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Surpassed in size and richness only by the Musei Vaticani, this immense collection was the world's first public museum. A greatest-hits collection of Roman art through the ages, from the ancients to the Baroque, it's housed in the twin Museo Capitolino and Palazzo dei Conservatori that bookend Michelangelo's famous piazza. 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 Palazzo dei Conservatori where, across the courtyard, you'll see the giant head, foot, elbow, and imperially raised finger of the fabled seated statue of Constantine, which once filled the Basilica of Maxentius, his defeated rival. (Other body parts were made of wood, lest the figure collapse under its own weight.) Constantine believed
that Rome's future lay with Christianity, and such immense effigies were in vogue in the latter days of the Roman Empire.
Upstairs is the resplendent Salone dei Orazi e Curiazi (Salon of Horatii and Curatii), 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.
The heart of the museum is the Exedra of Marcus Aurelius (Sala Marco Aurelio), which showcases the spectacular original bronze statue of the Roman emperor whose copy sits in the piazza below. 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 Capitoline Hill from the Bronze Age to the present day makes for a fascinating glimpse through the ages.
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. Here, the Caffè Capitolino (daily 9–7) has spectacular views over Rome in the direction of St. Peter's.
To get to the Palazzo Nuovo, take the stairs or elevator to the basement of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, where the Galleria Congiunzione corridor holds a poignant collection of ancient gravestones. 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.
On the stairs inside the Palazzo Nuovo you'll be 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, and the Sala dei Filosofi, where busts of philosophers sit in judgment—a fascinating "who's who" of the ancient world. Within these serried ranks are 48 Roman emperors, ranging from Augustus to Theodosius (AD 347–395). Nearby are rooms filled with masterpieces, including the legendary Dying Gaul, the Red Faun from Hadrian's Villa, and a Cupid and Psyche.