June 09: What an Artist Dies in Me
2016/06/09 § 1 Comment
On this day in 68 Nero died.
“Died” is sort of missing the point, since Nero turned his hand against himself, forced to do so by the few people who were left to him at the end of his days, after he had spent his thirty-one years annoying, scandalizing, offending, and/or murdering everyone (including his mother and stepbrother) around him.
Although he was a categorically bad dude, the emperor (b. 37, r. 54-68) did put a lot of energy into encouraging cultural events and supported architecture in a big way. In particular, his home, the glorious Domus Aurea that stood on massive acreage in the center of Rome (cleared by the notorious fire that burned for six days, probably set by Nero but blamed on Christians) was a tremendous achievement (this is a pretty cool fly-through its reconstruction). Nero hired architects, sculptors and painters, supplied them with anything and everything they desired, and gave them free reign to imagine, build, and decorate. The result was a house like none other, with innovative paintings that would later inspire Raphael, and concrete construction that contributed significantly to the invention of vaulting in Roman Imperial architecture, culminating in the Pantheon. Although it looks shabby now, the domed hall was the most spectacular room in Rome–an extraordinary space with a second, rotating ceiling that was a fitting setting for the most lavish parties in the Empire.
But it is hard to focus on Nero’s contributions when the greater portion of his activities can, at best, be described as disgraceful. Thus his ignominious rank in ancient history, and that of his house, treated not as a lasting monument but the opposite of memorial: the Damnatio memoriae, in which the whiff of a memory of Nero’s existence was scraped from the face of the earth with the destruction of his glorious Golden House just four years after it was begun. When you visit the Colosseum, you stand on the ruins of the Golden House.
Among his many (mostly squandered) gifts, Nero could, reportedly, turn a phrase. Upon entering the completed 300-room mansion for the first time–named the “Golden House” for the leaf and jewels that encrusted its façade–he allegedly quipped “now I can finally live like a human being.” That bon mot is only out-bonned by his final words: “what an artist dies in me.” That must rank with the all-time best last words, right up there (but not eclipsing) Oscar Wilde’s last: “either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”
Image: “The Remorse of Nero” (John William Waterhouse, 1878)