ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Sylvia's just back from visiting the house of a truly old school emperor. His name was Augustus. He lived more than 2,000 years ago. The house is on Rome's Palatine Hill. It was discovered half a century ago, and it's just reopened to the public. The vivid frescoes there are some of the best surviving examples of Roman art. Here's more from Sylvia.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The Palatine, the hill overlooking the Roman Forum, was the residential area of the VIPs of the time.
Mr. FRANCESCO RUTELLI (Culture Minister, Italy): When in English you say palace comes from here, because it was the palatium, the ancient palace of Augustus and all the emperors of Rome.
POGGIOLI: Francesco Rutelli is Italy's culture minister and a former mayor of Rome. Today he's acting as a guide for journalists and he's visibly proud as he indicates the surrounding artistic and historic wealth.
Mr. RUTELLI: It's an incredible place. You have everything to discover. You have a stadium here, you have the house of August, the house of Livia. You have the ancient therme baths. I think we have much to learn, much to teach and much to preserve.
POGGIOLI: The discovery, nearly 50 years ago, of a single fragment of painted plaster led archaeologists to a mound of rubble. After carefully digging they found exquisite frescoes commissioned by Octavian, great-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar.
Gianna Musatti worked on the restoration of the house of the man who would later take the name Augustus and become the first emperor of Rome.
Ms. GIANNA MUSATTI (Restored Home of Augustus): (Through translator) These frescoes are among the most beautiful we have in Italy. They are on a par with Pompeii, and they are of excellent quality because the future emperor could hire the best painters of the time.
POGGIOLI: In 31 B.C., Augustus triumphed over the armies of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. And his rise to power ended the republic and marked the start of the Roman Empire. But his first home on the Palatine was sober — in fact, the historian Suetonius described how Augustus lived in modest house.
The paintings are in vivid red, blue and ochre, but there's nothing ostentatious about them.
One of the four rooms that had been reconstructed has walls covered with an elegant painted garden. Another room, dubbed the room of the masks, has a theatrical theme - a trompe d'oeil stage with two doors ajar and comic masks peering through small windows with a garden behind.
Some sections of the frescoes were found intact, while others were pieced together from thousands of fragments. Gianni Musatti says 90 percent of the decorations have been restored and everything that's visible is original.
Ms. MUSATTI: (Through translator) The paintings are particularly well preserved. Look at how brilliant that vermillion is. It's a delicate pigment that tends to degenerate to black. But we succeeded in conserving all these reds and we were helped because for centuries they were buried und rubble and were safe from humidity.
Mr. RUTELLI: (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: Minister Rutelli urges the crowd of journalists to wait their turn to get inside to see the frescoes. Authorities have decided to allow only five visitors at a time in order to prevent sudden changes in temperature and humidity that could damage the frescoes.
Last November, as the restorers were surveying the foundations of the house of Augustus, they came across a 50-foot-deep cavity with a vaulted ceiling encrusted with mosaics and seashells, too ornate to be part of a home. Archaeologists believe it's the sacred cave where, according to myth and legend, a she-wolf nursed Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome, and where the city itself was born.
Mr. RUTELLI: Traditions, legends, faiths and history go together in Rome. The myth of the foundation of the city was not only myth, because we discover it's the very place where the entrance door of the origin of Rome was created eight centuries before Christ.
POGGIOLI: The underground chamber, known as the Lupercale, from the Latin word for wolf, has yet to be excavated, but visitors still have an abundance of sites to visit. A $16 ticket will give access to the Forum, the Palatine and the nearby Colosseum, with proceeds going to pay for more archaeological work.
There are exciting new discoveries every month, Rutelli says, and we need funds to preserve these treasures for future generations.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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