Crypta Balbi, a Rome Museum with an Underground Secret

Part of the underground of Rome's Crypta Balbi, a national museum of Rome

It’s probably the most-overlooked museo nazionale Romano — but for a history buff, or someone simply trying to wrap their head around Rome’s many, many years of evolution, the Crypta Balbi deserves a stop.

The museum’s big claim to fame is that it stands on remains of the Theater of Balbus (13 B.C.), and you can still go down and see the ruins, today hidden beneath the modern museum (above). While that’s cool — and, after such neat underground experiences as the columbarium of Pomponio Hylas or the Mithraic temple beneath the Circus Maximus, I’m aware I might be a bit jaded biased — it wasn’t, for me, the best part of the Crypta Balbi. Particularly as the signs for the underground section were rudimentary and confusing, making it near-impossible for anyone but an archaeologist to be able to figure out what was what.

So why go to the Crypta Balbi?

In all honesty, because it’s the first museum I’ve found that lays out what the historical center of Rome looked like in ancient times, in the Middle Ages, and through to today. With accompanying artifacts.

No, it’s not with cutting-edge technology. But those maps and pictures? They’re pretty darn helpful. Now, when I walk past the Largo Argentina or by the Theater of Marcellus, I have a much, much clearer image in my mind of what not just particular buildings, but whole neighborhoods, would have looked like. (Below, the Crypta Balbi area in the late-antique and medieval periods). Map of Crypta Balbi and ancient Rome in Museo Nazionale Romano

Map of Crypta Balbi and ancient Rome in Museo Nazionale Romano
The artifacts in the museum, meanwhile, are actually much more extensive than I’d expected, with artifacts like the Forma Urbis Romae, a 60-by-45-foot marble map of the city that Emperor Septimius Severus mounted in the Forum to help 3rd-century visitors to the city. (Today, obviously, only fragments remain. But it’s still cool to see).Forma Urbis Romae, marble map of ancient Rome, in Crypta Balbi, Rome

Despite its treasures, the Crypta Balbi isn’t a particularly large museum. And that’s kind of nice. It means you can easily see the underground, look at all the artifacts, and wrap your mind around ancient Rome in about an hour and a half. And, after a day at the Vatican or an afternoon at the Palazzo Massimo, don’t discount the merit of not being exhausted after a museum trip.

The Crypta Balbi is open daily from 9am to 7:45pm, except Mondays. The ticket (€7 full, €3.50 reduced) is valid for three days at not only the Crypta Balbi, but also the Palazzo Massimo, Palazzo Altemps, and Baths of Diocletian. It’s located at Via delle Botteghe Oscure 31. Here’s a map of Crypta Balbi’s location.

 

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In Rome, the Night of (Free!) Museums

Notte dei Musei 2011

Great news: Across Europe, museums will be free and open late the night of May 14.

Here in Rome, that includes all state-owned museums, like the Musei Capitolini, MACRO, Galleria Borghese, Palazzo Barberini, and Castel Sant'Angelo.

A little more unusually, it also includes museums not often part of these free events, like the Scuderie del Quirinale (currently with a Lorenzo Lotto exhibit); the MAXXI, with its great Michelangelo Pistoletto exhibit; and the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, with its show on European 19th- and 20th-century art including pieces by Corot, Monet, Renoir, Ernst, Klee, and Picasso.

All will be open, and free, from 8pm-2am, with last entrance at 1am.

Another bonus? The Palazzo dell Esposizione hosts two piano concerts by Michelangelo Carbonara, one at 9pm and one at 10:30pm, celebrating the same time period that's also shown with the exhibit.

Happy free culture!

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Michelangelo, at the MAXXI

Michelangelo Pistoletto exhibit at the MAXXI

You heard me: Michelangelo has an art exhibit on at the MAXXI. But no, not that Michelangelo. Michelangelo Pistoletto.

