Museo Nazionale Romano: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, (“Palazzo Massimo” for short) is perhaps the most underrated archaeological museum in Rome. While tickets for the Vatican Museums and Borghese Gallery are fully booked for days ahead, and the Capitoline Museums are packed from the outside to the inside, this museum, which houses exhibits that showcase ancient Roman culture, archaeology, and art in the perhaps most detailed and systematic manner, enjoys the company of very few visitors. Although the museum is located right outside the busy main railway station square, Piazza dei Cinquecento, in here one finds tranquility most desirable which makes emerging in the world of ancient Rome possible.
Palazzo Massimo is currently the most significant branch among the four museums under Museo Nazionale Romano (“MNR” for short). MNR originated in the year of soaring urban development of Rome, 1889. In the midst of hectic city construction within the Aurelian Walls as well as the adjacent suburbs, many ancient Roman sites turned up and rescue excavations have secured a large number of meaningful archaeological findings, but the finds were only in need for an institution to preserve, study, and eventually display them. Thus was MNR established, based initially in the Diocletian Baths which later became the Museo Nazionale Romano: Terme di Diocleziano branch. In the 1980s, when the private mansion of Massimo Palace was incorporated into the system, many fine exhibits gradually made their way across the street to Palazzo Massimo, eventually forming the fine museum we see today.
Most of Palazzo Massimo’s exhibits are sculptural works as well as frescos and mosaics from Roman villae dating back to the late Republic to late Empire (c. 200 BCE – 400 CE). Three out of four floors of the museum deserve at least an hour to do each of them justice, while I personally spent 6.5 hours of visit and got both mentally and physically exhausted after the visit. Ground floor and the first floor display Roman sculpture in a chronological/thematic order. Ground floor features sculpture and portraits from the late Republic up to the Flavian period, and among the most unique exhibits are two Roman calendars. First floor begins with zooming into the Antonine period and carefully delineating stylistic changes of each of its emperors in terms of portraiture. Another part of the floor devotes to the display of statues from Roman suburban imperial villae – the statues interestingly appear in groups corresponding or interacting with each other, and they bear significant Greek traditions. However, one part apparently has not been curated in the same manner as the rest of the floor, where some beautiful late Roman sarcophagi are displayed. Every single exhibit conveys deep cultural and societal messages and poses questions as to how ancient societies should be studied, and they all have their distinctive sense of humor as well.
The second floor provides stunning reconstructions of beautifully decorated Roman rooms. As less mobile archaeological findings and ones that are more dependent on technology and preservation by specialists than, say, statues or busts, frescos and mosaics are literally embedded in their original contexts but fairly difficult for preservation. Recreating an original context in museums for every set of decorative frescos or mosaics seem to be the best solution, and this is what Palazzo Massimo has done. The room enriched by the naturalistic frescos in Domus Livia is the most astounding – you walk in the room as if you stroll into a garden surrounded by a Wald of fruit trees and twittering birds.
Palazzo Massimo as an archaeological museum showing aspects of ancient Roman art at its height has little to complain in terms of its curation. The exhibition appeals to both scholars of Roman art and archaeology and visitors of decent interest in those areas in general. Its careful curation could be seen clearly from every informational placard. Their effectiveness in conveying both general ideas and specific facts and arguments as well as accuracy in those information are almost beyond compare. Every placard highlights specific knowledge distinctive to each object itself, and always tells how an educated speculation or argument is substantiated. More importantly, through placards each and every part of the exhibition is tied together effortlessly, presenting, at the very end, a vivid world of ancient Roman art and culture. Woe to those who visited the Palatine and Roman Forum and didn’t know what’s going on for the entire time! If only they provide placards as effective as those in Palazzo Massimo! Placards do light up the world.
Moreover, Palazzo Massimo offers a varied lens to look at classical history. The exhibition purposefully highlights many objects that shed light on women’s life in ancient Roman societies, the most interesting of which are female busts of exquisite hair fashion! In the distinctively homophobic Italian society, Palazzo Massimo’s explicit display of many statues of Hadrian’s male lover Antinous is indeed a bold move. Frescos and mosaics also provides aspects through which the ancient society may be understood – from depiction of food and symposium scenes to the understanding of culinary and drinking culture, from portraits of rare animals to explore the boundaries of and communication within the Romanitas, etc. The entire museum through its unique angles in looking at ancient Rome shows forth the problématique of classical studies.
In sum, Palazzo Massimo holds up its heavy name, “National Roman Museum,” in an outstanding way.
Visited on 6th of May, 2017
Cover image: the Portonaccio Sacorphagus, Antonine period.
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