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November 2021

Vol. 163 / No. 1424

Raphael and the Domus Aurea: The Invention of Grotesque Ornament

Reviewed by Adriano Aymonino

‘In every season the rooms are full of painters. Here summer seems cooler than winter [...] We crawl along the ground on our stomachs, armed with bread, ham, fruits and wine, looking more bizarre than the grotesques’.(1) These words, written by an anonymous Lombard artist in Rome in 1496, are from the earliest printed account of one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the Renaissance, one that would have an impact on Western art for centuries. Over the previous twenty years, a group of painters, including Pinturicchio, Filippino Lippi and Luca Signorelli, had penetrated from above into the buried rooms of Nero’s palace, the Domus Aurea, on the Oppian Hill, and discovered its decorative schemes, untouched for almost fourteen centuries. The grotesque ornamentation (grottesche) – so called because they believed that it had been painted on the walls and ceilings of underground natural grottos (grotte) – was revived in earnest by Raphael in his Vatican commissions of the 1510s, and soon spread all over Europe, from objects of daily use to the decoration of entire interiors.

The exhibition in the Domus Aurea’s Octagonal Hall, curated by Vincenzo Farinella and Alfonsina Russo, with Stefano Borghini and Alessandro D’Alessio, aims at tracing the extraordinary success of grottesche, from Pinturicchio and Raphael to twentieth-century artists. It was scheduled to open on 6th April 2020, as part of the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael, coinciding with the large exhibition devoted to the artist at the Scuderie del Quirinale, but the covid-19 pandemic caused its postponement.(2) As the environmental conditions of the Domus Aurea (95 per cent of relative humidity and an average temperature of 10–12 degrees Celsius) are not suitable for the display of almost any work of art, the exhibition is digital and interactive, relying on multimedia applications provided by Dotdotdot studio, Milan. There is only one original work on show, the Farnese Atlas, on loan from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples (Fig.1).

The exhibition is also intended to celebrate the exceptional works of conservation and restoration of the Domus Aurea and its surroundings during the past ten years, which have continued energetically under Russo, Director of the Parco Archeologico del Colosseo. The multimedia display capitalises on the digital reconstruction of the original interiors installed in one of the underground rooms since 2017, an immersive virtual reality that for once works extremely well, enhancing the visitor’s experience rather than distracting from the observation of the physical setting.

The multiple agendas of the exhibition are also its weak spot, as they have resulted in a lack of clear focus. The visit starts with a long new walkway, designed by Stefano Boeri Architetti, which connects the street level entrance with the underground rooms. Recently completed structural works and a new lighting system allow for a much better appreciation of the famous Achilles on Skyros (Fig.2) and Hector and Andromache rooms – named after the painted scenes that decorate them – which form part of the exhibition route. The multimedia display is arranged in five sections in the rooms that radiate from the Octagonal Hall. They lead the visitor from the discovery of the site in c.1478 to the earliest use of grotesque decoration in late fifteenth-century Rome and Florence and its subsequent reception. Only one section is devoted to Raphael, a digital reconstruction of the stufetta (a heated room) of Cardinal Bibbiena in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, painted in 1516 (Fig.3). As the stufetta is not open to the public, its virtual re-creation is the highpoint of the exhibition.

The Farnese Atlas is the centrepiece of the display. The constellations carved on its marble globe are projected on the ceiling of the Octagonal Hall, alternating with images of falling rose petals. Both are meant to evoke Suetonius’ description of the coenatio rotunda, Nero’s legendary rotating dining room – which, however, was most probably located elsewhere in the Domus Aurea. One wonders how the loan of such an important and delicate ancient statue was agreed, since it was not discovered in the Domus Aurea, has no thematic link to the exhibition and is not discussed in the exhibition catalogue.(3)

The catalogue should be read together with Farinella’s attractive and lavishly illustrated new guidebook to the Domus Aurea, also published by Electa to coincide with the exhibition. In the guidebook most of the themes covered in the catalogue are taken up again, with a particular focus on the fortune and diffusion of grotesque decoration since the Renaissance.(4) Together, the two publications provide the most up to date overview and bibliography of the subject.(5) The catalogue reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the exhibition. It opens with essays devoted to the Domus Aurea’s architecture, lightning and decoration and concludes with ones on the recent conservation works, the new walkway and the multimedia display. These essays frame a series of more focused studies. An essay by Rita Volpe covers the discovery of the Laocoön in 1506, which was found near the site of the Domus Aurea (a cast is displayed in the exhibition). Other essays analyse the spread of grottesche in southern Italy (Orazio Lovino), a subject that had been little studied; their iconography and symbolic character (Sonia Maffei); the study and reception of the Domus Aurea in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Federica Causarano); and the impact of grottesche on art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Biancalucia Maglione). 

Only one essay, by Farinella, is dedicated to Raphael’s study and appropriation of grotesque decoration. The author reminds us that it was Raphael, in his famous letter to Pope Leo X, who first identified the buried chambers on the Oppian Hill as the remains of Nero’s Domus Aurea. Farinella also rightly rejects Vasari’s assessment of the relative role of Raphael and Giovanni da Udine in the development of a ‘coherent system of wall decoration all’antica’ based on the grottesche, arguing that Raphael took the lead. As Farinella points out, much work still needs to be done on the reception and diffusion of the grottesche in Raphael’s time.

The postponement of the exhibition has thwarted its potential, as it would have worked much more convincingly as a pendant to the exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale by establishing a dialogue with the sections devoted to Raphael and the Antique. It would have also reflected some of the themes covered in an exhibition in Rome in 2020 dedicated to Raphael’s letter to Pope Leo X.(6) The visitor is left with the impression that an exhibition on Raphael’s role in the diffusion of the grotesque decoration, accompanied by this virtual display in the place where it all started, would have been much more rewarding. One hopes that Farinella, one of the leading scholars of the reception of the Classical tradition in the Renaissance, has included this among his future projects.

1. G. Agosti and D. Isella, eds: Antiquarie prospetiche romane, Parma 2004, pp.28–29 and 129–32. The English translation is from M. Squire: ‘“Fantasies so varied and bizarre”: the Domus Aurea, the Renaissance, and the “Grotesque”’, in E. Buckley and M.T. Dinter, eds: A Companion to the Neronian Age, Chichester 2013, pp.444–64, at p.448.

2. The exhibition was reviewed by Patrizia Cavazzini in this Magazine, 162 (2020), pp.983–85.

3. Catalogue: Raffaello e la Domus Aurea: L’invenzione delle grottesche. Edited by Stefano Borghini, Alessandro D’Alessio, Vincenzo Farinella and Alfonsina Russo. 272 pp. incl. 180 ills. (Electa, Milan, 2020), €39. ISBN 978–88–918–9006–1. On the statue, see K. Lippincott: ‘The early reception of the “Farnese Atlas”: an addendum to Bober and Rubinstein’s “Renaissance Artists and Antique Sculpture”’, Schifanoia 52–53 (2017), pp.227–38.

4. V. Farinella: The Domus Aurea Book, Milan 2019.

5. To which should be added D. Acciarino, ed.: Paradigms of Renaissance Grotesques, Toronto 2019.

6. See I. Sgarbozza, ed.: exh. cat. La lezione di Raffaello: Le antichità romane, Rome (Complesso di Capo di Bove) 2020.