Haven't heard of him? In brief, he was one of the major forces behind Italy's Arte Povera movement.* Pistoletto pushed the envelope of conceptual art, making a Venus out of rags and paintings out of mirrors. And then he kept going. Today, he's considered one of the most important Italian artists still living.

After seeing the exhibit (on at the MAXXI, Rome's famed contemporary art museum, until August 15), I have something else to add: Pistoletto is just damn fun. You don't have to "get" 20th-century art to understand what he's going for. Or to like him. That's because his pieces are whimsical. Interactive. Thought-provoking, even for someone who's never thought about contemporary art before.

For Pistoletto aficionados, the show does an excellent job of walking you through his career and his approach to art. With more than 100 pieces, it's also thorough. And it has some of his most famous works, like Globe, the huge ball of newsprint that Pistoletto first rolled through the streets in the 1960s, and still, occasionally, goes for a roll. (Image, below, courtesy of Pistoletto's own website. Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed in the MAXXI).Michelangelo Pistoletto's Globe, 1966-1968

Not already a Pistoletto (or contemporary art) aficionado? You'll still be caught up by the "Mirror Paintings" section, which boasts dozens of mirrors painted with life-sized images. Yes, this schtick was one of the things that put Pistoletto on the map. But it's also plain old playful. You can see yourself as part of a Vietnam demonstration, as looking over a balcony with three women, behind prison bars, or, most eerily, with your head in a noose.

Personally, though, I loved his "Minus Objects." Each piece looked relatively simple… but, like the best art of any generation, asked you to look, or think, twice. That large cube standing over there, tied together with string? It's actually six large mirrors tied together. Facing inward. Hence the title: A Cubic Meter of Infinity. Or that odd-looking structure, almost like a railing, but not quite? It is, of course, Structure for Talking Standing Up. The title made me laugh out loud. Because that's exactly what it looks perfect for… and nothing else.

Don't believe me? Here it is. (In the actual exhibit, the man is not included. Nor, unfortunately, are you able to try it out yourself).

Struttura per parlare in piedi, Pistoletto It's true, as the New York Times recently pointed out when reviewing the show's first stop in Philadelphia, that, "It does not inspire confidence that Carlos Basualdo, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art and the show’s organizer, mostly ignores the last 35 years of the artist’s work."

But I have some beef with what the Times calls a nagging question in the exhibit: "Does Mr. Pistoletto’s art, its influence aside, hold up to the test of immediate experience." If a piece of art can make you wonder, inspire you to pull funny faces, can even make you laugh out loud — well, I think that's the whole point.

After all, too much of art, especially contemporary art, seems anything but accessible. Not this.

And for that experience alone, please: Before August 15, head to the MAXXI.

The MAXXI is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday from 11am-7pm, and on Thursday and Saturday from 11am-10pm. It costs 11 euros; if you're between the ages of 15 and 26 and you go as a couple (as in two people, no romance necessary), you get 2 tickets for the price of one. The MAXXI is located on Via Guido Reni 4a. For a map, click here.

*And if you haven't heard of that: Arte Povera is, essentially, when 1960s artists started playing with the idea of what materials were needed for art and, therefore, what art really was. It produced whimsical pieces like Giovanni Anselmo's 1968 Structure that Eats, which had vegetables between two stone blocks — the idea being that when the veggies rottied, a block would fall.

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Happy Open-Museums Holiday!

Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome - one museum open for Easter

Even crazier than the idea of a ginormous, gift-giving bunny is the fact that, on Easter, Rome actually keeps its museums and monuments open. Instead of closing them, which is usually par for the course on national holidays.

Like last year, therefore, you can look forward to lots of sites being open this Easter Sunday and Monday (including even those museums that would normally be closed Mondays). Sites open include the Colosseum, Borghese Gallery, Ara Pacis, Palazzo Massimo, Capitoline Museums, Palazzo Barberini, Galleria Corsini, and Castel Sant'Angelo (above). The exceptions: MACRO Testaccio and La Pelanda, which will remain closed. 

