Rome has such an overwhelming amount of ancient and baroque art that it can be easy to forget about the city's wide variety of museums. Of course, no trip to the Eternal City would be complete without a visit to the Vatican Museums and the Capitoline Museums, but besides those, Rome has plenty of excellent cultural institutions that often go overlooked. From the world's most impressive collection of Etruscan art to contemporary works housed in one of architect Zaha Hadid's modern masterpieces, here are 10 lesser-known museums that contain some surprising finds in Rome.
by Laura Itzkowitz
MUSEO NAZIONALE ETRUSCO DI VILLA GIULIA
WHERE: Villa Borghese
Little attention is paid to Etruscan art in Rome, except at the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia (the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Julia), where it takes center stage. The Etruscans were an ancient civilization that settled in Tuscany, Umbria and the area surrounding Rome, and they had a great influence on ancient Roman culture. The museum is worth a visit for its collection—the world's best collection of Etruscan art and artifacts—and its architecture (though that came much later). Villa Giulia was built around 1551 for Pope Julius III, with help from Michelangelo and Vasari.
Insider Tip: If the weather is nice, go for a stroll in the lovely Villa Borghese park near the museum. To see ancient Etruscan ruins, you'll have to take a day trip to Tarquinia or Cerveteri.
ARA PACIS AUGUSTAE
WHERE: Corso and Spagna
Augustus's altar of peace is a marvel to behold, decorated with delicate carvings and friezes depicting the imperial family and myths associated with Rome's founding. The Roman Senate commissioned it in 13 B.C. to celebrate the Pax Romana, an era of peace brought on by the Emperor Augustus's successful military campaigns. The ancient altar—lost for over a 1,000 years and rediscovered, piece by piece—is now housed inside Richard Meier's modern architectural masterpiece, built using Roman travertine and glass. The result is a striking juxtaposition of ancient and modern. In addition to housing the altar, the museum hosts temporary exhibits downstairs.
Insider Tip: After a visit to the Ara Pacis, head over to 'Gusto, one of the best bars in Rome for a classic Italian aperitivo.
The mix of old and new is particularly apparent at the Centrale Montemartini, an art museum housed in a former power plant. Abandoned in the 1980s, the plant was first used as a temporary exhibition space while the Campidoglio was undergoing renovation. It received such acclaim that it was integrated into Rome's municipal museum system. The ancient sculptures and mosaics are displayed against a backdrop of industrial machinery, and are part of the Capitoline Museums' collection. Unlike the main museum, the Centrale Montemartini rarely has crowds of tourists or lines to get in.
Stroll down Via Barberini and you'll immediately be struck by the beauty of the Palazzo Barberini, built in the 1600s as a mansion for the powerful Barberini family. The Palazzo Barberini is part of the family of museums that includes the more famous Galleria Borghese, as well as the Museo Nazionale del Palazzo di Venezia, the Castel Sant'Angelo, and several others. They're all excellent, but only the Palazzo Barberini contains Raphael’s La Fornarina—modeled on his lover, a baker's daughter—and Caravaggio's Judith and Holofernes.
Insider Tip: Don't forget to look up or you'll miss baroque painter Pietro da Cortona's incredible ceiling painting depicting Urban VIII as an agent of Divine Providence, surrounded by giant bees, the symbol of the Barberinis.
Walking into the opulent Museo Napoleonico near Piazza Navona, you might feel you're in Paris rather than Rome. In fact, the entire city could have been more like Paris if Napoleon had succeeded in his conquest of Italy. He seized Rome in 1808, kidnapped the pope, and declared his son the King of Rome. Though his empire fell, visitors today can see Napoleon memorabilia inside his museum, including a bust of his sister by sculptor Antonio Canova. (Canova’s sculpture of Pauline Borghese as Victorious Venus is in the Galleria Borghese.) The Museo Napoleonico is located in the Palazzo Primoli, which also contains the Museo Mario Praz upstairs.
Insider Tip: For coffee or a drink, head over to the nearby Caffè della Pace, included in our list of Rome's best bars for a classic Italian aperitivo.
SCUDERIE DEL QUIRINALE
It's hard to believe that this glorious exhibition space opposite the Palazzo del Quirinale, which houses the President of the Republic, once housed horses. Built on the highest of Rome's seven hills, the Palazzo del Quirinale dates back to 1583 as a papal summer residence, and the stables were added between 1722-1732. Needless to say, the views from the Quirinale are fantastic, and a recent renovation of the Scuderie restored the great window by Gae Aulenti. The space hosts important temporary exhibitions, including an incredible Caravaggio retrospective in 2010. A major exhibition of Frida Khalo's work is currently on view.
Insider Tip: A few blocks away stands one of Rome's most important works of baroque sculpture—Bernini's awe-inspiring Ecstasy of Saint Theresa inside the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.
KEATS-SHELLEY MEMORIAL HOUSE
Nestled at the foot of the Spanish Steps, the Keats-Shelley Memorial House preserves the apartment where John Keats took his last breath. The museum is dedicated to his memory and that of the English Romantic poets, especially Shelley and Byron. Keats died at age 25 of tuberculosis, and the authorities burned his furniture as a sanitary precaution. The museum, however, displays his original fireplace and ceiling decorated with floral motifs, as well as his letters and many artifacts from the period. It’s a peaceful spot amid the bustle of the Spanish Steps, just as Keats would have wanted it.
MUSEO-ATELIER CANOVA TADOLINI
The Museo-Atelier Canova Tadolini was once the studio of Antonio Canova, one of Europe’s greatest neoclassical sculptors, and his disciple Adamo Tadolini. The main floor has the largest and most impressive sculptures, as well as the café. Upstairs, there are some more intimate and formal dining rooms, perfect for a romantic dinner. Scattered throughout, you can see the sculptors’ tools. A proper meal here isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it to dine surrounded by the profusion of majestic marble sculptures and plaster casts.
Insider Tip: Canova’s sculptures are scattered all over the world, but you can see his Principessa Pauline Borghese (Napoleon’s sister) as Victorious Venus at the Galleria Borghese and Perseus with the Head of Medusa at the Vatican Museums.
MACRO—Museo d’arte contemporanea Roma—is one of two major museums dedicated to contemporary art. Here, in the former Peroni beer brewery, living Italian artists get their due. French archictect Odile Decq designed the museum, with its giant red cuboid in the center and its large rooftop terrace that acts as both gathering space and exhibition space. MACRO’s sister site, MACRO Testaccio, is housed in a former slaughterhouse in a neighborhood now known for its bohemian atmosphere and many nightclubs.
Insider Tip: MACRO is a bit far from the subway, but is easily reachable by tram or bus.
WHERE: Piazza del Popolo
Rome’s other major contemporary art museum is the MAXXI—Museo Nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo (National Museum of 21st century arts). Designed by Zaha Hadid, its name suggests the maximum, and visitors will feel that its monumental architecture fulfills that expectation. Hadid’s monochromatic building blurs the lines between interior and exterior with an abundance of natural light, large open spaces, and long, curving staircases. Since its opening in 2010, the museum has shown work by some of the world’s most important contemporary artists and architects, including Anish Kapoor, Joseph Beuys, Jan Fabre, Le Corbusier, and Carlo Scarpa.
Insider Tip: MAXXI is located near the Olympic Stadium, just outside the historic center, and is easily accessible by tram from Piazza del Popolo. Nearby, the Ponte Milvio area has lots of bars and restaurants favored by locals.