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Roman Museums


In equal parts, the museums of Rome offer and withhold their favors. There is wondrous beauty, and the sense of looking upon the same art as did those thousands of years before. But there also is frustrating disappointment. A gallery may be closed and a favorite sculpture or mosaic not to be seen. Or, if open, a particular piece may have been removed for restoration or loan, its place now bare. Even more distressing, one may discover, too late, that something simply has been overlooked or under appreciated. The museum, itself, may even be closed, no matter what the guidebooks say. But the effort always is worthwhile.

This is because, invariably, the art is more beautiful than its reproduction. Mosaics, in particular, can be like jewels in their delicacy, their size and color never as one remembers or expects from photographs. What seems so large and coarse in the catalog often is so much finer than imagined. And that which has been contained on a single page suddenly surprises by its actual size. This disparity is evident, too, in the ruins of Rome. So little is left that the Forum may seem a smaller stage than one thinks worthy of Caesar and Cicero. And the Baths of Caracalla can overwhelm the visitor with their soaring arches and massive walls. Photographs betray in another way, and the image pictured so perfectly on the page may disappoint in person. The dimly lit gallery, the reflecting glass, the relief high on the wall, the ruin entangled in scaffolding, the closed gate, the obstructed view—all may not be as expected.

And this is why one must see for oneself: to replace expectation with experience.

The links in these descriptions are to pictures taken on holiday in the spring of 2007 and fall of 2008. They, rather than illustrations from the literature, are used to represent what the visitor is likely to see. Flash photography, almost invariably, is not allowed and, although a zoom lens offers great flexibility in framing the subject, a fast lens often is required because of the low light. Often, too, the infrared focusing of many cameras can make it difficult to photograph objects behind the reflective glass of the cabinet and may not even be allowed if the subject is paper or papyrus. Indeed, at the Borghese Museum, cameras cannot even be brought into the gallery. Visiting a museum later in the day, especially several hours before closing, can make the experience much more enjoyable even if, at the same time, the late afternoon sun may not offer enough light for good exposures.

A single ticket provides access to the Roman Forum, Palatine (including the Palatine Museum and House of Augustus), and Colosseum; another ticket to the Musei Capitolini. The Museo Nazionale Romano (National Museum of Rome) is housed in the Baths of Diocletian (including the Octagonal Hall), the, and the Crypta Balbi. The Domus Aurea (Golden House) of Nero also is open to the public.

On the Capitoline Hill, facing one another across Michelangelo's Piazza del Campidoglio, are the Palazzo dei Conservatori (where tickets are purchased) and the Palazzo Nuovo. They are joined by an underground corridor, which contains the epigraphic gallery and leads to the Tabularium, the monumental arches of which overlook the Forum. Together, they comprise the Musei Capitolini (Capitoline Museums) and house some of Rome's most important classical art.

Palazzo dei Conservatori (Conservators' Palace Museum)
In the courtyard of the piazza are pieces of a colossal statue of Constantine that once was in the Basilica of Maxentius (Constantine). At the top of the ground floor stairs are sculpted panels in low relief commemorating the victories of Marcus Aurelius. The first floor displays Many of the galleries are closed, but one still can see the Spinario, a bronze of a young boy removing a thorn from his foot; the bronze bust of Junius Brutus; the Esquiline Venus in marble; and the polished figure of Commodus as Hercules. Barely visible in the gloom is the famous bronze statue of the She-Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus.

Palazzo Nuovo (New Palace)
The Palazzo Nuovo houses past collections, their arrangement essentially unchanged since the eighteenth century. In the courtyard on the ground floor is a second-century statue of a river god known as Marforio and at the foot of the stairs, a colossal statue of Mars. On the first floor is the Gallery, Hall of the Doves, Cabinet of Venus, Hall of the Emperors (including), Hall of the Philosophers (including Cicero), Great Hall, Room of the Faun, Hall of the Gladiator. there is the gilded bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius that once stood in the center of the Piazza before being restored and rather incongruously placed behind glass off the courtyard of the Palazzo. The statue of Marcus is not likely to have survived had not the early Christians thought it to be of Constantine and not the persecutor of the martyred Blandina. In the courtyard. On the first floor is the Dying Gaul, a Roman copy in marble of an earlier Greek bronze; the Capitoline Venus, a Roman work derived from the Aphrodite of Cnidus by Praxiteles; the Discobolus, a Greek statue of a discus thrower; the Faun in red marble from Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli; and the Resting Satyr, copied from Praxiteles and immortalized by Hawthorne in his novel, The Marble Faun, "...a reminiscence of a period when man's affinity with nature was more strict, and his fellowship with every living thing more intimate and dear." In the Emperor's Room are busts of all the Roman emperors, as well as the exquisite portrait of a Flavian Lady, her curled hair piled high on her head. Here, too, is the beautiful Mosaic of the Doves, also from Hadrian's Villa, and the mosaic of theatrical masks.

