The main reason we are so fond of this one is that it is so much quieter than the other sights of Rome. Even at the height of the high season, it is calmer than the likes of the Colosseum or the Vatican. And with fewer crowds, we have more space and time to explore as well as easier access for closer inspection. Not to mention that all-important off-the-beaten-track feel. Of course, it has the usual charms too – fantastic views, great character, fascinating history and a beautiful collection of treasures. We’re not that shallow!
I’m talking about the Capitoline Museums. Situated on top of one of the Seven Hills of Rome with stunning views of the Roman Forum and Colosseum, the Capitoline Museums are home to some of Rome’s most important sculptures and historical works. Somehow though, it is mostly overlooked by the visiting masses, so it makes for a much more relaxed visit than many other Rome attractions.
The trip up to Capitoline Hill is rewarding before you even step inside the Capitoline Museums – in fact, the Piazza del Campidoglio is worth a trip in itself. Back in the 16th century, Michelangelo was commissioned to redesign this irregularly shaped area and, although he died before its completion, the square that you stand in today is an example of his genius in planning and his ability to play with perspective. It is not, as you would imagine, a rectangle at all and as you walk around the beautifully tiled area, the intricacies of his design become clear. As well as being a very pretty place to hang out for a while, this is one of the best places in the city to watch the sunset from.
The space has significance of its own too. As one of the Seven Hills of Rome, it is one of the oldest parts of the city and is said to have been the heart of Ancient Rome. Once upon a time, this was the seat of Rome’s municipal government, its archives and its mint which made it the political powerhouse of the city. It was also home to two of the city’s most important temples, giving it religious significance.
Beautiful and significant as it is though, the best part of Capitoline Hill is kept inside two of its palaces, the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo. These two beautiful buildings are home to the Musei Capitolini which were founded back in 1471 by the reigning Pope Sixtus IV.
The main entrance is at the Palazzo dei Conservatori, and it is in this Capitoline Museum that most of the core collection is kept. Visitors that don’t rush up to the second floor are rewarded with a ground-floor courtyard which houses chunks of a 12m tall statue that once stood in the Roman Forum (a head, hand and foot) and the famous Lupa Capitolina in Room 4, a familiar bronze sculpture of Remus and Romulus with their wolf mother which dates back to the 5th century BC. Another work worth seeking out is Spinario in Room 3. Dating back to the 1st century BC, this little bronze boy was part of the museum’s original collection donated by Pope Sixtus IV. The second floor of the Palazzo dei Conservatori is a highlight for many visitors with paintings from such renowned artists as Titan, Tintoretto, Rubens and even two works (The Fortune Teller and St. John the Baptist) by Caravaggio.
One of the most novel aspects of a visit to the Capitoline Museums is the way in which the two palaces are linked – through a tunnel which leads underground through ancient Rome’s archive and into Palazzo Nuovo. This second palace is beautiful inside and houses the museum’s classical sculptures. Surprisingly, some of the most memorable works here are copies, albeit magnificent ancient ones. The Dying Gaul is a Roman copy of a Greek original that depicts the death of a Frenchman in white marble, and Resting Satyr is another copy of a Greek which initially stood in Hadrian’s Villa.
If your Rome itinerary includes visits to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and the Palatine, a trip to the Capitoline Museums is just as important a piece of the puzzle. See the works that once adorned the Roman Forum and understand that Ancient Rome wasn’t always ancient – once upon a time it was a living, breathing city watched over by these exact sculptures. For added appreciation, consider taking one of our guided tours which include a tour of the Capitoline Museums. Here your guide will point out details you might have overlooked and tell you the stories that can make these works (and Ancient Rome) come to life.
Check out our best of Rome in a day tour, which is a full day tour that will take you to the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine hill in the morning and then around Rome on our Best of Rome walking tour in the afternoon.