From the collections of ancient sarcophagi and statuary housed in parts of an ancient Roman bath complex to wall paintings in their original locations stretching from Nero to the Baroque era, you’ll find Rome’s museums and palaces filled with unimaginable treasures. While there are many fine works of art to admire when you visit the churches, you can compare styles and galleries more easily by comparing them in the museums, galleries and palaces and following themes and artistic movements as they evolve. When planning your visits, remember that some of these museums are really complexes of several museums. Many of Italy’s finest collections of art and antiquities are located in Rome, making its museums among the city’s top tourist attractions.
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1 Vatican Museums
Filling much of the Vatican Palace , the Vatican Museums contain some of the world’s greatest collections of art, begun in 1506 by Pope Julius II. Following the renaissance ideals, he began to collect ancient works of art and over the centuries popes added works of art presented to them and items related to the work of the Roman Catholic Church. Additional works were created especially for the Vatican, including Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel and the rooms painted by Raphael . Four guided tours of the museums are marked with signs in different colours.
The Pinacoteca provides an excellent overview of the development of Western painting, with works by Fra Angelico, da Vinci and Caravaggio. Several other museums have the world’s largest collection of ancient statuary; 18 rooms of Etruscan art and everyday objects; and full collections of maps, tapestries, illuminated gospels, coaches, and modern religious art with works by Rodin, Matisse, Dali, Munch, Kandinsky, and Rouault.
Address: Viale Vaticano
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Map of the Vatican museums
2 Terme di Diocleziano (Baths of the National Museum of Diocletian)
The baths built by Diocletian were even bigger than the Baths of Caracalla , as you can understand by how widely separated the surviving parts are. Many of them have been incorporated into later buildings – the National Museum, Michelangelo’s Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the Round Church of San Bernardo, the Planetarium and the Cloister of a Carthusian Monastery. The baths fell into disrepair after their water supply was cut off in 536.
Housed in part of the Baths of Diocletian and a nineteenth-century palace, the Museo Nazionale Romano , National Museum, has the largest collection of ancient art in Rome after that of the Vatican Museums. Special are the collection of mosaics, stucco, frescoes and murals from the Villa of Livia. Other highlights include Christian and earlier sarcophagi, and Greek and Roman sculpture, including the Young Dancing Girl and The Discus Thrower from the Castle of Porziano and the fourth-century BC Venus of Cyrene . The Ludovisi Collectioncontains the Ludovisi throne from the fifth century BC. and several excellent statues. The exhibition path traces history, myths and daily life in ancient Rome. The central complex of the baths, including the 90-meter tepidarium, was preserved in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli , designed by Michelangelo. Construction continued after Michelangelo’s death, and it was later restored and redecorated several times. Late in the 16th century, the church of San Bernardo alle Terme was built in a rotunda at the corner of the baths, with a dome similar to that of the Pantheon, but only half its size.
Address: Via E. de Nicola 78, Rome
Official site: https://archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en/museums/national-roman-museum-baths-diocletian
3 Capitoline Museum
The Capitoline Museum was founded in 1471 by Pope Sixtus IV and is the oldest public art collection in Europe. It is best known for its rich collection of classical sculpture. The most important of these are the Dying Gaul – a Roman copy of the victory monument figure erected in the third century BC by King Attalus of Pergamon; the Capitoline Venus ; and two Hellenistic works, Amor and Psyche and the Drunken Old Woman. The recently restored equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, which formerly stood in front of the Church of St. John Lateran and is one of the greatest feats of ancient sculpture, stands behind glass in the courtyard. On the other side of the square, thePalazzo dei Conservatori , built by Giacomo della Porta in 1564-75 to Michelangelo’s design, also houses part of the Capitoline Museum. Notable exhibits include fragments of a colossal 40-foot statue of Emperor Constantine and the Capitoline She-Wolf , a sixth-century BC Etruscan work. Also here is the oft-copied bronze Boy with a Thorn . The palace also contains the Capitoline picture gallery with Titian’s Baptism of Christ, Caravaggio’s John the Baptist, Veronese’s Rape of Europa, and Romulus and Remus by Rubens.
