Archaeologists have discovered a secret chamber decorated with detailed frescoes during restoration work at Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden Palace), constructed two millennia ago.
The team came across an opening leading to a room covered with depictions of mythical creatures including centaurs and the god Pan, officials from the Colosseum archeological park said on Friday.
The archaeologists have dubbed the chamber, which will require excavation because much of it is buried and only its vault is visible, the Room of the Sphinx.
The find, considered significant, offers a tantalizing glimpse into “the atmosphere of the 60s of the first century A.D. in Rome,” the Colosseum officials said, adding that what could be seen of the vault is “fairly well preserved.”
Set against a white background are “red-edged squares finessed with yellow-ocher lines and golden bands punctuated by a dense series of floral elements,” the officials said. Each of the tiles depicts a different type of animal form — from panthers to birds, centaurs and a sphinx — while others show musical instruments.
The archaeologists were working on a nearby area of the complex set beneath a hill next to the Colosseum in Rome’s historic center when they happened upon the chamber.
Architects and archaeologists secured the site, once home to a gigantic landscaped palace, with a view to embarking upon a further stage of excavation to reveal the room in its full splendor.
Built between A.D. 64 and 68, the immense complex, which other Roman emperors later built on, comprises buildings, gardens and an artificial lake.
After Nero, who legend has it was playing a fiddle during the 64 fire that laid waste to much of Rome, died in 68, his successors tried to destroy traces of his rule. Emperor Trajan had the Domus Aurea covered with soil and built baths over it; Vespasian started construction of the Colosseum where the ornamental lake had been.
In the intervening centuries, much of the site was abandoned, and today only a few traces of what was a huge estate remain visible, with only a fraction excavated and the bulk of it lying under today’s modern bustling city.
Part of the site was discovered by Renaissance artists, including Raphael, some of whom managed to slide down on ropes and squeeze themselves through a hole in the ceiling to gaze upon magnificent frescoes that would inspire their own works.