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Inside Caligula’s Pleasure Palace, History’s Original Hype House

The Nymphaeum Museum in Rome unearths what it was like to party in AD 41.

Town & Country Magazine

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Scene from 'Caligula'

Italy has never wanted for pleasure palaces. At Silvio Berlusconi’s mansion in Arcore, outside Milan, attendees stripteased and beyond at the so-called Bunga Bunga festivities hosted by the former prime minister, who still insists that nothing untoward ever happened at the “elegant parties.” Five centuries earlier, Agostino Chigi, a financier to popes, had Raphael fresco the walls of his palazzo on the Tiber, a place where princes, cardinals, and courtesans feasted on luxurious banquets, and one another.

But to find Italian history’s ultimate animal house, you have to visit the Rome headquarters of the National Insurance and Assistance Body for Doctors and Dentists. Here, in the Piazza Vittorio section of the city, 13 feet under the gleaming corporate lobby of the country’s leading medical pension fund, are the restored ruins of Casa Caligula. It is a small but evocative section of the sprawling Horti Lamiani, imperial gardens that the Roman emperor Caligula, history’s most wild and crazy guy, used for his depraved blowouts during his four-year reign of prurient terror 2,000 years ago.

After a nine-year excavation, it opened to the public for the first time, as the Nymphaeum Museum of Piazza Vittorio.

“It was a great place for parties,” Mirella Serlorenzi, the director of excavations for Italy’s culture ministry, told me as we stood in what was once the garden’s piazza. “There were certainly orgies. Everything you can imagine. Especially because Caligula liked being here so much.”

Scholars have long debated whether Caligula, officially known as Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, was the sadistic lunatic described by his initial biographers or a victim of a post-assassination demon­ization campaign that gave him antiquity’s worst bum rap. The archaeological evidence in the Horti Lamiani shows that he was a debauched playboy moonlighting as an over-the-top decorator, the prince of glitz of his day.


The ruins of Caligula’s imperial gardens are now on view at the new Nymphaeum Museum of Piazza Vittorio. (Nadia Shira Cohen)

The garden had a fountain sanctuary consecrated to the water nymphs camouflaged with hand-painted images of birds and branches, melting the border between home and garden in a court culture where little was as it seemed. The empire’s most expensive colored marble—the porphyry that gave us imperial purple, giallo antico, beige breccia, white Greek—created a kaleidoscopic perimeter for the terrace gardens.

There was so much good marble that ancient artisans used it as a canvas, carving floral designs and filling the empty spaces with other marble inlays. Greek theater masks hung from the colonnade, and the columns, candelabras, and capitals were embellished with marble oak leaves or wrapped in marble ivy. Actual wild animals, including lions and bears, entertained the guests, as peacocks and deer roamed amid rosebushes, olive trees, fruit trees, and statues. Inside the villas on the grounds, ­Pompeii-red frescoes covered walls that often sparkled with astonishing quantities of garnets, carnelians, and rubies.


Relics now on view at the Nymphaeum Museum of Piazza Vittorio. (Nadia Shira Cohen)

Caligula traipsed around in silken robes and pearl-­festooned slippers and, according to one of the few eyewitness accounts of the era, having surveyed all the villas and chambers, “gave orders that they should be more magnificent” and ordered up windows of “transparent stones,” all as a terrified delegation of Jews pleading for tolerance looked on. The Praetorian Guard, which eventually murdered the 28-year-old and his family in his Palatine palace in AD 41, wore brooches on their togas inset with gold and mother-of-pearl. An exquisitely sculpted glass vase on display, Serlorenzi said, was “surely on the emperor’s table,” where, judging from all the shells, guests ate copious oysters. “They treated themselves well,” said Angelo Raffaele Cipriani, an official at the pension fund who is overseeing the completion of the museum.

To Serlorenzi and Cipriani, the incredible riches of the early Roman Empire recall the extravagance of another fin-de-siècle world power high on its own supply: the America of the gilded 20th century.

“I think of the villas of Hollywood,” Serlorenzi said; one Hollywood Regency mansion immediately came to mind.


Caligula’s ornate palace recalls one Hollywood Regency mansion: Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images)

“He loves the gold,” Donald Trump’s butler told me in 2016, when I visited Mar-a-Lago, the Palm Beach snowbird paradise that became Trump’s home away from the White House. The butler, Anthony Senecal, showed me the original grandeur of the place, built nearly a century ago by the cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post: the living room’s 21-foot-high gold-leafed ceiling, the gold-plated fixtures in the bathrooms, a dining room that is an exact replica of a meeting room in the Chigi Palace, 16th-century Flemish tapestries that faded when Trump blasted the living room with sunlight.

Historians have long pointed out the similarities between history’s most outrageous Caesar and Trump. (Caligula married Milonia, Trump wed Melania, etc.) There are big differences, though, and perhaps the most glaring is that, what with all the investigative reports and inside accounts and nonstop tweeting by Trump himself, historians have plenty of material with which to evaluate him. Caligula instead is just one imperial “covfefe.”

