Light and spacious, the Capitoline Museums make an elegant setting for some of the finest art of the antique world. Across the Tiber, meanwhile, the exhibits at the Vatican Museums seem suffocated by the great press of visitors
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION The Capitoline Museums sit atop the most sacred of ancient Rome’s seven hills – the Capitoline Hill
VISITORS PER YEAR 520,000
DAYTIME TEMPERATURES Jan: 50°F (10°C); Apr: 57°F (14°C); Jul: 79°F (26°C); Oct: 66˚F (19°C)
A magnificent flight of steps (the Cordonata) leads you up the gently rising Capitoline Hill. At the top lies Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio, flanked on one side by Palazzo Nuovo and on the other by Palazzo dei Conservatori. Together, the two buildings form the main body of the Capitoline Museums, home to exceptional collections of classical sculpture and paintings. The architecture of the square is bold, geometric, and harmonious. And with no traffic, it’s relatively quiet here. The Vatican Museums across the river seem aloof and inhuman in scale by comparison.
As befits a modern European capital, Rome has its share of idiosyncratic museums, from one dedicated to mental illness to another exploring the history of crime. But in truth these are only sideshows to the city’s unimaginably vast hoard of paintings and antique sculptures, which are exhibited in a hundred or more public and semi-public palaces. The Vatican Museums attract the lion’s share of tourists to the city – more than 4 million go there each year – leaving Rome’s other galleries in relative peace. The Capitoline Museums may not be quite so off the beaten track as the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica (see p260), but the number of visitors is never overwhelming.
The main entrance to the museums is in the cool, white marble façade of the Palazzo Nuovo, on the left of the Piazza del Campidoglio. Busts of philosophers and statues of river gods lead you down the Hall of the Philosophers to an octagonal room, where Venus awaits you, modestly covering her marbled nakedness. In the Hall of the Galatian, the dying Gaul, proud yet bowed by the pain of defeat, evokes genuine pathos. In the Hall of Doves, mosaics from Hadrian’s Villa are on show.
An underground passageway then takes you to the Galleria Lapidaria, with its collection of epigraphs, and the Tabularium (the former records office), where the remains of the Temple of Veiovis can be seen. Stairs lead back to the light, and at the end of the long corridor is the museum’s greatest surprise – not an exhibit, but the best view of the Roman Forum. From this height, much of its confused archaeology falls neatly into place.
Returning to Michelangelo’s piazza, you pass into the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, where you’re greeted by a jumble of fragments from a colossal statue of Emperor Constantine. The tour then heads upstairs to one of the museum’s most helpful exhibits – the story of Rome told in a sequence of 16th- and 17th-century frescoes in the Hall of the Horatii and Curiatii.
The picture gallery is next and, after the acres of marble you’ve just seen, your eyes feast on the vivid reds of Titian’s Baptism and Garofalo’s Annunciation. Also on show are Caravaggio’s St John the Baptist, Veronese’s Rape of Europa and some fabulous portraits by Van Dyck. The visit finishes on a high, with the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.
FORGET THE VATICAN MUSEUMS?
The Vatican Museums not only have the two most beautiful rooms in the world (the Sistine Chapel and the Room of the Segnatura), their vast corridors also contain all the vanity, devotion, and sheer financial clout of the greatest collectors the world has ever known. The picture gallery houses one of the best art collections in Rome.
The Vatican Museums can feel like purgatory. They are positively overwhelmed with visitors, and the usual start to a visit here is an hour lining up in the hot Roman sun.
Book a group tour and you’ll sail past the long lines. With a good guide, you’ll also get a better handle on the collection in 3 hours than you might in days of dazed wandering on your own.
Getting There and Around
The nearest metro stop is Colosseo, a 10-minute walk away. Dozens of buses from Rome’s main station, Termini, stop nearby. Get off at either the Via dei Fori Imperiali or the Via del Plebiscito.
Where to Eat
Swanky restaurants abound, but the real food of Rome is la cucina povera – the tripe, salt cod, beans, and artichokes of the traditional trattorias. The Asinocotto, just over the river in Trastevere, is a great example. Stuffed zucchini flowers and veal tongue are just two of the dishes on on the menu.
Where to Stay
The Inn At The Roman Forum has a quiet courtyard, a roof terrace, and its own Roman crypt. And, as the name suggests, it’s right next to the forum.
When to Go
Rome has a mild Mediterranean climate. May is the nicest month. The period from December to February is the nearest the city has to a low season.
Budget per Day for Two
Resist the shops and you could get away with US$300.