The Capitoline Museums can be considered the world's oldest museum. Located on top of the beautiful Campidoglio Hill, they date back to 1471. The origin of this collection was a donation from Pope Sixtus IV of a group of statues which held an important symbolic value to the city of Rome. In fact, the museums have always been linked to the Eternal City, as most items on display come from Rome.
If you're interested in ancient Roman art and history, you can't miss the Musei Capitolini, a vital part of any trip to Rome to better understand how the streets of the city were once adorned. Here are some of the highlights that you will find during your visit!
Capitoline Museums: how to visit
The Capitoline Museums are located in a privileged location flanking Piazza del Campidogio. Designed by Michelangelo in 1538, it is probably one of the most impressive squares that you can find in Rome.
The beautiful piazza is flanked by the Palazzo Nuovo and Palazzo dei Conservatori, both of them holding the collection of the Capitoline Museums. Between both buildings stands Palazzo Senatorio, seat of the Roman city council, and right in the centre of the square is a copy of an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius; you can find the original inside the museum.
The Capitoline Museums open daily from 9:30AM to 7:30PM. Prices for adults are €15, or €13 with concessions. Tickets will give you access to the full exhibition in both buildings.
You can also purchase your tickets online for the same price, and you'll just need to show the printed receipt at the turnstiles so there's no need to go to the ticket office or wait in the queue. You can also rent a video guide in multiple languages for an additional cost of €6.
Capitoline Museums: highlights
As you enter the building, you will first reach the courtyard, an open-air space containing important examples of colossal Roman sculptures, such as the marble fragments of an imposing statue of Constantine, discovered in the Roman Forum in the 15th century.
The courtyard was expanded in the 18th century with the construction of the portico on the back wall to accommodate a group of sculptures of incalculable value: the Goddess Rome and the two Barbarian prisoners from the Cesi collection, purchased by Pope Clement XI for the Capitoline Museum.
The Ripiano Staircase gives access to the main galleries of the Capitoline Museums. Around 1570, while work was underway on the new facade of the Palazzo, the monumental staircase that substituted the external XV century staircase was built.
The two great flights of stairs got light from the small open courtyard, which was closed at the beginning of the XX century.
The vaults of the landing were decorated by Lucy Luzi between 1572 and 1575 with a sophisticated stucco decoration.
Halls of the Horti Lamiani
Many of the statues on display in the Capitoline Museums were excavated in the ancient Roman horti, the beautifully decorated gardens inside Roman houses. Most of the halls inside the Capitoline Museums take their name from these ancient Roman gardens where the statues on display were found.
On the upper part of the palace, you will reach the Halls Horti Lamiani, with the impressive Bust of Commodus as Hercules. It can be considered one of the most famous masterpieces of Roman portraiture, depicting the emperor in the guise of Hercules. It contains all the symbols that identified Hercules: a lion’s skin over his head, the club in his right hand, and the golden apples of Hesperides in his left hand.
Flanking Hercule’s bust are two sculptures representing a marine Triton, known as the Torso of Triton or Sea Centaur.
Halls of the Horti of Maecenas
The Horti of Maecenas are the most ancient to be found in the residential gardens at the Esquiline Hill.
The sculpted decorations found inside show the cultural interests of the owner, with images of muses as well as portraits of illustrious men of letters.
The most famous pieces on display are the Statue of Herakles Fighting, a statue of a dog made in green marble, and a fountain in the form of a horn-shaped drinking cup.
Marcus Aurelius Exedra
This modern glass hall holds the original equestrian monument dedicated to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, dated between 161-180 A.D. You can find a 16th century copy on Piazza del Campidoglio.
The statue has a connection with Marcus Aurelius' triumph over the Germanic peoples. During that period, the equestrian statues were quite diffused in Rome: there's writing from the late Imperial period mentioning at least twenty-two sculptures called equi magni, that is, larger that life-size, exactly like the monument of Marcus Aurelius. However, this sculpture stands out because of its integrity. That's the reason why it soon acquired a strong symbolic meaning for all those who aspired at becoming a legitimate heir to the Roman Empire.
It is not clear where the statue originally stood. Since it was erected for a public dedication, it was most likely set in the Roman Forum or the square with the dynastic temple that circled the Antonine Column.
In January 1538, on the wish of Pope Paul III of the Farnese family, the statue was moved to the Capitol’s Hill, that was since the XII century the seat of the town’s authorities. A year after its arrival, the Roman Senate entrusted Michelangelo with the task of rearranging the setting of the Statue of Marcus Aurelius. The great Florentine master did not constrain himself into developing a simple design for a suitable placing of the monument, but transformed the statue into the visual focus of such a wonderful architectural setting like the Piazza del Campidoglio.
