ROME (AP).- A huge chunk of a 2,000-year-old gallery in the complex that includes the infamous Emperor Nero's fabled Golden Palace collapsed Tuesday, Rome's art officials said.
Officials said they believed nobody was inside when the collapse took place at around 10 a.m., bringing down part of a garden above, but firefighters cordoned off the area as they checked no one was trapped. Nero's Palace had been closed as workers were doing repairs.
Built by Roman emperor Nero in the first century A.D., the sumptuous palace is known to many by its Latin name Domus Aurea. With its frescoed halls and gold-encrusted ceilings, it was meant as a fabled residence for one of Rome's most depraved emperors.
Umberto Broccoli of Rome's artistic superintendency said the vaulted ceiling collapsed because of water damage.
"Think 2,000 years of history, think of all the rain of the past couple of months," Broccoli told reporters at the scene.
The ANSA news agency said around 60 square meters (645 square feet) collapsed from the vault in one of the galleries inside the complex.
Another art official, Antonello Vodret, was quoted as saying by Corriere della Sera that the collapse did not touch the main part of the palace but affected a gallery subsequently built at the site by Emperor Hadrian. Vodret said it was one of the biggest collapses in the area in the past 50 years, according to the Apcom news agency.
The site was reopened in 1999 following 18 years of closure because of structural concerns, and it soon became one of the capital's most popular tourist sites. But the monument remains plagued by structural problems and water infiltration, which have forced the monuments to shut down at times.
This latest incident rekindled doubts over its stability. Part of the ceiling already came crashing down a decade ago.
The palace originally sprawled across nearly 200 acres (80 hectares), occupying parts of four of Rome's seven ancient hills.
But Nero did not enjoy the palace for too long. It was completed in A.D. 68, the same year the emperor committed suicide.
The complex lay under tons of dirt in the bowels of a hill for centuries, before coming to light 500 years ago when Renaissance scholars began researching the imperial period.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.