National Museum of the Early Middle Ages, Rome

Il Museo Nazionale dell’Alto Medioevo. 

The museum exhibits artefacts from the late IVth century AD to about the XIth, all recovered from several Italian archeological sites. This historical period, vaguely identified as ‘the dark ages’, is little known and in need of museums that would contribute to its understanding.

A stunning Lombard fibula (broock)

A stunning Lombard fibula (brooch)

What we find on view here is a collection of artifacts recovered from a Lombard (VIth – VIIth cent. AD) and a Carolingian (IXth  – Xth cent. AD) settlement from two sites on the Italian peninsula and assigned to this museum for display.

Some of these small objects are beautifully crafted in metal (steel, silver and gold), glass and stone and are lined up, with terse descriptive tags, on glass shelves. Some larger objects are set on pedestals, or directly on the floor, and placed in another couple of rooms.

Delicate medieval Coptic textile fragments from Africa are also exhibited in an isolated room.

DSC_2486 (1300x782)The ‘Italian” artifacts exhibited include those from some Christian settlements near Rome DSC_2487 (1270x1300) (VIIIth to Xth c. AD) and a late roman (IVth c. AD) room with amazing decorations in ‘opus sectile’. The delicate work in many types of cut stones decorated a building in Ostia Antica (near Rome) and was reconstructed here.italian room (1300x897)

DSC_2490 (1300x825)The museum is located in one of the grand buildings that make up the EUR area of Rome. It is an institute of the Italian Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali (Direzione generale per i beni archeologici) Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma.

The exhibition space is a clean, well lit, a space of typical 60’s design. Several display cabinets contain all the small artifacts, the large ones are distributed on the room floors on pedestals.

Very little information on the pieces displayed is provided to the viewer and even less information is available to explain why they are here and the historical and cultural context of the artifacts.

Even the important ‘opus sectile’ room is not adequately contextualized.

The room in opus sectile from the Porta Marina building in Ostia Antica.

The room in opus sectile from the Porta Marina building in Ostia Antica.

The purpose of the exhibition seems to be the archival display of the “findings” of an archeological campaign, but without the study’s notes.
The disconnection in the cultural specificity of the family of artifacts and the lack of supporting information on the pieces leaves the viewer with the limited enjoyment of a few ‘beautiful’ pieces.  Enough, perhaps, to justify a visit but too little to place this museum in the map of successful “national” cultural endeavors.
The period from the fall of the Roman Empire to the renaissance has perhaps contributed less to the Italian cultural patrimony than those buttressing it; its historical relevance is, however, hardly a minor one. The high number of roman (BCE to the Vth century AD) and of medieval (XIth to XVth century AD) museums in Italy created for a museum specialized in this period the opportunity to bridge the gap by providing needed historical and cultural ties. How successfully this institution met this opportunity is rather questionable.




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