Museo Nazionale Romano

The Museo Nazionale Romano, or the Roman National (archeological) Museum, has emerged from restructuring in connection with the Jubilee Year of 2000 as one of the most impressive museums in the world. I have just returned to it for the first time since 1999, and I could not believe my eyes. The collection has been spread over four separate sites, with each site having a programmatic focus, or series of focuses. The four sites are:

The Terme di Diocleziano, or "Terme Museum", in the baths of Diocletian.
The Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, across the street from the Terme Museum.
The Palazzo Altemps, just north of the Piazza Navona.
The Crypta Balbi, an area corresponding to a portion of the first century BC Theater of Balbus.

The Terme Museum was the traditional seat of the collection, and older guidebooks still refer to it as such. It consists of the cloister of a Carthusian monastery (Michelangelo had a hand in the design), gardens, and some outbuildings of the baths (Latin 'Thermae', Italian 'Terme') of Diocletian.

What was a confused welter in the 90s with most areas off-limits even to scholars is now a beautifully-laid-out museum featuring, above all, a stunningly displayed epigraphical collection which occupies most of the first two floors (pianterreno and primo piano Italian style) and the courtyard of the cloister. This is arguably the best laid-out, most impressive epigraphic museum in the world. Inscriptions I knew only by reputation were to be seen on display with adequate lighting and didactics for those wanting them. The top floor contains a wonderful exhibition of archeological evidence for the prehistory of Latium, the part of Italy which was the forcing ground for the Latin speaking peoples such as the Romans.

Around the edge of the old bath complex is a room called the Octagonal Room, or the "Ex-Planetarium". This building, which is currently not open to the public, contains some important pieces of sculpture which were found in the archeological context of Roman baths; the idea in this room is to give the visitor some idea of what it must have been like to be inside the sumptuously decorated bath environments of ancient Rome.

It is possible to descend to a lower archeological level under the Octagonal Room and see ruins of structures that preceded the baths. The main block of the baths, especially the frigidarium, is occupied by the Basilica of S. Maria degli Angeli, the entrance to which is a few doors down from the Octagonal Room. It serves something of the function of the Italian national church (though that is the topic of another node). The impressive space, even reduced from its ancient proportions as it is, is comparable with the interior of the old Penn Station in NYC, or Union Station in Washington DC.

The Palazzo Massimo, across the street from both the Terme Museum and Rome's main train station (the imposing fascist Stazione Termini), contains an impressive collection of sculpture, with a predilection for portraiture. Hundreds of portrait busts and statues form a study collection enabling the visitor to master the changes in iconography and styles.

Two pieces on the ground floor are flagships of the collection: a bronze male nude figure in the round usually called the Terme Herrscher (the Terme "Ruler"), because he looks to be a potentate of about the second century BC or just maybe a Roman general depicted in Greek style. The other is the well known bronze seated statue in the round of a much-wounded boxer with copper inlays in the bronze to portray blood running from cuts.

The top floor of the Palazzo Massimo contains a first-rate collection of late-antique art, as well as the beautiful first-century BC frescoes from the Farnesina villa, an archeological site which is usually connected with the residence of Julia, the daughter of the first emperor Augustus.

In the basement of the Palazzo Massimo lies an extensive coin collection with many didactic exhibits explaining the history of Roman coinage, the hoards in which coins tend to be found, and the iconographic elements commonly found on Roman coins (for example, it is common for imperial coins to depict Roman monuments, and sometimes these are the unique record of a monument's appearance). A small collection of Roman luxury goods rounds out the basement exhibits.

The Palazzo Massimo contains many masterpieces of Roman art, many with enormous historical significance. The remains of several Roman calendars are on display, as is a late-republican statue of a general which was found at Tivoli (and is called the Tivoli General as a result). In addition, one of the most important statues of the first emperor Augustus, found in the via Labicana, with the emperor dressed in priestly garb.

The Palazzo Altemps contains a collection of art assembled by the Ludovisi family, art which is both antique and from later periods. Among the masterworks there is the Ludovisi Throne, a 5th century BC Greek seat depicting on its back the birth of the goddess Aphrodite. In addition, there is also a vast, magnificently decorated late-antique sarcophagus (the "Ludovisi sarcophagus") depicting a fierce battle, as well as a very famous statue of a Gaul (a member of a people which settled in Galatia) who has slain his wife and is about to drive a sword into his own chest in despair while still holding his wife's hand. There is much else in the Palazzo Altemps worth seeing, but these three pieces alone are worth the trip, and they are displayed in magnificent isolation in large renaissance-era rooms.

The Crypta Balbi is a museum built to show off the various archeological levels of occupation on the site of one of Augustan Rome's three great theaters, the Theater of Balbus. The museum represents a new type of emphasis in Rome, only having been tried now for about 5 years. It seeks to make clear to the visitor the (very complex) history of the site. The Theater, dedicated in about 13 BC, grew a flanking extension of latrines, and then grew carbuncles like lean-to houses and a lime kiln in the early middle ages, as well as a church. In the renaissance a palazzo grew on the site, as well as an inn or something like it (bones and broken crockery were found in the sewer underneath).

In effect, the column of archeological time is exposed and made clear to the visitor, an important service, because the Campus Martius (Rome's floodplain of the Tiber River) repeatedly flooded and the level of the city rose: 3 to 5 meters in places, sometimes even more. When you see a Roman (that is, ancient Roman) site in the Campus Martius, it is inevitably well below the modern street levels.

For those of us who study Rome, this has been a watershed time. It provokes deep emotions to see hitherto "inaccessible" objects exposed to plain sight in a public museum. Similar improvements have been made all over Rome, just about everywhere but the Vatican Museums (which are still horrible, though even there the method of entering has been improved). If you ever wanted to see the antiquities in Rome, now is the time; if you are a graduate student or a teacher of high school Latin in the United States and want to go to Rome, apply to the Classical Summer School of the American Academy in Rome, arguably the finest program of its kind: (Brits can do just as well through the British School in Rome.)

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