Palazzo Massimo

Palazzo Altemps

Palatine Museum

Museo Pio-Clementino (Pius-Clementine Museum)
Here, arranged around the octagonal Belvedere Court in one of the Vatican Museums, is the famous Laocoön from the Golden House of Nero, which Pliny declared to be "a work superior to any painting and any bronze"; the Apollo Belvedere, which embodies the ideal of classical beauty; and a marble Hermes. There also is the Apoxyomenos, an athlete scraping his skin with a strigil; the unusually posed Sleeping Ariadne; the Apollo Sauroktonos, a Roman copy of a work by Praxiteles, showing Apollo about to kill a lizard; the Aphrodite of Cnidos, a Roman copy of the original by Praxiteles, which Pliny says was "superior to anything not merely by Praxiteles, but in the whole world"; a bust of Jupiter in all his majesty; and the powerful Belvedere Torso, which so influenced Michelangelo. In the Braccio Nuovo (New Wing) is the Augustus of Prima Porta, with its elaborately decorated breastplate, and in the Musei Gregoriano Profano (Gregorian Profane Museum), which may be closed, mosaics from the Baths of Caracalla; the Cancelleria Relief, showing Vespasian and his son Domitian; and fragments from a striking mosaic of very small tiles (tesserae) that shows an unswept floor (asaroton), scattered with debris after a banquet, which probably is a copy of a famous original mentioned by Pliny.

(Since the Sistine Chapel is accessible only by the same entrance as the Vatican Museums, expect a wait, probably a long one. Yet, once admitted, there is less interest shown for classical antiquities and, unless one stumbles upon a tour group, the works of art can be viewed in peace. Given the size of the Museums, the obligation to follow a one-way itinerary, and the eagerness to begin after the time spent in line, it is important to have a map or guide.)

Galleria Borghese (Borghese Museum and Gallery)
Famous for its statues by Bernini, it is the early fourth-century mosaics set in the floor of the entrance hall, depicting gladiatorial and animal combat in larger-than-life detail, that are of interest to the classicist. Regrettably, no photography is allowed.

Museo Nazionale Romano (National Roman Museum)
Housed in a portion of the Baths of Diocletian (Museo Nazionale delle Terme), this is one of the great museums of classical art, ranking with the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. And yet, virtually all the galleries are closed to the public. At the time, only a single room was open, in which the Discobolos (Discus Thrower), a Roman copy of the original by Myron, is forlornly displayed. This, and funerary monuments in the garden and around the Great Cloisters, are all that is to be seen. One's disappointment would be complete if the bronze Boxer and monumental Terme Ruler, as well as the polished marble statue of Venus of Cyrene, were not to be found in another part of the baths around the corner at the Aula Ottagonale (Octagonal Hall). A sense of the arching splendor of the ancient baths can be seen in the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which is built into the baths and preserves eight of the original columns.

(The collection recently was reorganized and now includes two new venues. Across the street, at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, the Fasti Antiates, a Roman calendar; the statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus; the Dying Niobid, a Roman copy of an earlier Greek statue; as well as Roman mosaics, wall paintings, and busts. At the renovated Palazzo Altemps near the Piazza Navona is the Ludovisi collection, including the Ludovisi Throne, depicting the birth of Aphrodite; and the statue of a Celtic Gaul killing himself and his wife rather than surrendering. Rooms in the Terme di Diocleziano, itself, also have been opened to display the epigraphic collection.)

Museo della Civiltà Romana (Museum of Roman Civilization)
Located at the end of the Metro line, the Museum is housed in two buildings showing, by way of plaster reproductions, the history of ancient Rome.

The works contained in the rooms are made up of reproductions: casts of works of sculpture, inscriptions, parts of buildings, copied at full scale, and objects in daily use; reconstruction models of the monuments and architectural complexes of Rome and the provinces of the Roman Empire; reconstructions of situations and instruments of every type, based on archaeological finds, figured representations and the descriptions of the ancient authors. The materials on display have great documentary and didactic worth, particularly so in the case of those materials whose originals have been lost or destroyed and in the re-composition of ancient works whose composite parts are separated among various museums.

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