Address: Piazza del Campidoglio, I-00186 Rome
Official site: https://en.museicapolilini.org
4 Villa Borghese
The Borghese family had this villa built on the outskirts of Rome for Cardinal Scipione Caffarelli Borghese in 1613-16. The villa, with extensive grounds with artificial lakes and garden pavilions, now combines with the Pincio Gardens one of the largest parks in Rome. The Museo e Galleria Borghese displays the collection of antiquities collected by Cardinal Borghese, along with works he has commissioned from contemporary artists. The richly decorated entrance hall contains five fragments of a Torrenuova mosaic depicting gladiator and hunting scenes, along with Baroque ceiling paintings by Mariano Rossi.
Notable sculpture in the museum includes Pauline Borghese’s figure of Canova as Venus (the most famous piece in the collections); Bernini’s David with his Sling, Apollo and Daphne, and Truth Revealed by Time; and several other of his sculptures. The collection of paintings includes works by Raphael, Botticelli, Pinturicchio, Perugino, Dürer, Lotto, Caravaggio, Rubens, Correggio, Bernini, Bassano, Van Dyck, Titian, Bellini, Paolo Veronese and Antonello da Messina. The number of masterpieces and the fame of the artists represented make this one of Europe’s outstanding art museums.
Address: Piazzale del Museo Borghese 5, I-00197 Rome
Official site: https://www.galleriaborghese.it/default-en.htm
5 Villa Farnesina
Villa Farnesina dates back to the 16th century and shows all the opulence and splendor of the Renaissance. Designed by Baldassare Peruzzi, it was decorated by famous artists, including Raphael, Giulio Romano, Sebastiano del Piombo and others, creating something like one of the most harmonious examples of an Italian Renaissance palace. Popes, cardinals, princes and diplomats were regally entertained here; illustrious guests were served on silver platters bearing their own coats of arms, which they threw into the nearby Tiber after the banquet (although they were caught by a net only to retrieve them later). The walls and ceiling of the palace’s loggia depict scenes from the myth of Cupid and Psyche, painted by Raphael and his students Giulio Romano and Francesco Penni in 1517. The figures in the spandrels are by Raphael himself. His beautiful fresco of the nymph Galatea fleeing from the Cyclopes decorates the Sale di Galatea. The masterpiece of Renaissance painter Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (aka Il Sodoma),The wedding of Alexander and Roxana is in Agostino Chigi’s bedroom.
Address: Via della Lungara, Rome
Official site: www.villafarnesina.it
6 Castel Sant’Angelo
Castel Sant’Angelo, built by Emperor Hadrian in the second century as a mausoleum for himself and his successors, is one of the most imposing buildings of antiquity. When threatened by Germanic raiders, Rome was surrounded by a new circuit of walls, and the strategically located mausoleum was included in the defense, as the strongest fortress in Rome. In 1277, Pope Nicholas III connected the castle with the Vatican Palacethrough a covered passage known as the passetto. Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia pope whose policy of conquest made protection against attack very necessary, fortified the passage and fortified the castle with four corner bastions. Hadrian’s original round structure was 64 meters in diameter and 20 meters high, with dressed travertine and tuff walls and statues along the top. Over the course of 1500 years, the building was altered by successive popes for both defense and display, eventually becoming a museum. In the 58 rooms, some of which are decorated with impressive murals, are models of the building’s history, collections of weapons, several chapels and a treasury. There are beautiful views from the top platform.
Access is over the most beautiful bridges in Rome, Ponte Sant’Angelo , also built by Hadrian in 136. The three central piers are original. Pope Clement IX commissioned Bernini, who was 70 years old at the time, to carve the 10 angelic figures that make up the bridge. They were made by Bernini’s students between 1660 and 1668 to Bernini’s design.