Most of what we know about him comes from Suetonius, who wrote his classic The Lives of the Twelve Caesars about a century after Caligula ruled. The future emperor was born in the year 12 and spent his early years in military camps along the Rhine with his father Germanicus, one of the great Roman generals of his time. His mother, Agrippina the Elder, the granddaughter of the emperor Augustus himself, used to dress Gaius up as a soldier, down to the caliga sandals on his feet. Soldiers called him Caligula, or Little Boots, and the name stuck.


Bettmann/Getty Images

Germanicus died in AD 19, when the boy was only seven. His mom suspected that allies of the emperor Tiberius had poisoned her husband, an accusation that may have been true but was not great for self-preservation. She lost a power struggle, and then lost an eye at the hands of a centurion, before succumbing to either a hunger strike or forced starvation. Caligula’s older brothers, accused of treason by Tiberius, their great-uncle, were themselves whacked. Caligula was young enough to be spared, but not from gossip. Contemporaries whispered that he slept with his sister.

His real education began at 20, when Tiberius summoned him to his island getaway on Capri and, like some kinky Yoda, schooled the young Gaius in the arts of power and perverted pleasures. “He taught children of the most tender years, whom he called his little fishes, to play between his legs while he was in his bath,” Suetonius wrote. But even the freaky older man was spooked by the young Caligula. “I am nursing a viper for the Roman people,” he reportedly said. Tiberius died in AD 37; his pet viper was said to have had a hand in it. At that point the 24-year-old Caligula took control of the empire. At first he did sensible things, just your average home renovations. Then he started large public works projects, such as the Claudia and Anio Novus aqueducts, which brought water and jobs to Rome. He significantly expanded the emperor’s residence, and he brought from Egypt the obelisk that today graces St. Peter’s Square.

Early in his regime an illness gave him excruciating headaches and insomnia, perhaps driving him to madness. He declared himself a god and talked about making his horse Incitatus (“Speedy”) a senator. He also dressed up as Dionysus, Venus, and Apollo, with sun rays on his head, and early sources claim he built a bridge from his palace to the temple of Jupiter and put a porch on the temple of Castor and Pollux, the better to commune with his fellow deities.

His dinner parties would have made Bacchus blanch. At one, he accused a slave of stealing, chopped off his hands, hung them around the mutilated man’s own neck, and then presented him as dinner entertainment. On another occasion he invited a father to dinner after ordering his son’s execution and required him to be merry if he wanted his remaining son to survive. Caligula sometimes surprised his hungry guests with inedible gold-leafed feasts. He humiliated husbands by consorting with their wives midmeal.


Malcolm McDowell as Caligula in the smutty 1979 biopic by Bob Guccione. (Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images)

This was the Caligula that has captured the public imagination and dirty minds and led to the 1979 film Caligula, from Penthouse Films International. (“Sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash,” wrote Roger Ebert.) Nearly 30 years later, the artist Francesco Vezzoli remade it as a piece of video art, with original star Helen Mirren and screenwriter Gore Vidal.

Today Caligula’s labyrinth of passions is a shadow of its former self, like any Roman ruin. You have to squint hard to envision the bacchanals of yore, a task made more challenging by the fact that the once sun-kissed garden is now in a pension fund’s basement. “Unfortunately,” Serlorenzi said, “it’s hard to see because of the elevator shaft in the middle.”

The dazzling plaster of the Nymphaeum is down to a single tile painted with a little bird. The lush gardens are evoked by flowerpots. The two original Greek masks sit on styrofoam beds in the back room by a coffee vending machine. This is, to hear Serlorenzi tell it, a good thing. She described a mutually beneficial arrangement for the keepers of Italy’s ancient heritage and the caretakers of its retired orthodontists. The pension fund headquarters shells out millions for the privilege of having such a historic home, but it gets a museum that increases its real estate value, and permission to dig an underground parking lot.

“We took a couple more parking spaces,” Serlorenzi said as we walked down to a lower level, where archaeologists discovered a staircase from the time of the Caesars. “More than a couple,” said Cipriani, who lamented that the fire department had sealed off a special door between the pension fund’s president’s parking spot and Caligula’s steps.

Still, everyone involved wanted to show off the remains of a Xanadu that Caligula’s ghost was said to haunt.

And after hours, Cipriani said, visitors could unleash their inner Caligulas at convention cocktail hours on the museum floor. “There’s a bar in the back for catering,” he said giddily. Serlorenzi caught the spirit, saying she couldn’t wait for the opening. “We’re going to have a big party,” she said.

Jason Horowitz is the Rome bureau chief of The Times, covering Italy, the Vatican, Greece and other parts of Southern Europe.

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This post originally appeared on Town & Country Magazine and was published March 22, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.