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Il Museo Nazionale Romano: Terme di Diocleziano
The National Roman Museum, an 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: the Baths of Diocletian, Palazzo Massimo, Crypta Baldi, and Palazzo Altemps.
The Baths of Diocletian was the most imposing thermal complex ever built in Rome (from 298 to 306 CE) and could accommodate up to 3000 people. In 1561, Pope Pius IV granted the remains of the Baths to the Carthusian monks, appointing them as conservators of the ruins.
Michelangelo converted some of the structures into the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels and the Christian Martyrs and he conceived the planning of the Carthusian Monastery and Cloister that now stands on the site.
The Baths and the Charterhouse was the original seat of the Museo Nazionale Romano when instituted in 1889.
Today the Monastery hosts a major ‘epigraphic’ collection (texts – mostly in Latin – on plaques and statuary) and an exhibition of ‘protohistoric’ artifacts (works produced in ancient Latium, from the 11th to the early 6th century BCE) while the Cloister displays sculptures, sarcophagi, altars as well as bases of statues of the Imperial age.
Two additional exhibition areas have been set up: the garden area in front of the museum entrance, which displays mostly architectural elements from buildings of the Imperial Rome, and several adjacent rooms of the original Baths (which include the Aula Decima) where additional artifacts of the period are displayed.
Although most museums in Rome are hosted in old and grand buildings, thus providing a fascinating setting for displaying ancient artworks, the Diocletian Bath and Charterhouse setting is certainly the grandest of them all.
In fact, the setting is so special that for many visitors it redeems the shortcomings of the collections exhibited.
It should be pointed out that the museum’s fee of seven euro, valid for three days in all four venues of the Museo Nazionale Romano, helps to absolve the institution for not succeeding in making this site the spectacular museum it deserves to be.
However, this review is about the museum and not the gardens of delights and follies, so we’ll address some of the characteristics and problems found visiting it.
The leveling of city buildings ruined by natural or man made events to allow new buildings to be erected has been going on in Rome for the roughly twenty-five centuries of its uninterrupted settlement.
Today, any form of digging, anywhere in the city, is an archaeological matter more than a construction activity. The countless archaeological finds that surface every day, most of “only” historical value but some of great cultural and artistic value, require to be cataloged, stored and assessed so as to contribute to the study of ancient Rome.
The fact that Roman museum’s vaults are overflowing with artifacts collected by choice or chance is appreciated entering the front garden of the Diocletian Bath museum. The landscape of bits and pieces of graying and greening marble artifacts, neatly arranged on the gravel or leaning against the Bath walls, attests to the lack of display space (if indeed display would be required for it all). To the visitor, the sight is both intriguing and disheartening; the weathering of this fine ‘garden décor’ cannot be dissociated from a perception of carelessness for artworks.
Having entered the main structure, the visitor is directed, via a ‘tunnel’ of softly lit statuary, to the back of the building where the Cloister opens up. The large garden surrounded by the square portico is sheer magnificence. The garden hosts another collection of graying architectural pieces (which includes several spectacular giant heads of animals) while the four columned cloister legs host hundreds of marble items, of various size and integrity.
Although a slow walk in the portico affords the scrutiny of these works, many of which are really beautiful even in their incomplete or damaged condition, the open air or the light seems to interfere with the aesthetic appreciation. The resulting perception is that of being presented with a collection of “found objects” whose relevance is mostly their origin in the layers of roman soil.
Re-entering the Charterhouse the visitor is welcomed by a modern museum setting where artworks are well displayed in what appears to be thematic groupings.
A large number of works, displayed to focus on their epigraphic aspects (to the delight of history students), has indeed a striking setup on walls and glass cases.
While a group of works focuses on aspect of religious cults in Imperial Rome, another one deals with the practices of burial and it presents plaques, urns, altars and sarcophagi. This last grouping appears to include the many sarcophagi seen other parts of the museum.
While the labeling and annotation of displayed work appears quite adequate, that of the groups could be perhaps more specific and documented.
At this point, leaving the Charterhouse for the annexed ‘Aula Decima’ in the Bath area is an appropriate choice because the amazingly large spaces provide a rest from crowded displays and allow the enjoyment of large marbles and burial structures set in the untouched bath architecture.
The last display in the Charterhouse is reserved for roman protohistory, a collection of archaeological yields from the bottom layer of the roman soil and from excavations in adjacent territories. Here the anthropological perspective provided helps in the understanding of early Latin settlements.
While visit to the complex is undoubtedly rather pleasing and the scrutiny of the many fine artworks contained is quite challenging, upon leaving the museum, one is left with a sense of institutional missed opportunity. Fortunately, these exceptional architectural structures and their content of ancient artworks are so well preserved that institutional improvements enhancing their synergy can be envisioned in the future.