustus’ domus, comprising two levels, served as his primary residence during his reign. Despite its relatively small size, the House of Augustus is celebrated for its lavish Second-Style Pompeian frescoes which rank among the best in the Roman world. The Second Pompeian style, or “Architectural Style”, began in Rome in the early years of the 1st century BC and evolved during the reign of Augustus. This period saw a focus on architectural features and trompe-l’oeil compositions.

Augustus originally obtained the property from the orator Quintus Hortensius. He expanded the layout after his victory at Actium. Some of the rooms containing the most spectacular wall paintings are known by their recurring motifs: the “Pine Room” (room 6), the “Room of the Masks” (room 5), the “Room of the Perspective Paintings” (room 11). The first two rooms were domestic cubiculae (bedrooms). They occupied the western section of the house. The third room, identified as an ala (wing) flanking the tablinum (of which nothing of its decoration is preserved), served a more overtly public function and was located around the northern peristyle courtyard. But the most refined and elegant decoration can be seen in the so-called “Emperor’s Study” (room 15) which has no equal anywhere else in Rome.

Plan of the House of Augustus.
Plan of the House of Augustus.

The tour of the domus begins with the two cubiculae in the domestic section of the house (rooms 6 and 5). The “Pine Room” has a simple architectural scheme with pine festoons over the top of which are porticoes with Doric columns. The “Room of the Masks”, located just behind the “Pine Room” and slightly larger in size, is one of the finest in Augutus’ house. It has more elaborate perspectival Second-Style paintings incorporating tragic and comic theatre masks.

Next to the two cubiculae is a series of five rooms of various sizes arranged along the north side of the western court. The rooms include two libraries (or maybe rooms to display art works), and a tablinum (where Augustus would receive guests) flanked by two alae (wings) on either side. One of the two alae, dubbed “Room of the Perspective Paintings”, has vividly-coloured frescoes on its north wall depicting a two-storey architectural facade in blue, white, yellow and red.

The path continues with the visit of the eastern section of the house, where rooms are preserved on two storeys. The upper room was originally joined by a corridor ramp (room 12). The most striking feature of the so-called “Ramp Room” is the painted vaulting in imitation of real coffering which is decorated with a painted pattern of rhomboidal and square coffers containing rosettes.

The next room is the so-called “Large Oecus” (room 13) with architectural wall paintings with four pedestals for columns of piers (oecus tetrastilus – supported by four columns). Among other functions, the room served as a salon where elaborate dinner parties were staged.

The final room, a cubiculum known as “The Emperor’s Study”, where the Emperor used to retire when he did not want to be disturbed. It is located on the highest level of the house. Today, it is accessed by climbing a modern steel staircase and can be viewed by peering through a protective glass. The exceptional decorative elements were inspired by Egyptian-Alexandrine models, typical of the art of the Augustan period after the recent conquest of Egypt.

Following recent conservation work, a visit to the House of Livia and Augustus can now be booked with Coopculture.it.

PORTFOLIO

The Pine Room: decoration with pilastered portico and pine festoons.
The Pine Room: decoration with pilastered portico and pine festoons.
The Pine Room. The Pine cone was the symbol of Cybele (or Magna Mater) whose temple was located on the Palatine next to Augustus’ house. The temple burned on two occasions in the early Imperial era and was restored each time by Augustus.
The Pine Room. The Pine cone was the symbol of Cybele (or Magna Mater) whose temple was located on the Palatine next to Augustus’ house. The temple burned on two occasions in the early Imperial era and was restored each time by Augustus.
South wall of the Room of the Masks, 2nd Pompeian style.
South wall of the Room of the Masks in the Second Pompeian style.
The architecture depicted in the Room of the Masks is a one-storey structure with a central recess and narrow side-doors on each side, probably evoking a scaenae frons, a wooden theatre stage building.
The architecture depicted in the Room of the Masks is a one-storey structure with a central recess and narrow side-doors on each side, probably evoking a scaenae frons, a wooden theatre stage building.
Detail of South wall of the Room of the Masks.
Detail of South wall of the Room of the Masks.
North side of the western court with a series of five rooms including two libraries and a tablinum flanked by two alae.
North side of the western court with a series of five rooms including two libraries and a tablinum flanked by two alae.
The tablinum of the House of Augustus of which only slight traces of decorations have survived.
The tablinum of the House of Augustus of which only slight traces of decorations have survived.
The Room of the Perspective Paintings: architectural composition with perspective rendition of colonnades.
The Room of the Perspective Paintings.
The Room of the Perspective Paintings: architectural composition with perspective rendition of colonnades.
The Room of the Perspective Paintings: architectural composition with perspective rendition of colonnades.

