Surpassed in size and richness only by the Musei Vaticani, this immense collection was the first public museum in the world. A greatest-hits collection of Roman art through the ages, from the ancients to the baroque, it is housed in the twin Museo Capitolino and Palazzo dei Conservatori that bookend Michelangelo's famous piazza. Here, you'll find some of antiquity's most famous sculptures, such as the poignant Dying Gaul, the regal Capitoline Venus, the Esquiline Venus (identified as possibly another Mediterranean beauty, Cleopatra herself), and the Lupa Capitolina, the symbol of Rome. Although some pieces in the collection—which was first assembled by Sixtus IV (1414–84), one of the earliest of the Renaissance popes—may excite only archaeologists and art historians, others are unforgettable, including the original bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius whose copy sits in the piazza.
Buy your ticket and enter the museums on the right of the piazza (as
you face the center Palazzo Senatorio), into the building known as the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Before picking up a useful free map from the cloakroom, you cannot miss some of the biggest body parts ever: that giant head, foot, elbow, and imperially raised finger across the courtyard are what remains of the fabled seated statue of Constantine, which once filled the Basilica of Maxentius, his defeated rival (and the other body parts were of wood, lest the figure collapse under its own weight). Constantine believed that Rome's future lay with Christianity and such immense effigies were much in vogue in the latter days of the Roman Empire. Take the stairs up past a series of intricately detailed ancient marble reliefs to the resplendent Salone dei Orazi e Curiazi (Salon of Horatii and Curatii) on the first floor. The ceremonial hall is decorated with a magnificent gilt ceiling, carved wooden doors, and 16th-century frescoes depicting the history of ancient Rome. At both ends of the hall are statues of the baroque era's most charismatic popes: a marble Urban VIII (1568–1644) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) and a bronze Innocent X (1574–1655) by Bernini's rival, Algardi (1595–1654).
Proceeding to the collection of ancient sculpture, the first room contains the exquisite "Spinario": Proving that the most everyday action can be as poetic as any imperial bust, a small boy in the act of removing a thorn becomes unwittingly immortalized. Nearby is the rather eerie glass-eyed bust of Junius Brutus, first Roman Consul. Farther along is a separate room devoted to the renowned symbol of Rome, the Capitoline Wolf, a 5th-century BC Etruscan bronze, the Romulus and Remus below being late additions by Antonio Pollaiolo (15th century). Donated by Sixtus IV, the work came to symbolize Roman unity.
Marcus Aurelius Statue
The heart of the museum, however, is the Exedra of Marcus Aurelius (Sala Marco Aurelio), a large, airy room with skylights and high windows, which showcases the spectacular original bronze statue of the Roman emperor whose copy sits in the piazza below. Created in the 2nd century AD, the statue should have been melted down like so many other bronze statues of emperors after the decline of Rome, but this one is thought to have survived because it was mistaken for the Christian emperor Constantine. To the right the room segues into the area of the Temple of Jupiter, with its original ruins rising organically into the museum space. A reconstruction of the temple and Capitol Hill from the Bronze Age to present day makes for a fascinating glance through the ages. Some of the pottery and bones on display were dug up from as early as the 12th century BC, recasting Romulus and Remus as Johnny-come-latelies.
Off left are rooms dedicated to statuary from the so-called Horti, or the gardens of ancient Rome's great and mega-rich. From the Horti Lamiani is the Venere Esquilina doing her hair. (Look for the fingers at the back, at the end of the missing arms.) Believe it or not, you might be gazing at the young Cleopatra invited to Rome by Julius Caesar. Or so say some experts—a further clue is the asp. In the same room is an extraordinary bust of the Emperor Commodus, seen here as Hercules and unearthed in the late 1800s during building work for the new capital. On the top floor the museum's pinacoteca, or painting gallery, has some noted baroque masterpieces, including Caravaggio's The Fortune Teller (1595) and St. John the Baptist (1602; albeit, given the ram, some critics see here a representation of Isaac, the pose this time influenced by Michelangelo's "Ignudi"), Peter Paul Rubens's (1577–1640) Romulus and Remus (1614), and Pietro da Cortona's sumptuous portrait of Pope Urban VIII (1627). Adjacent to the Palazzo dei Conservatori is Palazzo Caffarelli, which holds temporary exhibitions. Here, set on the Piazzale Caffarelli, the new Caffè Capitolino offers a spectacular vista over Rome (looking toward St. Peter's); it is open daily, except Monday, 9 to 7.
To reach the Palazzo Nuovo section of the museum (the palace on the left-hand side of the Campidoglio), take the stairs or elevator to the basement of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, where an underground corridor called the Galleria Congiunzione holds a poignant collection of ancient gravestones. But before going up into Palazzo Nuovo, be sure to take the detour to the right to the Tabularium Gallery with its unparalleled view over the Forum.
Room of the Emperors
Inside the Palazzo Nuovo on the stairs you find yourself immediately dwarfed by Mars in full military rig and lion-topped sandals. Upstairs is the noted Sala degli Imperatori, lined with busts of Roman emperors, along with the Sala dei Filosofi, where busts of philosophers sit in judgment—a fascinating who's who of the ancient world, and a must-see of the museum. Although many ancient Roman treasures were merely copies of Greek originals, portraiture was one area in which the Romans took precedence. Within these serried ranks are 48 Roman emperors, ranging from Augustus to Theodosius (AD 346–395). On one console, you'll see the handsomely austere Augustus, who "found Rome a city of brick and left it one of marble." On another rests Claudius "the stutterer," an indefatigable builder brought vividly to life in the history-based novel I, Claudius, by Robert Graves. Also in this company is Nero, one of the most notorious emperors, who built for himself the fabled Domus Aurea. And, of course, there are the standout baddies: cruel Caligula (AD 12–41) and Caracalla (AD 186–217), and the dissolute, eerily modern boy-emperor, Heliogabalus (AD 203–222). In the adjacent Great Hall, be sure to take in the 16 resplendently restored marble statues. Nearby are rooms filled with masterpieces, including the legendary Dying Gaul, The Red Faun from Hadrian's Villa, and a Cupid and Psyche—each worth almost a museum to itself. Downstairs near the exit is the gigantic, reclining figure of Oceanus, found in the Roman Forum and later dubbed Marforio, one of Rome's famous "talking statues" to which citizens from the 1500s to the 1900s affixed anonymous satirical verses and notes of political protest.
Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome, Latium, 00186, Italy