So you can sightsee as much as you want to! And that leaves just one big question: which restaurants will be open for Easter.

 

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The Rome Palazzo You Have to Visit… By May

Annibale Carracci frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

If you haven’t been to Palazzo Farnese for its once-in-a-blue-moon opening to the public yet, then go — by April 27.

Here’s why: The palazzo is an architectural gem, designed in the 16th century by Antonio da Sangallo, Giacomo della Porta, and that guy everyone’s heard of, Michelangelo. It’s a treasure trove of art, including Annibale Carracci’s world-famous frescoes of romping gods and goddesses (pictured above — since no photos were allowed in the exhibition, courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art).

And Palazzo Farnese is a key piece of juicy Renaissance history: It was built by Alessandro Farnese (later Pope Paul III) after he got his start in the Church thanks to his sister, Giulia. Why was she so influential? Well, she was sleeping with Pope Alexander VI. That helps.

Did I mention the travesty fact that this lovely papal palazzo is closed to the public? Since 1874, it’s been the home of the French Embassy. That means you can’t just wander in off the street. Unfortunately.

Now, you can… or almost.

Since December, Palazzo Farnese has hosted an exhibit titled, quite simply, “Mostra Palazzo Farnese.” Because that’s exactly what it is: a rare display of the palazzo’s gems, not least of all its rooms and galleries themselves. The gorgeous courtyard alone boasts ancient sarcophagi and sculptures, many on loan from the Naples Archaeological Museum; for those who can’t get to Naples, the exhibit also has copies of the fabulous Farnese Hercules and Farnese Bull, both just too big to be moved. (Darn them for being so impressive!)

My favorite? The Venus Kallipygos, a 1st-century B.C. marble (based on a 3rd-century B.C. Greek bronze), as much because I get a kick out of its name — literally, “Venus of the beautiful buttocks” — as because it is, well, beautiful. From top to, er, bottom.

Venus Kallipygos in the Naples Archaeological Museum, currently at Palazzo Farnese, rome

That’s not to mention the glittering tapestries, Renaissance paintings and portraits of the Farnese family that make up the rest of the exhibition.

As far as rooms go, though, there’s nothing quite like the salon frescoed by Annibale Carracci, the famous High Renaissance painter from Bologna. Now, his frescoes are little-recognized compared to, say, those by Raphael or Michelangelo in the Vatican, but that’s a shame: Art historians always have considered them an incredible blend of both styles, and they’re usually seen as the best frescoes of the High Renaissance. What Raphael lacked in power, muscularity and dynamism, Carracci’s got. And what Michelangelo didn’t quite grasp in terms of harmony, beauty, and elegance, well, Carracci’s covered that part, too.

Don’t believe me? Just check out this image (courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art):

Annibale Carracci frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

Here’s a close-up of that great fresco you see at the far end, the Cyclops Polyphemus:

Cyclops Polyphemus in Annibale Carracci's frescoes in Palazzo Farnese, Rome

Pretty great stuff. But if you don’t get your bottom there before April 27, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a chance to see any of this again.

The cost of the exhibit, which includes a (unsurprisingly dry, but informative) audioguide, is €12, plus reductions. Don’t wait in line for your ticket — book your spot in advance. (Especially since the lines will probably get longer as the exhibit nears its end date!). Call 0632810 to book, or — easier still for those already in Rome — stop by the Feltrinelli bookstore at Largo Argentina. There, they have a “box office” where you can buy your tickets for one of the available time slots.

And if you’re still not convinced the Palazzo Farnese is worth beelining too — let me repeat, before it closes to the public once more — check out The Economist’s enthusiastic take on the Mostra Palazzo Farnese. (After all, if The Economist says it, it must be true).

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The Week of Free Museums Across Italy… Is Here!

Raphael's Entombment at the Borghese Gallery, Rome

Hurrah — the "week of culture" is here!

From now until April 17, Italy's state-run museums and sites are free. (Yay!) In Rome, that includes the Colosseum, Forum, Palazzo Massimo, Galleria Borghese (where you can find Raphael's beautiful "Entombment," above) and Baths of Caracalla… to name a few. Take advantage!

Here's a complete list of sites with free entrances this week, from Pierreci (click on the drop-down beneath the map on the right to choose your region — Rome, of course, is Lazio).

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When It’s Great to be a Woman in Italy

Festa della donna free museums in Italy

Yes, there might be sexism in Italy — even up to the highest levels of government. Yes, it might be so bad that primetime news shows routinely show half-naked women, that the country lags behind in every statistic from the gender gap in wages to the number of female politicians, and that a million women protested in a nationwide demonstration last month.

But at least this Tuesday, March 8, women get a break: For Festa della Donna, the traditional Italian holiday for women, all nationally-run monuments and museums will be free for females only. In Rome, that includes sites like the Colosseum and Palazzo Massimo.

Hey, it's something. Ladies: Take advantage!

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Through May, Naples Museums Come Free

Although I usually focus on events in Rome, I came across some news today that — especially since I just posted on Naples as a great day or weekend trip from Rome — I can't not share with you all.

From now until May 30, some of Naples' top museums will be free. The fantastic Archaeological Museum, unfortunately, doesn't seem to be included, but the museum at Capodimonte (remember, the one with all of those famous pieces by artists from Botticelli to Caravaggio) is. That's €7.50 saved. You can buy two whole pizzas with that kind of change.

The Capodimonte, as well as the museum at Castel Sant'Elmo and the Certosa and Museum of San Martino, are free from 8:30am-10am and 4pm-7:30 through May. The museum Duca di Martina is free all day (8:30am-2pm). Click here for information on Naples' free museums from Pierreci.

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Romeing, On Newsstands Now

Finally, Rome has an answer to "Time Out": Romeing, a free mini-magazine that publishes a full calendar of events, plus articles and reviews, each month.

Although there are other print publications like this in Rome, none are in English. (One exception: "Where Rome," but its calendar isn't exactly exhaustive). Aimed at expats or travelers looking for something to do beyond the Vatican or Colosseum, whether a new modern art show at the Maxxi or a rugby match viewing at Flaminio Stadium, it's small enough to slide into your back pocket or purse.

Check it out…plus my contributions, including my monthly "Tips & Tricks" column (inspired by the same section in this blog!).

You can pick up Romeing at a variety of hotels, museums, bars, and embassies around the city, including the Galleria Borghese, Maxxi, Bibli (Trastevere), Mimi e Coco (Piazza Navona), Magnolia (Campo dei Fiori), the British embassy, Australian embassy, and Leonardo da Vinci language school, among others.

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This Week, the Eagle and the Dragon in Full Force

Two Empires: Eagle and Dragon teaser in the Forum, Rome Anyone who's visited Rome's Curia in the Forum over the past month has seen China's terracotta warriors, strutting their stuff across the 1,700-year-old Roman marble and porphyry floor.

But as I wrote in early October, that exhibit comparing the Chinese and Roman empires was just a taste. This weekend, the full exhibit opens at Palazzo Venezia.

[Update, Nov. 18: It's also free on its opening day on Friday and is open from 10am-7pm. Very cool!]

Opening on Friday, Nov. 19, the exhibit boasts more than 400 different pieces from the ancient Roman and Chinese empires. It's the first time the two empires have been compared in an exhibit, and it's about time: both empires were extraordinarily influential, as well as contemporaries, with their heights from about the 3rd centuries B.C. to 4th century A.D. 

It's bound to be a fascinating game of compare-and-contrast. As soon as I see it, I'll report back. In the meantime, if you can, go yourself.

The exhibit is at the Palazzo Venezia from Nov. 19 daily until Jan.9, except for Mondays, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. It's open from 8:30am-9:30pm daily. Entrance to the exhibit is at Via del Plebiscito 19; for a map, click here.

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