Rome’s Best Archaeological Museum: Have You Been?

Boxer, ancient statue at Palazzo Massimo, Rome

If you haven’t been to Palazzo Massimo, then — even if you’ve seen the ancient statues in the Vatican and the ruins in the Forum — you haven’t seen the best of Rome’s archaeological finds.

(Note: This post was updated with current information in April 2017).

At this museum around the corner from the Termini train station, you’ll find some of Rome’s most famous bronze and marble sculptures — and then some. Treasures like ancient mosaics. Elaborately-carved sarcophagi. Incredibly-preserved frescoes taken from some of Rome’s most opulent ancient villas. Even the super-cool Fasti Praenestini, an enormous marble calendar set up in the forum of a nearby town.
Fasti Praenestini, ancient Roman calendar, Palazzo Massimo

First things first, though: Palazzo Massimo’s two most famous statues. I first encountered “The Boxer” in a college art history class. And lemme tell you, it’s even better in person. You can practically feel the exhaustion and melancholy emanating from the first-century B.C. bronze, slumping after his (unsuccessful?) match. Both this piece (above), and the magnificently-muscled “Prince,” were found at the Baths of Constantine in 1885.

But those aren’t the only (rightfully famous) ancient statues. The collection boasts not one, but two, ancient Roman copies of the 5th-century B.C. “Discobolus” (that super-classical athlete tossing a disc). Several beautiful Venuses. A statue of Augustus in the hooded guise of Pontifex Maximus.

And, from about 200 A.D., this fantastic sarcophagus:

Portonaccio ancient sarcophagus, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome The only sarcophagus I’ve ever seen approaching this one is the Alexander Sarcophagus. That one’s in Istanbul.

As much as I could go on and on about the Palazzo Massimo’s sculptures and sarcophagi, though, that’s not the real reason why you should go. The real reason is the ancient fresco collection. Not just because it’s fantastic, but because the museum has a whole section devoted to the Villa of Livia, Augustus’ wife. (Confused? Maybe it’s because I just wrote about the House of Livia and said that you can see it, and its frescoes, on Palatine Hill until March 30. But this is her other house, the one at Prima Porta).

Better yet, it’s set up more or less like the villa itself. So you can actually see how the rooms would have looked — complete not just with the frescoes on the walls, but delicate, detailed molding on the ceiling and mosaics on the floors.
House of Livia frescoes at Palazzo Massimo

One of my favorite rooms, though, is this one, taken from the ancient Villa Farnesina:

Garden frescoes of Villa Farnesina

Pretty sweet. Not quite as incredible as the Naples Archaeological Museum… but almost. Since it’s right next to the Termini train station, you have no excuse not to go. I promise you won’t regret it.

Palazzo Massimo is located at Largo di Villa Peretti 1. It’s open every day but Mondays from 9am to 7:45pm; the ticket is €7 adults, €3.50 reduced, and also includes entrances into Palazzo Altemps, Crypta Balbi, and Diocletian’s Baths.

Also: the 2,000-year-old sepulchre hidden underground, the “other” Pompeii and Rome’s very own pyramid.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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The Ancient, and Roman, Ruins of Istanbul: Part II

Hagia Eirene, Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

We've got the basilica cistern and the Hippodrome, the Column of Constantine and the Valens Aqueduct. But there are other not-to-miss ancient Roman (or Byzantine) sites in Istanbul, too. Below, three others not to miss — and one more (perhaps the most major!) coming tomorrow.

5. Walls of Constantinople. One line of fortifications was
built by Constantine in the fourth century; a second row of walls was added by
Theodosius II in the fifth century. Although they saved the city from some eleven
invasions, they couldn’t withstand the invention of gunpowder and the Ottoman
conquest of 1453. Remnants of both the walls remain visible along their
original lines. (To see what the walls would have looked like, check out the great reconstruction done by Byzantium 1200).

2nd-century AD Roman sarcophagus, Archaeological Museum, Istanbul6. Archaeological Museum. If you're searching for antiquities in Istanbul, there's no missing the Archaeological Museum. One of the world's preeminent archaeological collections, the museum is replete with some 60,000 artifacts from a swath of ancient empires, from Greek to Egyptian, Phoenician to Hittite — and yes, Roman too. Some of the stars of the Roman collection include a series of beautiful sarcophagi, including this tomb with elaborate carvings of the story of Phaedra-Hippolita, dating to the second century A.D. (left).

The museum's absolute show-stopper, though, is a Hellenistic piece: the Alexander sarcophagus. Because photos simply don't do it justice, I considered not posting one. But to give you an idea of what the piece looks like, here's just one detail of part of the sarcophagus. Seriously, though: This is something you have to see in person.
Alexander sarcophagus in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul Dating back to 332 B.C., the sarcophagus comes from Sidon, a successful Phoenician city-state that today lies about 25 miles away from Beirut. Despite the name, it belonged not to Alexander (we don't think), but probably to Abdalonymos, who Alexander made the king of Sidon in 332 B.C. Alexander, Reliefs from the Ishtar Gate, Babylon, in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbulthough, is prominent on the tomb, immediately recognizable for his curly and once-blond locks. The scenes that sprawl across the sarcophagus — two war scenes, two hunting scenes — tumble with vigorous action and expression. Not until the Renaissance, more than 1,000 years later, would sculptors reach this level of skill. To top it off, the sarcophagus is still scattered with the paint traces of its once-colorful past, giving the viewer a real sense of how this piece — and all Hellenistic sculpture — would have looked. That's pretty rare.

All of this leaves out, by the way, hundreds of other treasures in the museums: the Sarcophagus of the Crying Women, also taken from the necropolis at Sidon; animal reliefs taken from Babylon's Gate of Ishtar, built by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century B.C.; and the Treaty of Kadesh, the world's oldest known recorded peace treaty, signed in the 13th century B.C. by Ramses II and the Hittites. 

Not bad.

7. Hagia Eirene. A bit sightseeing-weary after three full days in Istanbul, I almost didn't go into this church. But I'm glad I did. Today part of the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Eirene (top of the post) stands on the oldest spot of Christian worship in Istanbul.

The first church, built here in the fourth century by Constantine, burned to the ground; the current one dates back to an 8th-century restoration. (Not bad, really, as far as longevity goes). And, incredibly, it somehow missed the Ottoman sweep of turning churches into mosques — meaning even its 8th-century mosaic, depicting a black cross, was left intact.

And it has nothing to do with St. Irene. Instead, its name meant
the "Basilica of Holy Peace." (It was designed in harmony with the
"Church of the Holy Wisdom," or the Hagia Sofia, and the "Church of the
Holy Apostles").

There's another major ancient Roman site in Istanbul that I'm still missing. Any guesses?

Check back tomorrow for the final installment of this three-post series.

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