The Capitoline Museum: A Jewel in Rome’s Crown

As an author of a historical fiction trilogy on the life of Marc Antony, Rome is my happy place. I am a total museum-geek, and when in Rome, I do what the geeks do—I visit museums. There are soooo many from which to choose. However, the Capitoline Museum lands solidly among my top three favorites. 

First of all, a visitor must ASCEND the top of the Capitoline Hill to get to the front entrance. Now anybody can climb a hill, but THIS hill is in the City of Seven Hills, and the Capitoline was not only the highest in Rome, but it was the site of the ancient Temple of Jupiter—King of the Roman pantheon. The “Capitolium” originally included two hills, the Arx and Capitoline. Between them was a gorge-like depression. Strangely, that’s where you’ll actually wind up—although it’s no longer a depression. In fact, it’s a vast square with a copy of the famous Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue as its central focus (the real one is inside!). But if you stand next to the statue before going in, do a three-sixty and look around.

The building facades surrounding you, all date from the Renaissance, for you’re smack dab in the center of Michelangelo’s famously designed Piazza Campidoglio. However, the bones of these same structures date from as far back as the 13th century. To enter the museum, you’ll first visit the Palazzo Conservatori. The middle building, the Palazzo Senatorio sits atop some ruins we’ll discuss in a moment—those of the ancient Tabularium. And the third building is the Palazzo Nuovo which was originally built on top of the Arx. Michelangelo’s job was to create a sense of balance when he designed the piazza. Sadly, he died before most of its completion.

Rome is layer upon layer of history and the design of the Capitoline Museum showcases this in phenomenal ways. Wherever you are, be on the lookout for Medieval, Renaissance, and ancient art/ architecture.

After a brief security check and ticket purchase, one is free to enter and enjoy. Be sure to ask for a museum map. After going through security, turn left, past the gift shop, and then look for stairs on the right, leading down.

Descending these stairs literally takes you back into history.

What the average visitor doesn’t know is that the Capitoline Museum is partially attached to the only remaining building that dates from the late Roman Republican period. The Republican Period was the time of some of Rome’s biggest names and toward its end, there was plenty of bloody civil war to boot.

As soon as you enter the first exhibit, you are very near the ancient Tabularium. But first, take a look at the first exhibit. It’s a remarkable display of Roman tombstones and funerary steles. Sound morbid? It’s not! Take your time. Read some of these inscriptions. You might find that these ancient people weren’t so different from you. One especially poignant inscription laments the loss of a child, recalling his exact age, the year, month, and hour of his death. Some memorialize the lives of slaves and beloved servants who served within the imperial households of the Caesars. This exhibit that features death is actually a fabulous snapshot of LIFE in the Roman past.

Tabularium Interior

Once you come to a broad corridor leading up to the right, GO THERE! The stairs head upward and suddenly you’ll be inside the Tabularium, dating from the 70’s BC! You will walk a corridor that was undoubtedly trod upon by men like Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Cicero, and Caesar Augustus. Most historians believe that its mighty archways once housed Rome’s important documents—so welcome to the original Roman “cloud”! However, since this building served Rome, its value must have been inestimable, since it was built on sacred ground. It is also one of history’s most USED buildings, and there has been testament to its continued repurposing since its construction, two thousand years ago.

View of the Forum from the Tabularium

Keep going straight, and you’ll wind up on what appears to be a terrace, overlooking the expanse of the Forum Romanum. This is a classic place for awesome photo ops, so have your camera ready. I encourage you to explore the Tabularium. It might appear that there’s not much to see, but there are interesting fragments, statuary, and crevices spanning well over two-thousand years.

After seeing the Tabularium, retrace your steps and visit the main floor of the museum where you first entered. There you’ll find some magnificently sculptured fountains from antiquity.

Now follow your map to the Marcus Aurelius statue (this one will be the original). It will take you into the part of the museum that sits atop the remains of Jupiter’s Temple. As you enter this room full of space and light, you’ll see jaw-dropping masterpieces from Rome’s imperial period. The famous Commodus bust, depicting the sinister emperor as Hercules is one of my favorites along this peristyle- like hall. Go ahead and descend the stairs into the center of the magnificent display. Feast your eyes on the majestic Marcus Aurelius. This is the world’s ONLY fully surviving equestrian statue from antiquity. That makes it a treasure already, but you’ll notice traces of gold. It had once been gilt, and a surprising amount still remains.

Image Caption

After you get your pics, head down the stairs toward the ruins of Jupiter’s Temple. You’ll be greeted by a mammoth nude bronze of Hercules, also gilt. It is a masterpiece and the eyes are especially stunning. Take a stroll around the Jupiter Temples crumbling walls. Signage on the way gives you details regarding the history of this monument. One tasty fact is that you’re standing at the very Temple where Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators fled after they assassinated Julius Caesar.

In several nearby rooms, one can view a phenomenal marble floor that once graced the imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill. One small room houses the famous Capitoline Wolf, giving the viewer a toothy smile as she suckles Romulus and Remus.

Capitoline Wolf

Hopefully, you’ll have all day. So far, you’ve only visited TWO of the three buildings that house the museum. To cross over into the third and final building, you may exit the front of the building near security and cross the Campidoglio. Or, you may wish to go back downstairs, pass the funerary stele exhibit and this time, go straight, passing the stairs on the right to the Tabularium. Keep going, and you’ll discover another flight of stairs on the other side, taking you into the Palazzo Nuovo without ever having to go outside.

Theatrical Mosaic

An admirable collection of Bernini pieces is housed in this lovely section of the Capitoline, along with more treasures from the Middle Ages, Renaissance, ancient periods (both Greek & Roman) including paintings, furniture, ceramics, and tables inlaid with splendid mosaics. And while we’re mentioning mosaics, keep in mind that the ones you either see preserved in frames on walls or walk on during your visit are originals from antiquity. A favorite of mine is the colorful Theatrical Masks, displayed in one of the smaller rooms when you first come up the stairs from the Tabularium. It’s in a frame on a wall. Look at it carefully. The two curious-looking rods in the background are actually tibiae—double-flutes so often used in theatrical productions in ancient times.

The Capitoline Museum is crowned with a lovely café and outdoor terrace. It’s a lovely place to go and enjoy high views of the city of Rome.

Truly this museum is one of the first you should visit on a trip to Italy. Yes, it can be crowded, but never as packed as the Vatican Museum, where large tourist groups literally ruin the experience for solo travelers.

So what are you waiting for? Visit Rome and the Capitoline Museum—you won’t be disappointed!

Brook has written two books which you can find on amazon:

Antonius: Son of Rome

Antonius: Second in Command

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Brook Allen

Brook teaches full-time as a Music Educator and works in a rural public-school district near Roanoke, Virginia. Her personal interests include travel, cycling, hiking in the woods, reading, and spending downtime with her husband and two amazing Labrador Retrievers. She lives in the heart of southwest Virginia in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains.