Museo Nazionale Romano: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme ★★

Sarcophagus with battle scene between Romans and Germans (AD 180–190), Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome, Italy (Photo by Jastrow)
Sarcophagus with battle scene between Romans and Germans (AD 180–190)

Rome's Palazzo Massimo alle Terme houses the best collection of the Museo Nazionale Romano, a treasure trove of ancient sculptures, frescoes, and mosaics

Opened in 1998, this museum simply blows away anything else you'll find in Rome when it comes to Classical-era statues, frescoes, and mosaics.

This is especially true once you consider it is but part of a vast collection called the Museo Nazioanle Romano spread across five Rome spaces, including the nearby Baths of Diocletian and the Palazzo Altemps, near Piazza Navona.

The Palazzo Massimo a veritable "Where have you been all my life?" experience for antiquities buffs, and promises an aesthetically pleasant and informative afternoon even for the mildly curious.

This 19th-century palazzo near Termini train station houses a fully modernized museum of advanced lighting systems, explanatory placards in English, and a curatorial attention to detail heretofore unseen on the dusty old Roman museum scene.

The ground floor and first floor - Statues and sculptures

There are no boring ranks of broken marble busts here—portrait busts there are aplenty, but most are masterworks of expression and character, representing famous Romans and giving you an opportunity to put marble faces to the names of all those emperors and other ancient bigwigs.

Among them is a statue of Augustus Caesar wearing his toga pulled over his head like a shawl, a sign he had assumed the role of a priest (actually, of the head priest, which in Latin is Pontifex Maximus, a title the Christian popes would later adopt).

Also on the ground floor is an altar from Ostia Antica whose reliefs bear a striking resemblance to 15th-century frescoes of the Nativity

There's also a hauntingly beautiful 440 BC statue of a wounded Niobid, collapsing as she reaches for her back where one of Apollo and Artemis' spiteful arrows struck.

Among the masterpieces up on the first floor are a discus thrower, a bronze Dionysus fished out of the Tiber, bronze bits from ancient shipwrecks on Lake Nemi, and an incredibly well-preserved sarcophagus featuring a tumultuous battle scene between Romans and Germanic barbarians (all from the AD 2nd century).

The second floor - Frescoes and mosaics

Up on second floor are Roman frescoes, stuccoes, and mosaics spanning the 1st century BC to the AD 5th century, most never seen by the general public since they were discovered in the 19th century.

The frescoes and stuccoes are mainly countryside scenes, decorative strips, and a few naval battles, all carefully restored and reattached into spaces that are faithful to the original dimensions of the rooms from which they came.

They came primarily from two sites: the Augustus' summer villa of "Prima Porta" (AD 1st century), and the ancient "Villa della Farnesina," unearthed near the existing Renaissance Villa Farnesina on the Trastevere banks of the Tiber in the 1870s as they were preparing to build the river embankments.

This 30-20 BC villa—most likely built for general Agrippa to celebrate his marriage to Emperor Augustus' daughter, but probably never actually lived in—was quickly excavated, the frescoes detached, and the whole thing buried in concrete to raise the embankments. The ancient frescoes remained "under restoration" for the next 119 years until this museum opened.

Among the recreated rooms of detached frescoes from the ancient Villa Farnesina is the viridarium, all four walls decorated as if the room were actually a tent with a "view" out to the gardens on all four sides (in reality, it was a sunken space used as a winter dining room so you could pretend it was still spring outdoors).

The best part? This would not look at all out of place in the existing Villa Farnesina, built 1,500 years later, which has a room upstairs with an almost identical theme: the walls frescoed to appear to be open loggias looking out over the surrounding countryside.

Also up here are halls and rooms lined with incredible mosaic scenes, among them the famous Four Charioteers standing with their horses in the four traditional team colors (red, blue, green, and white) that would run the races around the Circus Maximus.

There are also several rare, AD 4th-century opus sectile (marble inlay) scenes from the Basilica of Giunio Bassa.

The basement - Decorative arts and coinage

The basement has two sections. The first contains ancient jewelry, gold hair nets, ivory dolls, didactic CD-ROM consoles, and the mummy of an eight-year-old girl.

The second is an oversized vault containing Rome's greatest numismatic collection. It traces Italian coinage from ancient Roman Republic monies through the pocket change of Imperial Rome, medieval Italian empires, and Renaissance principalities, to the Italian lira, the Euro, and a computer live feed of the Italian stock exchange.

 
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Photo gallery
  • Sarcophagus with battle scene between Romans and Germans (AD 180–190), Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo by Jastrow)
  • Wounded Niobid. Parian marble, Greek artwork, ca. 440 BC. From the Horti Sallustiani, in the area of Piazza Sallustio, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo by Jastrow)
  • Altar of Mars and Venus, back side with representation of the lupercal: Romulus and Remus fed by the she-wolf, Lupa, surrounded by representations of the Tiber and the Palatine. Panel from an alter dedicated to the divine couple of Mars and Venus. Marble,, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo by Ursus)
  • Statue of a prince or dynast without crown, traditionally thought to be a Seleucid prince, maybe Attalus II of Pergamon. Bronze, Greek artwork of the Hellenistic era, 3–2C BC, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT)
  • Augustus as Pontifex Maximus (ca. 10–1 BC): head covered, wearing the toga and calcei patricii (shoes reserved for Patricians), he extends his right arm to pour a libation; a cupsa (container for officiel documents) lies at his feet. Greek marble (arms an, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen)
  • Boxer of Quirinal, Greek Hellenistic bronze sculpture of a sitting nude boxer at rest, 100-50 BC, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo by Carole Raddato)
  • Frescoes from the Casa de la Farnesina, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)
  • Frescoes from the Casa de la Farnesina, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)
  • Frescoes from the Casa de la Farnesina, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)
  • 1C BC frescoes from the VIlla Livia in Primaporta, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Discobolus Lancellotti (Discus Thrower), Roman copy of a Greek original from cs. AD 140, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen)
  • Pavement mosaic with a circus charioteer of the veneta (blue) faction. Roman artwork, first half of the AD 3C. From the Villa dei Severi at Baccano, 16 miles from the Via Appia., Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo by Jastrow)
  • Pavement mosaic with a circus charioteer of the albata (white) faction. Roman artwork, first half of the AD 3C. From the Villa dei Severi at Baccano, 16 miles from the Via Appia., Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo by Jastrow)
  • Central panel of a floor mosaic with a cat and two ducks. Opus vermiculatum, Roman artwork of the late Republican era, first quarter of the 1C BC, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen)
  • Opus sectile panel with the rape of Hylas by the Nymphs. Roman artwork, first half of the 4C. From the basilica of Junius Bassus on the Esquiline Hill, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo by Jastrow)
  • Exhibition of the history of money, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
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Tips

How long does Palazzo Massimo alle Terme take?

Figure on a little less than hour for the ground floor, and the same for the second floor; spend 15 minutes in the basement, and you're at 2–2.5 hours for the whole museum.

Book ahead: You might want to book your tickets ahead of time since you are assigned an entry time to get into the excellent frescoed rooms upstairs (and if you just show up, you might end up having to wait around for several hours before your assigned entry time; if you book ahead, you can pick the time and arrive at a more suitable hour).

The ticket office closes one hour before the museum.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).