Address: Lungotevere Castello 50, Rome
7 Palazzo Barberini
The great builder and saint of art Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini) was fortunate to have the two greatest architects of the baroque period, Borromini and Bernini, available to work for him during his reign, from 1623 to 1644. So many old buildings were leveled to make room for his new friends that the saying “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini” (“What the barbarians did not destroy, the Barberini destroyed”) was popular in Rome. This palace was begun in 1625 by Carlo Maderna, with the help of Borromini, and completed by Bernini in 1633. The complex layout of rectangular and oval staircases, suites of rooms and state apartments epitomizes the Italian High Baroque. The central feature of the palace is the two-storey Salone, with a frescoed ceilingTriumph of Divine Providence by Pietro da Cortona, designed primarily to glorify the papacy and the Barberini family. The palazzo now houses the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica (National Gallery of Ancient Art), with works by Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, Pietro Perugino, Sodoma, Tintoretto, Pietro da Cortona, and others. Among the highlights are Raphael’s La Fornarina , Titian’s Venus and Adonis , Caravaggio’s Daffodil , Filippo Lippi’s Madonna and Child, and three works by El Greco.
Address: Via delle Quattro Fontane 13, Rome
8 Palazzo Venezia
Although Palazzo Venezia, completed in 1491, is now home to two excellent museums, it is known to most as the site of Mussolini’s Balcony , from which he bustled crowds during the Fascist regime. It was Mussolini’s official residence until its downfall towards the end of World War II. Between 1594 and 1797, the palace, with its massive facade and tower, belonged to the Republic of Venice – hence the name. Now occupied by the Palazzo Venezia Museum and the National Institute of Archeology and Art History, it is also often used for temporary art exhibitions. The Palazzo Venezia Museum contains a diverse collection of wood and marble sculptures, weapons and textiles, tapestries, paintings, terracotta models, early printings, porcelain and glass. These come from many different periods and cultures. Perhaps most surprising are the large collection of Coptic textiles and the world map in the Sala del Mappamondo.
Address: Via del Plebiscito 118, Rome
Official site: https://museopalazzovenezia.beniculturali.it/index.php?en/1/home
9 Domus Aurea (Nero’s Golden House)
The Burning of Rome in AD 64 (Which Nero certainly wasn’t responsible for, legends to the contrary notwithstanding) was very useful for Nero’s purposes. In the vast area, the fire cleared, he planned to build a large and luxurious new palace that would cover an area larger than the current Vatican City. While the ambitious project was never completed, excavations during the Renaissance revealed large numbers of frescoes, marble statues and other works of art, inspiring Renaissance artists such as Pinturicchio, Ghirlandaio and Raphael to copy the ornamental motifs painted in what was thought to be that moment to be caves. Only recently have excavations revealed the vastness of the chambers, whose walls were sheathed in fine marble and adorned with the gold and precious stones that earned it the name Domus Aurea (Golden House). Ironically, it was the efforts of Nero’s successors to bury his lavish home that preserved it for two millennia. Only parts of it are usually open at a time, but every part of the amazing house is worth seeing.
Address: Via della Domus Aurea, Rome
10 Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (Gallery of Modern Art)
The 70 rooms of the huge National Gallery of Modern Art display the largest collection of works by Italian painters and sculptors of the 19th and 20th centuries. While the works present a survey of Italian and foreign painting and sculpture since 1800, not all leading figures are represented and not all are represented by their major works. Nevertheless, it is an impressive collection and highlights some of the lesser known but pioneering artists, including those of the Italian Impressionist school, the Macchiaioli. This group of open-air painters from Tuscany is represented by the sculptures Marino Marini and Giacomo Manzù and paintings by Giorgio de Chirico. It is interesting to compare works by Italian artists with those of their contemporaries elsewhere.The Gardener . Be sure to see the pretty galleried courtyard, where Antoine Bourdelle stands amidst the ivy and roses.
Address: Viale delle Belle Arti 113, Rome
Official site: https://www.gnam.beniculturali.it/index.php?en/1/home