Illusionistic painted coffering on the vault of the “Ramp Room”, the painter emphasized the depth effect by using appropriate shading.
Illusionistic painted coffering on the vault of the “Ramp Room”, the painter emphasized the depth effect by using appropriate shading.
The ceiling is decorated with a painted pattern of rhomboidal and square coffers containing rosettes, whose relief was suggested by the use of shading as well as by means of perspective. The frames were rendered in shades of red, yellow and white, the inner moulding in orange, yellow, blue and green, and ornaments of the coffers in purple, black, white and yellow.
The ceiling is decorated with a painted pattern of rhomboidal and square coffers containing rosettes, whose relief was suggested by the use of shading as well as by means of perspective. The frames were rendered in shades of red, yellow and white, the inner moulding in orange, yellow, blue and green, and ornaments of the coffers in purple, black, white and yellow.
South wall of the “Large oecus” with architectural wall painting of the Second Pompeian Style.
South wall of the “Large oecus” with architectural wall painting of the Second Pompeian Style. The fresco located on the south wall has a monumental Corinthian tetrastyle structure resting on a podium topped with an elegant frieze.
The theatrical inspiration is underlined by the presence of a mask crowned with vine leaves.
The theatrical inspiration of the wall paintings of the “Large oecus” is underlined by the presence of a mask crowned with vine leaves.
North wall of the “Large oecus” with wall painting imitating marble wall-facing.
North wall of the “Large oecus” with wall painting imitating marble wall-facing.
North wall of the “Large oecus” with wall painting imitating marble wall-facing.
North wall of the “Large oecus” with wall painting imitating marble wall-facing.
North wall of the “Large oecus” depicting a stage-like structure with various human figures carrying offerings.
North wall of the “Large oecus” depicting a stage-like structure with various human figures carrying offerings.
South wall of the “Large oecus” depicting a stage-like structure with human figures standing inside the central recess. One of the female figure wears a clock as well as a rich diadem and necklace while others are carrying votive offerings.
South wall of the “Large oecus” depicting a stage-like structure with human figures standing inside the central recess. One of the female figure wears a clock as well as a rich diadem and necklace while others are carrying votive offerings.
North-east corner of the Lower cubiculum with architectural decoration.
North-east corner of the Lower cubiculum with architectural decoration.
North wall of the Lower cubiculum with architectural decoration.
North wall of the Lower cubiculum with architectural decoration.
The upper cubiculum so-called “Emperor’s Study”.
The upper cubiculum so-called “Emperor’s Study”. The walls are beautifully decorated with stylized winged obelisks, gryphons, sophisticated interweaving of floral elements (lotus leaves, flowers and aquatic plants) and objects such as vases and candelabra in powerful contrasts of red, black, green and yellow.
The ceiling decoration in the “The Emperor’s Study” also reveals the influence of Alexandria with lighter colours.
The ceiling decoration in the “The Emperor’s Study” reveals the influence of Alexandria with lighter colours.
The upper cubiculum so-called “Emperor’s Study”: painted frieze on the ceiling with winged female figure, satyr’s head and plant-shaped motifs.
The upper cubiculum so-called “Emperor’s Study”: painted frieze on the ceiling with winged female figure, satyr’s head and plant-shaped motifs.
The dominant tones of the ceiling are pink and white with a range of shades of indigo, porphyry, violet, ochre and gold.
The dominant tones of the ceiling are pink and white with a range of shades of indigo, porphyry, violet, ochre and gold.

91s3h3xi3glUnfortunately, the exquisite beauty of these frescoes could not be perfectly rendered through my photographs due to the artificial lighting in the rooms and the protective glass. If you want to see magnificent illustrations of the highest quality, I strongly recommend that you buy the magnificently illustrated book “The House of Augustus: Wall Paintings”. The book features all the wonderful fresco cycles covering the walls, from the general composition to the smallest detail.

You can buy the book on amazon.com or amazon.co.uk.

 

2 thoughts on “Palatium: House of Augustus

  1. Always a thoughtful, thorough look at the places from antiquity to catch you eye and imagination. Keep traveling. Keep writing. Keep publishing!

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