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After a series of preliminary tests, on 17 and 18 January 2014 we detached the plaster from the north side of the vault. Unfortunately, we were forced to interrupt all the work underway inside the Domus immediately afterwards due to unusually heavy rainfall in Rome. Large amounts of water entered the monument, and especially Rooms 41 and 44b where the sectors detached from the north part of the vault had been stored.
Before this unavoidable interruption, the painted surfaces in the south sector had already been prepared for detachment with the application of gauze impregnated with Paraloid.
Under these circumstances, the resin in the gauze acted as a barrier to the passage of the rainwater that had soaked into the soil above the Domus and penetrated through gaps in the structure, leading to an excess of water in the plaster and the preparatory layers. Luckily, the close-knit system of props ensured overall stability. For many days we were unable to enter the worksite for obvious safety reasons and were only able to carry out an initial inspection on 4 March when the emergency was finally over. When we entered Room 41 we noted that the props had held up perfectly; however, in Room 44b a small portion of the concrete structure of the vault had unfortunately collapsed. Though small, this fragment hit two sections of plaster detached from the north side after a fall of over 10 metres, damaging part of them. On 6 March we therefore moved all the detached sections and counterform structures into the adjacent Room 44a, whose vault does not present static problems. At the same time, the contractor added more props in Room 41 to raise the safety level for workmen and the art works themselves; however, this made it extremely difficult to make the counterform as clearly shown in these images.
On 14 and 15 March we were finally able to detach the paintings from the south side and move the sections to the ground; they were much heavier than expected due to the large amount of water they had absorbed.
The second phase of work then began. The back of the plaster layer was cleaned and consolidated with water of natural hydraulic lime (Rabot NHL5).
Again using the same lime we created a reinforcement layer, about two centimetres thick, reinforced with coated glass fibre netting with a 10 x 10 mm mesh.
Work to secure, protect and rehabilitate Room 34 is now complete.
At present, the Domus Aurea consists of a complex underground structure above which lies the Oppian Hill park with the visible remains of the Baths of Trajan.
The rooms that previously belonged to Nero’s vast palace, originally designed as an overground complex, are now concealed by the park and have thus become subterranean structures, though they were not intended to be so.
Holes in the vaults and apertures in the vaults have formed preferential paths for the percolation of water and caused the structures to become far weaker than they originally were.
Examples of these situations, widespread throughout the monument, can be found in Room 33, where rebuilding and conservation work has already taken place, in Gallery 20E and Room 94.
Numerous attempts have been made to waterproof the ancient structures to intercept rainwater and prevent it seeping into the underground monument, though these have covered limited areas.
We have recently completed the Definitive Project for the rehabilitation of the area above the Domus Aurea.
It is obvious that water infiltration, resulting from increasingly frequent heavy rains, continues to cause damage to the monument, even in areas where the conservation of internal surfaces is underway and where work has already been completed.
Considering the importance and urgency of limiting the percolation of water into the monument, in order to reduce the risk of compromising the conservation work already undertaken, the continuation of planned interventions and the potential opening of a limited area of the monument to visitors, we are in the process of laying a drainage layer on the surface of the park above the Domus Aurea.
The aim of this intervention is to significantly reduce the intensity of surface water percolation rapidly and at modest expense before the autumn rains that usually affect Rome in the first third of November.
We aim to achieve this objective by draining the surface waters in a way that does not hinder or endanger the work underway in the park.
We believe that draining 50% of rainwater is sufficient to re-establish a degree of security, or at least to slow down the decay of structures and paintings sufficiently for the definitive project, in the form of the Integrated Protection System, to be “in time”.
Drainage will be achieved by laying a geocomposite in a channel just over 4 metres wide, at the centre of which will be a drainage tube supported by gravel, with a gradient of 0.5%. The drainage geocomposite and the tube will be buried by the earth dug out, so as to ensure that the surface is passable as at present, allowing spontaneous plants to grow.
The depth of the geocomposite varies from a minimum of 20 cm to a maximum of 80 cm, whilst that of the drainage tube ranges from a minimum of 0.50 to a maximum of 1.20 metres. The tube will have a diameter of 160 mm for the first 20 metres and subsequently of 200 mm; it will flow into the park’s sewer system.
The purpose of the geocomposite is to drain and filter rainwater. It consists of a three-dimensional polyamide core, heat-treated to give it a v-shape configuration, particularly suited to resisting the confining pressures exerted by the surrounding soil, enclosed in two non-woven heat-sealed filters integral with the drainage core. The geocomposite chosen has a vertical transmissivity (hydraulic gradient i = 1) at 20 kPa of no less than 2.5 l/s m (equal to 9000 l/hm).
