The first post of this series will link to all our adventures in the city.
On our first day in Rome, Natasha and I thought we should familiarize ourselves with the massive National Roman Museum. Rather than split up the material to separate posts, I will talk about our visits to three of its four sites in this single, extra-length post, so the text below spans multiple days of our visit. Because we purchased the week-long version of museum admission, we could visit the other sites as time presented itself over the course of our week in the city.
Baths of Diocletian
August 28, 2021
From Piazza Margana, we were close to a bus nexus stretching south from Piazza Venezia. We bought a book of ten tickets from a convenience store (in Euros, just as we would use in Paris)– they were good for bus or subway runs. In no time we were on a bus route to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major (to be featured in an upcoming post). The bus route was only a couple of kilometers, but we wanted to save our feet for the museum. We walked a few blocks north to the museum and were treated with a view of the massive Roma Termini rail station. When we reached Piazza dei Cinquecento, we were nearly pulled off our plan by sighting the massive Baths of Diocletian complex. The name of the train station is an allusion to these Baths, since the Latin term is “Thermae.” I mention the Baths here specifically because they are the one site of the National Roman Museum that we did not visit at all!
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
August 28, 2021
Our destination for that first morning, though, was the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, a nineteenth-century palace that houses an excellent sculpture collection. The site opened its doors to the public in 1998. If you’re puzzling over the map to find its entrance, I suggest you try the northwest side! (It was our third try.) Because we were visiting on a Saturday, we had access to the ground floor and the first floor above but not the second floor or the basement level. The means we were able to see the Portrait Gallery (sculpted heads), the Sculpture Gallery, and Bronzes and Ivories, but we didn’t get to see the Gallery of Paintings and Mosaics or the Coin and Medal collection. We hoped we might return on a different day, but Rome offers sooooo much!
I was glad to see a collection of sculptures from the Republican period of Rome, though these older works are fewer in number than those representing Imperial Rome. One that stuck out for me was of a woman from the end of the 1st century BCE, when the Republic was giving way to the Empire. It was interesting to see that some women favored a hairstyle featuring a small knot (nodus) over the forehead plus a bun in back. The woman’s determined face was recognizable across the centuries!
The statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus performing his religious duties was really stunning. I believe this might be one of the museum’s most famous pieces. We might not expect our greatest political leaders to also have religious roles to play today, but this was more common in the ancient world. It is a good reminder of how carefully Augustus crafted images of himself to cement his hold on power.
Italy established a law that the nation owned artifacts that were found below ground. We saw a few items that had been deliberately buried to protect them from destruction, but the reason for this bronze boxer to have been buried is more ambiguous. He was found with a princely bronze six meters below the surface, perhaps intentionally to sanctify the structure. The boxer figure shows considerable artistry, with copper alloy detailing atop the bronze surface.
A Roman emperor I find particularly intriguing is Marcus Aurelius, whose Stoic masterwork “Meditations” marks him as a particularly self-conscious individual. His second-century (CE) reign was the last of the “five good emperors.” I was glad to see his sculpted head in the collection of the museum, originally featured at the “Golden Square” of Hadrian’s villa.
The fascination the Romans had for Greece and Hellenistic Culture definitely shines through at the museum. Their paired “Discobolo” statues show two very different attempts to reproduce in marble the Greek bronze by the same name from Myron from the fifth century BCE. The later example from the second century CE shows beautiful detailing of musculature and detail, while the fragmentary one from a few decades earlier is much cruder in execution.
Natasha was enraptured by a haunting face, executed in ivory. It was once part of a statue, probably with a wooden frame, where the exposed “flesh” of the statue was rendered in ivory while the clothing was produced in fabric and gold. The pieces on display were recovered by the Italian police in 2003 from looters who had been trying to sell the objects through an international art dealer; some pieces had already entered the United Kingdom but were repatriated once their origin was established.
Did you know that Roman statues didn’t all have blank eyes? This second century CE bronze is a rare example where the limestone elements for the whites of the eyes remain in place!
I know that people from the trans community and from the non-binary community have faced discrimination from others who wrongly insist that civilization has always recognized people as exclusively males or females. I wanted to include two photographs of this beautiful statue of a sleeping hermaphrodite in response. It was a second century CE copy of a bronze from Asia Minor in the second century BCE.
Natasha and I both marveled at the astonishing depth, craftsmanship, and drama of the Portonaccio Sarcophagus. We sat in the room for quite a while just gazing at it, seeing both the Roman army’s power illustrated as well as some empathy for the barbarians who were destroyed in the attack.
With that, Natasha and I had finished our first visit to the National Roman Museum. The Massimo location had a lot more for us to see on its two other floors, but they were not available to us on the day we visited.
