The world's most outstanding collection of Etruscan art and artifacts is housed in Villa Giulia, built around 1551 for Pope Julius III (hence its name). Among the team called in to plan and construct the villa were Michelangelo and his fellow Florentine Vasari. Most of the actual work, however, was done by Vignola and Ammannati. The villa's nymphaeum—or sunken sculpture garden—is a superb example of a refined late-Renaissance setting for princely pleasures. No one knows precisely where the Etruscans originated. Many scholars maintain they came from Asia Minor, appearing in Italy about 2000 BC, and creating a civilization that was a dazzling prelude to the ancient Romans. Unfortunately, the exhibitions here are as dry as their subject matter—hundreds of glass vitrines stuffed with objects. Even so, you'll find great artistic treasures. Among the most striking pieces are the terra-cotta statues, such as the Apollo of Veio and the serenely beautiful Sarcophagus of
the Wedded Couple. Dating 530–500 BC, this couple, or Sposi, look at the viewer with almond eyes and archaic smiles, suggesting an openness and joie de vivre rare in Roman art. Also look for the cinematic frieze from a later temple (480 BC) from Pyrgi, looking like a sort of Etruscan Elgin marbles in terra-cotta. Note the fabulous Etruscan jewelry, which makes Bulgari look like your village blacksmith.