Six houses that nearly bankrupted countries

2014-08-13 00:00

The homes some rulers in history have built for themselves or their friends make Nkandla look like a modest country cottage. Let’s take a look at some of them.

1) Nero’s Golden House

Built on the site of buildings razed by a disastrous 64 CE fire, the palace that the vainglorious Roman Emperor Nero built wasn’t called Domus Aurea for nothing. Behind an enormous statue of Nero as Apollo, the edifice covered 1,2 kilometres squared with rooms clad in gold, ivory and semi-precious stones. Built specifically as the party venue to end them all, it had within its walls an artificial lake, not to mention a ceiling with stars and planets that moved like the celestial spheres themselves. Nero had a simple solution to funding his little project. He just executed his most wealthy subjects and willed himself their money. Unsurprisingly, after Nero was forced to commit suicide in 68AD, there was an austere backlash. His pleasure palace was demolished without delay. The Colosseum stands above a small part of where it once was.

2) Louis XIV’s Versailles

The 17th century saw the zenith of absolute monarchy. “I am the state,” said the greatest king of the age, Louis XIV of France, and he decided to prove his status with Versailles, the palace that became the template for all the ones to follow. His idea was to keep his aristocracy under control by housing them all in one gargantuan building with him … and that building had to be the most spectacular the world had ever seen. Employing the best artisans and artists in Europe, he succeeded in his aim. The drain on France’s coffers, though, was terrible, and was not helped by the fact that Louis was a warmonger of note. The peasants had to pay the taxes that bankrolled both his palace and his wars, and their resentment paved the way for the French Revolution a century later.

3) The Duke of Marlborough’s Blenheim Palace

In a wonky period of English history, the beginning of the 18th century, a grateful nation was perhaps a little too eager to reward one of their generals, John Churchill, for winning some prestige-restoring battles on the continent. They not only made him a duke; they offered to build him a palace. They then assigned the project to the most extravagant architect of the day, Sir John Vanburgh. Piffling concerns such as budgets were before long a distant memory as Vanburgh went berserk with a design that even kings would blush to live in. To this day, there are arguments about who was to blame for Blenheim Palace’s ridiculously over-the-top price tag, but Vanburgh is perhaps vindicated by the fact that his home with bells on, the birth place of Winston Churchill, remains in the 21st century one of England’s most visited tourist attractions.

4) George IV’s Carlton House

One of Great Britain’s most disastrous kings, George IV (reigned 1820-1830) was a man who understood no boundaries, with women, food or building projects. When, while still Prince of Wales, he in 1783 decided to build a home for himself, he typically ignored his creditors and went overboard with the most no-holds-barred palace London has ever seen, Carlton House. He had to fight even acts of Parliament to get his vision completed as his debts spiralled into the stratosphere. In the end, his home measured 62 metres wide and 40 metres deep, and was a wonder to behold. There was one small problem. It was structurally unsound. So, in one of the saddest episodes in English architectural history, Carlton House was demolished. Its furniture was moved down the road to George’s new pet project, Buckingham Palace.

5) Mobutu Sese Seko’s Gbadolite

During his three-decade dictatorship of Zaire, Mobutu happily milked it dry of all its wealth, but nothing exemplifies his folly more than Gbadolite. His ancestral home and set deep in the jungle, he wasn’t only content with building two gargantuan $300 million palaces there, one in the Chinese style and the other modern. He went on to construct a model village, a nuclear bunker that was a mansion in itself, a hydro-electric dam, an international airport, a high-tech hospital, and so the list goes on … and on. After he was deposed in 1997, this vast vanity project was left to rot back into the jungle.

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