Often referred to as an open-air museum, Rome is brimming with ancient ruins, Baroque architecture, Renaissance churches, and other treasures from the city’s long and compelling past. Naturally, the Italian capital also has a diverse range of museums and galleries, from the well-established – the Capitoline Museums were the first public art museums in the world – to new arrivals designed by the most important names in contemporary architecture. Make a note to visit these favourites on your next trip.
In ancient times, the Capitoline Hill was the geographical and political centre of Rome. Now, it’s home to the Capitoline Museums, which, fittingly, tell the fascinating story of the Eternal City. The collection spans from ancient Rome to the Renaissance and includes famed works such as the bronze Capitoline Wolf, the Colossus of Constantine and the Dying Gaul. The museums are situated in two buildings on either side of the Michelangelo-designed Piazza del Campidoglio, with an underground tunnel connecting the two. At the end of the passageway, the Tabularium – ancient Rome’s public records office – affords one of the finest views of the Roman Forum.
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The Sistine Chapel – intricately frescoed by Michelangelo – is reason enough to visit the Vatican Museums but there’s so much more to see in its 1,400 rooms, chapels and galleries. Around 20,000 cultural treasures, collected by popes throughout the centuries, are on display and it would be impossible to see them all in one day – so don’t even attempt it. Instead, consider a tour of the highlights, such as the Gallery of Maps, Raphael Rooms and Egyptian collection, or just amble through room by room and make a mental note to schedule a return visit.
The National Gallery of Modern Art (also known as GNAM, which means ‘yum’ in Italian) houses Italy’s largest collection of 19th and 20th-century art. The paintings, drawings, sculptures and installations on display express the changing trends of the last two centuries, from Neoclassicism to Impressionism, Futurism to Surrealism. Italian artists such as Giacomo Balla, Alberto Burri, Antonio Canova, Giorgio di Chirico and Amedeo Modigliani make up the bulk of the exhibits but the international scene is well represented by the likes of Pollock, Van Gogh, Mondrian, Monet, Degas, and Klimt.
Known for its working-class roots and industrial architecture, as well as its contemporary bars, restaurants and community spaces, Ostiense wonderfully balances the old and new. Nowhere is this truer than at Centrale Montemartini, the neighbourhood’s gem of a museum. Previously a public power plant, Centrale Montemartini’s mechanical heritage is exploited to form the backdrop to a collection of ancient Roman statues and sculptures. The composition of machinery and smooth, white marble invites visitors to reflect on two very different time periods in Rome’s history and makes this one of the city’s most compelling spaces.
Located in Rome’s northern Flaminio neighbourhood, the MAXXI is Italy’s National Museum of 21st-Century Art and hosts colourful, stimulating and socially aware exhibitions that feature works by leading contemporary artists. As well as exhibits, MAXXI also organises workshops, concerts, talks and other educational projects. Designed by Iraqi-British ‘starchitect’ Zaha Hadid, the building is a destination in its own right and won the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize in 2010.
Palazzo Massimo is the main seat of the Museo Nazionale Romano and contains four floors of ancient and classical art that was unearthed in the Eternal City. Exhibits include the Boxer at Rest, a 2nd-century-BC bronze excavated on the Quirinale Hill in 1885, and a collection of marble sculptures from the late republic and early imperial period. The second floor is devoted to stuccos, mosaics and frescoes, including vivid garden frescoes from the Villa of Livia, one of the homes of Livia Drusilla, wife of Emperor Augustus.
Palazzo Doria Pamphili occupies prime real estate on Via del Corso, the main thoroughfare of the historical centre, yet remains off the radar to many visitors to the city. It shouldn’t – this grandiose palace houses one of the largest private art collections in Rome, including works by great masters such as Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian and Tintoretto. The most notable painting is undoubtedly the Portrait of Innocent X by Diego Velázquez, which many critics consider the finest portrait ever created. The Gallery of Mirrors, decorated with frescoes and gilded décor, is hard to beat in terms of aristocratic ornateness.
The Keats-Shelley Memorial House is a paradise for literary lovers. Located next to the Spanish Steps, the museum is dedicated to English Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley and filled with letters, manuscripts, books and other memorabilia from the era of the Grand Tour. Visitors can see the small room in which Keats died of tuberculosis less than six months after coming to Rome. The furnishings, including a walnut-wood bed, are replicas – the originals were burnt and the walls scraped in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease.
Designed by Donato Bramante, the Chiostro del Bramante is one of the most important works of Renaissance architecture in Rome. Originally the cloisters of the adjacent Santa Maria della Pace church, the elegant space is now home to revolving exhibitions from the world of modern art. Retrospectives of internationally acclaimed artists, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Escher and Francis Bacon, draw in an eclectic crowd of art lovers. Look out for the striking Raphael fresco, situated in the chapel next door – it’s visible from the first floor of the cloisters next to the coffee shop.
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