“House of Augustus”, Luce magazine, n°314, 2015, p. 24
THE HOUSE OF AUGUSTUS AND THE HOUSE OF LIVIA IN THE AUGUSTAN COMPOUND AT PALATINE HILL 2000 years after, the ancient rooms of the imperial residence come back to life with new light
The Palatine Hill is connected to Romulus’s legendary foundation of Rome and it was mostly considered Rome’s aristocratic neighbourhood, before turning into the Emperor’s private area from Augustus onwards. When the young Octavianus was adopted by Julius Caesar, thus becoming a public figure, he chose orator Horrensius’s former house, in the year 42 B.C. This was CO be the first nucleus of a system of buildings, that he destined to represent the elevated and refined image of his power. The House of Augustus and the House of Livia, his beloved third wife, are part of the imperial compound whose reopening was a memorable event, in celebration of the second millennium of Augustus’s death in 14 A.D. The decorations of the Houses are an exquisite example of well-preserved, figurative Roman art, composed of vivid colours, charming floral themes, illusive architectural perspectives and theatrical scenic designs, which stunningly burst through the space. The Augustan compound shows a complex overlapping of archeological layers belonging to the different building epochs and scholars still debate on the interpretation of the whole area and its transformation.
The House of Augustus: light as a tool for visual reconstruction
Our lighting project started late in 2012 and was completed in the summer of 2014 in close cooperation with Barbara Nazzaro from the Superintendence, authors of the restoration project. A new roofing to protect the archeological site was designed to reproduce the effect of the feeling of the architectural space within the house. As Barbara Nazzaro explains, the burial and the removal of tuff blocks that made up the vertical structures and the widespread collapse of the vaults advised against restoring the original volume, which was the main subject of the scientific debate; for the new roof we referred to the ground level dating back to the archeological excavations of the ‘6os. The idea behind the project is that of reproducing on the roof the previous ground level with a number of walls rising from the vegetation. This allows a greater integration of the site into the landscape seen from the Aventine and Gianicolo Hills. The large roofing frame is made of both steel and fibreglass pultruded profiles (FRP a compound of organic resins filled with synthetic fibres), featured by low weight, mechanical strength and easy mounting. All structures are actually hidden by a false ceiling made of dark PVC film. The wall panels are in Corten (weathering steel), which are well integrated with the archeological remains. The fading eyelet-textured panels evoke the suggestion of the vibration of the ancient wall.
Beside the more traditional security purposes of the visit, the lighting project had the following main goals:
- To revive, through artificial lighting, the original balance between light and shadows in the different rooms. We observed that in patrician Roman houses sunlight penetrated obliquely in the internal rooms, shielded by the peristilio. This peculiar light penetration created a shadow gradation that varied with the distance from the porch.
- To create a visual hierarchy through light distribution and variation of chromatic perception, between the rooms of the private home (domus privata) and those of the public house (domus publica); in this way we would be able to achieve a more intimate sensation in the former and a more majestic brightness in the latter.
- To use the chromatic variation and the lighting level regulation of artificial light not for a scenographic purpose, but with the aim of fully integrating the restoration project by facilitating its interpretation and contributing to the visual reconstruction of the monument.
The lighting systems, all with Led sources, are mainly integrated into the stretched ceiling of the new roof. A series of grooves accommodate groups of special spots with various optical beams and different colour temperatures. The luminaires, track-mounted with modified adaptors, all have remote DMX drivers and are controlled via a touch panel. Each pair of spots has the same aim thus producing a single lighting beam whose total spectrum can be adjusted according to the flux dimming of each single luminaire and its colour temperature. By regulating the level of each spot the lighting helps to narrate the different rooms, each with subtle variations of luminance and colour temperature, in order to suggest the firelight in the private rooms and the cool daylight that penetrated into the rooms of imperial power. Since the preliminary project we planned to use luminaires whose lighting levels and colour temperature could be regulated: we needed lower levels with Tc between 2700K and 3000K in the private rooms without direct sunlight, while higher levels with Tc between 4000K and 5500K were necessary to suggest daylight coming from the porch with slanting beams having every possible intermediate combination according to the different areas. The two famous frescoed rooms (Room of the Pines, Room of the Masks) in the private house are floodlit by power Led linear modules with asymmetric optics, housed along a suspended frame of the stretched ceiling. The frames hang in the middle of each room, far from the painted walls, so as not to interfere with the observation of the frescoes. A recessed low glare downlight was fitted in the centre of the frame to flood the floor mosaics.
The rooms of the House of Livia
Our project included the replacement of the lighting system in the rooms of the nearby House of Livia, which can still be entered through its original access thanks to a corridor with a sloping mosaic floor. From there the visitor enters the ancient court (atrium) that today is roofed, where the main rooms (tablinum, the side rooms and triclinium), all splendidly painted, open onto. Here, likewise, both natural and artificial lighting recall the sunlight that once penetrated the court. Here we reproduced the sensation of the transition from full daylight to the shadier perimetral area under the lost roofing. In the frescoed rooms we planned ad hoc suspended metal framework incorporating a series of low glare recessed adjustable downlighters flooding the frescoes, so as to obtain an excellent, glare-free perception of the details of the paintings.