Il Museo Nazionale Romano: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
The National Roman Museum, another institute of the Italian Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali (Direzione generale per le antichità) ) Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma, is structured on four sites: Palazzo Massimo, the Baths of Diocletian, Crypta Baldi, and Palazzo Altemps.
Palazzo Massimo is a Neo-Renaissance style nineteenth-century palace close to the Termini train station and it houses one of the world’s most important collections of Classical art.
On the four floors of the museum, sculptures, frescoes and mosaics, coins and jewels document the evolution of the Roman artistic culture from the 2nd c. BCE (late Republican age) through the 5th c. CE. These seven hundred years of roman history encompass the rise and fall of that civilization and archeological finds representative of the highest roman artistic production throughout that period are exhibited here with a marked emphasis on their aesthetic character rather than their historical referent.
Moving from room to room the visitor is exposed – without discontinuity – to amazing classical artworks, in a progression that makes the head spin. The most important pieces are displayed with a generous individual description that contextualizes them historically and artistically, the interconnection amongst the many pieces is, however unavoidably, less incisive and assigned to display techniques (grouping) or descriptive panels.
The museum managed to implement notable exhibition techniques, the clean and elegant displays avoid the usual “room crowding” and interference from the palace settings, only the artwork ‘tags’ sometime seems too short and cryptic.
The palace layout is based on a cloister structure where the galleries are glass enclosed and connected to an outer ring of main rooms. Three floors (and a basement) of galleries and rooms are utilized as exhibition areas and they enables a truly grand cultural experience, whose enjoyment would be further enhanced by even a base knowledge of roman art and history.
Amongst the sculptural masterpieces exhibited on the ground and first floor we find the Boxer at Rest, the Lancellotti Discobolus the Hermaphroditus Asleep, the Maiden of Antium, the Dying Niobid and the Bronze Dyonisus. These pieces clearly address the appropriation and imitation of the Greek sculptural models by a roman society whose emancipation was progressing with its economic and political growth.
Among the portraits of the emperors in display, some in particular stand out: the statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, the portraits of princes and princesses of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, the head of Hadrian, the statue of Antoninus Pius, the bust of Septimius Severus.
These floors include amazing and important works like the Sarcophagus of Portonaccio, where Romans and Barbarians are represented in battle, and the bronze sculptures that decorated Caligula’s ships found at the bottom of the small Nemi lake.
On the second floor of the museum are exhibited important two dimensional artworks: frescoes, mosaics and stone inlaid works. The ‘painted garden’ frescoes from the Villa of Livia’s dining room (triclinium) and those from several rooms of Villa of the Farnesina are all installed in accurately reconstructed rooms and allow a unique appreciation of prestigious roman dwellings. Pavement mosaics, mostly polychrome and displayed on walls, provide further evidence of roman ‘home decoration’ in grand style.
The basement of the palace has two sections, a large Numismatic Section and a sort of ethnographic display. While the coin collections and the priceless insignia of a Roman emperor (standard-bearer spearheads, parade lances and sceptres) have a great historical value, the displays of various objects used in everyday life are somewhat limited in scope and not on the same level as the rest of the museum collections. Many of these objects were found in graves, like the very beautiful goldsmith’s items part of a female funerary trousseaux, the unusual statuettes in amber and pupae (dolls) or the fascinating hairpins and delicate golden reticulae (hairnets).
Concluding this brief review of the museum we cannot avoid a consideration on its context. Rome has now several major institutions that exhibit artifact from the Italian antiquity (let’s say from approx. the 7th c. BCE to the 5th c. CE) primarily, but not exclusively, Etruscan and Roman archaeological finds; these huge inventory of items ranging from sublime classical works to crafted items of everyday use, if properly exhibited, would enables the visitor to gain a great deal of insight and knowledge on the old italic civilization. While Palazzo Massimo’s collection can be certainly considered important and referential, the visitor is not guided toward an appreciation of the relationship that these artifacts (and their exhibition) have with other important museums in the city. The issue of contextualization is raised here because the lack of some degree of integration (or at least coordination) amongst museums in the city affects the more important institutions even more than the lesser ones.