In this hall you will also find the beautiful sculptural ensemble known as Lion attacking a horse. Back in the Middle Ages, this statue attained a great symbolic significance, as the lion's ferocity represented the characteristics of dominance, power and greatness of Rome.
Temple of Capitoline Jupiter
This temple of exceptional dimensions, dedicated to the Capitoline triad, Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, was erected on the top of the Capitoline at the end of the 6th century BC.
At the end of the antique period, the temple was systematically plundered and used as a quarry for previous materials. Today, this temple makes one wonder at its extraordinary size, that, luckily, can still be reconstructed.
The building kept throughout the years its main architectural features: its square plan was occupied for about half of its length by a triple row of six columns and, for the other half, by three cell dedicated to the Capitoline triad.
The temple of Jupiter was in special connection with the wars of conquest, both with the ceremonies that preceded and with the final triumph tributes by the Senate to the victorious generals. That’s the reason why the temple soon became the symbol of the town of Rome and a replica was built in all Roman newly founded cities.
Today, we can only find part of the external wall still standing. However, looking at the reconstructed replica exhibited at the museum, you can have an idea of the amazing size and beauty of this colossal construction.
Hall of the Eagles
This room obtains its name from the sculpture of the two Roman eagles placed on two of the columns.
The painted friezes on the walls depict precious grotesques with views of Rome and its ancient monuments, as well as a view from the Capitoline Square in the XVI century.
Against one of the walls is the Diana of Ephesus, a copy from an original of the 2nd century B.C. It represents Artemis (also known as Diana in Roman mythology) at Ephesus, a marble sculpture with bronze inlays enriched by fertility symbols such as flowers and bees.
Hall of the Geese
Getting its name from the two bronze geese statues from the XVIII century, in this room you will find the famous Bust of Medusa, sculptured by the Italian master Lorenzo Bernini.
According to the myth, Medusa had the power of turning into stone anyone who looked directly at her eyes.
This beautiful portrait by Bernini represents the most deadly of the Gorgons at the moment of her metamorphosis when, according to legend, she looked into an imaginary mirror and seeing her own reflection, was transformed into stone.
In this true masterpiece of the XVII century, Bernini managed to depict Medusa's terrified look as she's being transformed, in this case, into marble instead of stone.
Hall of the She-Wolf
The Capitoline She-wolf is a bronze masterpiece dating back to the beginning of the V century B.C. This work was given to the Roman people in the XV century by Pope Sixtus IV. Once it got to the Capitoline Hill, the She-wolf was taken up as the symbol of Rome, following the legend that the city was founded by the mythical twins Romulus and Remus nursed by a she-wolf.
During the same period, to the antique bronze, the two young boys were added to make the work more faithful to the legendary tale. The She-wolf was at first placed on the facade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, and subsequently moved inside the building.
Hall of Captains
This room held the Secret Council and the Tribunal of the Conservators. Its present name is due to the presence of sculptures dating between the end of the 16th century and the first decades of the 17th century in honour of illustrious generals who distinguished themselves in military actions.
Ancient armed sculptures were re-used to make these honorary statues and the contemporary sculptors had the task of completing the missing parts.
The fresco decorations of the hall, painted by Tommasi Laureti, use vivid colours and great emphasis tell of military valour and civil virtue of the first period of the republic, depicting the Justice of Brutus, Mucius Scaevola and Porsenna, Horatious Cocles on the Sublicius bridge, and The Battle of Lake Regillus.
Hall of Hannibal
This hall is dedicated to the narration of episodes of the wars Rome waged against its rival Carthage. The name derives from the image of Hannibal on the central wall.
This room is the only one that has reached us without great changes and subsequent interventions.
The frescoes on the walls represent the most complete testimony of the first decorative cycle of the Palazzo. Pillars frame the historical scenes with so-called grotesque candelabra (a type of decoration reproducing candlesticks), while at the base there is a frieze with busts of Roman generals.
This hall acquired a rich decoration in the second half of the 18th century, when the Conservators decided to install a canopy over the throne of the Pope, the city’s ruler.
The walls were adorned with fine tapestries depicting episodes from Roman history. The tapestries depict scenes based on works preserved in the Capitoline Museums, such as Ruben’s painting of Romulus and Remus, or the sculpture of the Goddess Roma, known as Cesi Roma.
In the frescoed frieze, dating from the XVI century, there’s reproductions of famous ancient statues, including the Laocoön and the Belvedere Apolo.