September 2, 2021
I want to be fair to the Palazzo Altemps, but I must admit my visit was tacked onto the end of a day visiting other sites, and Natasha decided to get some rest back at our lodgings rather than see the gallery. The fact that I could just wander over to the museum without much fuss is another testament to Natasha’s ability to pick the right place for us to lodge; the walk between the two was a mere 1.2 km (three-quarters of a mile).
I decided to make the trip because I thought some of the statues on display there seemed dramatic. Where the Massimo facility is a proper museum, with lots of historical context stitching together related displays and contextualizing them well, Altemps feels a bit more like a “gosh, that’s pretty!” kind of place. To give one example, a bust of Pharaoh Amenemhet III dating from the 19th century BCE stood atop a pillar with the label “Faraone;” for more detail, you consult a small printed sign that stands nearby. Many of these items came from private collections, and the details about their origins were assessed long after they had been removed from their original contexts.
Like many buildings in Rome, the Altemps surrounds an inner courtyard, and the five-bay arcade on its north side is one of the most common images you will see for the mueum online. The building also features some other distinctive rooms, such as the Grand Hall of the Ludovisi Gaul with its monumental fireplace, the Church of the Blessed Virgin of Clemency and of St. Anicetus, and the room of the Painted Perspectives (all from the late 16th century CE).
One of my takeaways from the Palazzo Altemps was that a given Roman statue may vary widely in the origin of its parts. Apparently many Roman statues featured sockets for updating the head. Naturally, if you invest significant money in a heroic statue of the emperor, it would only be prudent to replace its head to represent the new emperor when one takes office! One of the other surprises in store for me at Altemps was the information that Dionysus was occasionally thought by the Greeks to ride a panther!
The statue that proved decisive in bringing me to the Altemps was the Ludovisi Gaul. It may have been part of a pair with the “Dying Gaul” on display in the Capitoline Museums. It was part of the Ludivisi Collection, named for the 17th century cardinal who acquired them. The Gauls had quite a reputation for fierceness; this statue features a defeated warrior killing his wife and then himself. The original was probably a bronze from 240 BCE, but this marble was probably crafted two centuries later, perhaps even for the villa of Julius Caesar to celebrate his victory in Gaul.
This last image is an Egyptian statue in granodiorite from the second century BCE. Apis was a bull god, part of the cult of Isis. Because my lovely wife spent an entire semester learning about the introduction of cattle to Africa, I had to stop for a photograph. Look, Natasha, it has almost no shoulder hump!
September 1, 2021
The last of the National Roman Musem sites is as different from the others as possible. Crypta Balbi is the best museum I have ever seen for explaining the concept of stratigraphy in archaeology, the idea that recent periods of use for an area leave their evidence atop layers from earlier periods. The museum documents more than two millennia of use for its neighborhood– because our lodgings lay on the other side of its “dig,” we were learning what had occupied our neighborhood over that long interval. Natasha simply says, “it’s the best museum in the chain!”
I have mentioned that our lodgings (and Crypta Balbi) were in an area called the Campus Martius (“Campo Manzio” in Italian). During the Roman Republic, it was outside the city walls. By the time of the empire, the area was very much part of the city. Lucius Cornelius Balbus, a consul born in Gades (Cadiz) whose career advanced through his relationship with Julius Caesar and then Augustus, created a theatre in Rome in 13 BCE. The Theatre of Balbus was the smallest of three theatres in the city but quite near to the other two (Theatre of Pompey Magnus and Theatre of Marcellus). The theatre was damaged in a fire during 80 CE, but it was restored. The term “crypta” refers to a colonnaded courtyard adjoining the theatre.
As the centuries passed, Rome suffered terribly from earthquakes, floods, and of course the misery of being sacked by the Visigoths under Alaric in 410 CE and then by the Vandals under Genseric in 455 CE. The eastern empire at Byzantium was forced to reconquer Rome in 553 CE. The ruins of the former theatre then hosted tombs and became a scrap heap from a neighboring workshop and then lime kilns in the 8th century.
The Church of Santa Maria Domine Rose was built on the site of the former theatre in the 9th century. By the 16th century, this church was dedicated to Santa Caterina dei Funari, and its convent became a home for the daughters of prostitutes. I suggest the museum website for the full list of transitions. All of these stages left their own layers of artifacts in the rising level of the streets and city blocks. In 1981, a special law set aside this area for stratigraphic research, with the zone declared the property of the nation in 1983.
I would recommend Crypta Balbi to anyone who wants to develop a sense for how history can shape a landscape. It may seem unimaginable that a few square blocks could play so many roles over the centuries, but the evidence is all here to be observed first-hand. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Summing up, it seems obvious that the four sites of the National Roman Museum offer quite a lot to help visitors understand the history of the Eternal city. If your interest emphasizes sculpture and metalwork, I would definitely recommend Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. If you prefer “history from below,” you must see Crypta Balbi! I would recommend Palazzo Altemps more for its structure than its works of art; it contains vivid examples of what wealth could construct in the 16th century.