The Flavian Palace (Domitian’s full name was Titus Flavius Domitianus) was the marvel of its age. Echoing a famous passage of Virgil’s, the poet Statius extolled the edifice in a fluent if hyperbolic flight of rhetoric: Tectum augustum, ingens, non centum insigne columnis / sed quantae superos caelumque Atlante remisso / sustentare queant (‘A house majestic, huge, conspicuous not with a mere hundred columns, but as many as could sustain the gods and heaven above should Atlas be dismissed’). Laid out on two levels and covering thousands of square meters, the palace represented the grandest architectural statement of the Roman Empire hitherto. Its endless suites of chambers, with their peristyles, fountains and gardens, were those of an aristocratic dwelling magnified to Olympian proportions; the throne room and banqueting hall were on a scale to befit the pretensions of an emperor who styled himself dominus et deus (Lord and God). A self-contained universe with the emperor at its center, the palace was a microcosm of the world over which Caesar claimed untrammeled sovereignty.
By the traditional date, the Western Roman Empire passed out of existence in AD 476. In the place of provinces there were now Germanic kingdoms: Angles and Saxons in Britain, Franks and Burgundians in Gaul, Visigoths in Spain, Vandals in Africa and Ostrogoths in Italy. After the quixotic reconquista of Italy by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the 540s and 550s, Rome – the erstwhile seat of empire – passed under the authority of an ‘exarch’ (viceroy) domiciled at Ravenna. The imperial palace continued in use as the seat of the city’s Greek governors. On into the seventh century, its cavernous and dilapidated halls were maintained in some wise by the exarchs and the bishops of Rome. When at length the imposing pile was abandoned to the elements, one can only imagine the scene of desolation – lofty halls open to the sky, marbles shattered, stuccoes green with moss, fallen masonry involved in the rank Mediterranean vegetation.
With the loss of northern Italy to Germanic invaders in the late sixth century, Rome entered a struggle for her independence – a struggle concluded some two centuries later when the popes resorted to the desperate expedient of summoning Franks to oust Lombards. Christmas day of AD 800 – the coronation of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III in the Basilica of St Peter – was the birthday of a Holy Roman Empire that would dominate the fortunes of the Eternal City for five centuries. In Rome itself, the order imposed by Charlemagne and his heirs was short-lived: by the end of the ninth century, local strongmen were erecting petty fiefdoms on the ruins of Carolingian authority. The ‘Iron Century’ over which these strongmen presided was in turn brought to an end by the rise of the barons – a closed group of clans whose power so far outstripped that of the minor nobility that they handily carved all of Rome into districts controlled from fortified compounds. The massive ruins of the Palatine Hill were colonized by the family Frangipane.
Only after another two centuries did the parochial power of the barons give way to the pan-European prestige of a papacy regenerated by the Council of Constance (1414–1418). Indeed, for the popes of the early Renaissance, the barons proved less troublesome than the Roman comune (municipal government), which – fired by the civic glories of a Florence or a Siena – chafed under the suzerainty of its bishop. The triumph of papal dominion over the claims of the commune was consummated by Pope Paul III Farnese (1534–1549): Michelangelo’s superb renovation of the Capitoline Hill, nerve-center of the municipal government, bodied forth with matchless éclat the imperial pretensions of the resurgent papacy.
The Palatine Hill, for its part, lay at the margins: the heart of medieval and Renaissance Rome was situated in the bend of the Tiber River to the northwest. It was therefore perhaps inevitable that the Palatine should be absorbed into the corona of villas that sprang up on the heights to the south and east of the Campus Martius. The Horti Farnesiani – Farnese Gardens – owed their inception to the same Pope Paul III who ordered the renovation of the Capitoline Hill. Elaborated by his successors over the second half of the sixteenth century, the Forum side of the Palatine was configured in lush terraces enlivened with ramps, pavilions and an artificial grotto: conceived as a pendant to the Basilica of Constantine opposite, it presented one of the most scenographic flourishes ever executed in the history of landscape architecture. On the hill’s top, formal gardens extended to the brink overlooking the valley of the Circus Maximus.
In the scientific atmosphere of the eighteenth century, the ruins known from ancient literary sources to repose beneath the gardens exerted an irresistible attraction. From 1720 to 1726, the first modern exploration of the Flavian Palace was conducted under the auspices of Francesco I Farnese, Duke of Parma and Piacenza. Like many pioneers of his discipline, Francesco Bianchini – the duke’s Veronese archaeologist – was equal parts scholar and thief: such treasures as he succeeding in extracting from the cyclopean ruins were promptly dispatched to the court of his master at Parma. These included colossal basalt statues of Bacchus and Hercules and numerous architectural fragments. The haul is catalogued in an inscription dictated by Bianchini and mounted in the apse of the aula regia (throne room):
DOMVS CAESARVM TIBERIANAE
INCENDIIS PLVRIBVS DEFORMATAM
SVB NERONE VITELLIO AC TITO
ET A DOMITIANO RESTITVTAM
AVCTAMQVE MAGNIFICIS ORNAMENTIS
PEREGRINI MARMORIS COLVMNIS
PORPHYRETICIS THEBAICIS LVCVLLANIS
VICENVM TRICENVM ET DVODEQVADRAGENVM PEDVM
EPISTYLIIS ZOPHORIS CORONIS BASIBVS
ADDITIS E BASALTIDE AETHYOPICO
AMPLO IN VESTIGIO NVPER DETECTO
IVSSV ET IMPENSA SERENISSIMI FRANCISCI PRIMI
PARMAE ET PLACENTIAE DVCIS
The Farnese gardens display for inspection, in the extensive remains lately excavated by the order, and at the expense, of the most serene Francesco I, Duke of Parma and Piacenza, the Palatine Hall of the Domus Tiberiana of the Caesars, disfigured by a number of fires under Nero, Vitellius and Titus and restored by Domitian and improved with magnificent decor, fitted with columns of exotic marble – porphyry, Theban, Lucullan – twenty, thirty and thirty-eight feet in height, their architraves, friezes, cornices and bases all lavishly wrought, with a complement of colossal figures in Ethiopian basalt, in the year 1726.
Bianchini of course could not know that the building he had plundered was not the domus Tiberiana – the agglomeration of preexisting houses that Augustus’ successor had transformed into an improvised palace in the early decades of the first century AD, and which was replaced by the Flavian Palace. However that may be, Bianchini’s inscription in the aula regia marks the site where Domitian sat enthroned in unimaginable splendor. To stand on that site and gaze upon the wrecked glories of a self-styled Lord and God is perforce to meditate on the vicissitudes of fortune.
With the extinction of the male line of the Farnese and the passage of their property to the house of Bourbon in 1731, the gardens fell into decline. The property remained in Bourbon hands until 1860, when it was purchased by Napoleon III. Further areas of the hill were excavated, in particular the site of the authentic domus Tiberiana. After the unification of Italy in 1870, new and more destructive campaigns were undertaken. Owing to the special fervor of Rodolfo Lanciani, the dominant figure in the archaeological establishment of Roma Capitale, with a few isolated exceptions, the marvelous blend of ancient and modern represented by the Horti Farnesiani – so typical of Rome – was swept away in the course of a few years. Compensated by our enhanced knowledge of the ancient Palatine, we are left to wonder whether the destruction of its splendid Renaissance successor was worth the cost.