Rainwater seeps into the ground vertically. When it meets the drainage geocomposite it will tend to flow into it, as the resistance to motion is several degrees of magnitude lower than the surrounding soil, where a small quantity of water will nonetheless remain. The water will thus drain away inside the geocomposite until it reaches the drainage pipe that channels the water towards the sewer system. The route of the drainage pipe may run through highly permeable soils or soils with voids or fractures, where the water collected may percolate downwards, thus compromising drainage and making the concentration of water created by the drainage process dangerous. To avoid this, a geosynthetic liner with an impermeable outer membrane will be laid next to and underneath the drainage pipe, so as to form a waterproof channel through which water can pass only in the direction of the pipe before being discharged into the sewer. Building this system over the 16,000 m2 of the Oppian Hill above the Domus has a high cost in terms of time and expenditure. We have thus opted for a compromise, implementing these drainage systems over about 20% of the surface. However, the system can be extended to complement the work already carried out without compromising its effectiveness.
Drainage far exceeding 20% of surface water can be achieved by adopting some expedients such as digging a dense network of small drainage channels about 7 metres long, with a slope of 1%, a depth of 20 cm and a very low side gradient of 1/3 (18°). These small channels, which will not hinder movements on the surface, will run into the main drainage system; where the two systems meet small drainage pipes will be placed crosswise in the main channel to facilitate the capture of the waters collected on the surface.
These expedients will allow us to capture more rainwater, especially during very heavy and prolonged rains.
We should also consider that when large quantities of water are not captured by these systems, soaking the soil and thus creating a suspended water table, when the latter comes into contact with the underneath of the geocomposite it will be drained away. In this case, the system behaves like a drainage ditch.
All these considerations allow us to estimate that over 50% of rainwater will be drained away, especially during heavy and prolonged rains, which represent the greatest danger.
Finally, we should stress that not using waterproof sheaths helps transpiration and prevents the soil rotting, since it remains naturally aerated as before the implementation of the system; the capillary fringe is not significantly affected.
The drainage system is subdivided into 14 drainage channels positioned so that progress in building the 22 drainage basins belonging to the Definitive Project does not compromise the effectiveness of the channels not directly affected by this work.
The quantity of water drained by each channel will be measured to evaluate the efficiency of the drainage system.
Work has already begun and is scheduled for completion by the end of this October.
After the Press conference on 18 June 2014 at which we presented the Definitive Project for the new park above the Domus Aurea, we continued with the Pilot Worksite for the construction of the first of the 22 basins of the Integrated Protection System.
We have had direct experience on several occasions over the past few years of the detrimental effects of torrential rains in Rome and, more specifically, the hindrances caused to the good progress of work inside the monument by the most recent “cloud burst” last February. This forced us to suspend the worksites for safety reasons and has led to the decision to implement a “Provisional drainage layer”, designed by Vincenzo Angeloro, the hydraulic engineer of the main “Domus Aurea Project” design team, with the collaboration of our staff (in particular Maurizio Pesce, the Technical Coordinator for the monument). This intervention aims to protect the Domus from severe weather events during this extremely delicate phase of its consolidation, considering the long time (at least 4 years) before the definitive project is completed.
During the summer holiday period, we tried to protect the area from the camps set up by homeless people in the park above with a night watch service. However, despite numerous evacuations by the police and the constant maintenance of the fence, which is cut every evening, the situation had not improved when work began. We are confident that when the new fence is built and work is extended to cover the whole of the park, this situation will be definitively resolved.
In the meantime, work inside is proceeding – especially the structural consolidation of the western sector, in the so-called former Little Barracks and Access Gallery 18. We have begun to secure the decorations of Room 116, one of the few to be preserved intact, including its mosaic floor.
We are also in the process of designing new projects which will begin the tender process before the end of the year, in order to plan our work for next year. We have updated the state of progress and the expenditure situation.
The operations required to test the Rehabilitation project for the Domus Aurea continue in the Pilot Worksite area.
The first operational phase is underway, with archaeological excavations aimed at uncovering the ancient structures to allow us to carry out any necessary repair work before the installation of the Integrated Protection System.
When we took on the job of consolidating and conserving Room 34 of the Domus Aurea, the tasks and difficulties to be tackled seemed fairly circumscribed.
The morphology of the archaeological monument, and the complexity and number of consolidation interventions – planned and underway – entail a need for particularly careful health and safety management in accordance with the most stringent current legislation (Italian legislative decree no. 81/08, no. 106/09 as amended).