This nineteenth-century palace in Neo-Renaissance style, close to the Termini Train Station, 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 late Republican age through Late Antiquity (2nd c. BCE - 5th c. CE) along an exhibition path in which Ancient Roman history, myths and everyday life live anew.
In the rooms of the ground floor are exhibited splendid Greek originals discovered in Rome such as the Boxer at Rest, the Hellenistic Prince and the Dying Niobid from the Horti Sallustiani [Gardens of Sallust] as well as portraiture of the Republican and Imperial ages, culminating in the statue of Augustus Pontifex Maximus (High Priest).
On the first floor are displayed celebrated masterpieces of statuary, among them being the Lancellotti Discobolus (Discus Thrower), the Maiden of Antium and the Hermaphroditus Asleep, as well as magnificent sarcophagi such as the Sarcophagus of Portonaccio, with a battle scene carved in high relief.
On the second floor, frescoed walls and pavement mosaics document the domestic decor of prestigious Roman dwellings.
The basement houses the sizeable numismatic collection, besides grave ornaments, jewels and the Grottarossa Mummy.
The palace of the former "Collegio Massimo" in Piazza dei Cinquecento was built in a Neo-Renaissance style by the architect Camillo Pistrucci in the late 19th c. on the area once occupied by the Villa Montalto-Peretti, whose ownership subsequently passed to the princes Massimo.
The building continued to serve as seat of the College of the Jesuits until 1960, then it was purchased by the Italian State with funds from Law 92/81 for the enhancement of the Archaeological Heritage of Rome, in order to house the sections of Ancient Art, Numismatics and the Goldsmith’s Craft of the National Roman Museum.
This museum seat has been open to the public since 1998.
The artworks exhibited on the ground floor and first floor bear witness to the evolution of Roman sculpture in its progressive appropriation and imitation of the Greek models.
Among the portraits of the emperors, some in particular stand out: the statue of Augustus as Pontifex Maximus (High Priest), 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.
Extraordinarily important are the Sarcophagus of Portonaccio, decorated with a scene of battle between Romans and Barbarians, and the sculptures that decorated the Ships of Nemi.
The statue portrays Augustus intent on celebrating a sacrifice.
He wears the toga (robe) after the fashion of the final decades of the 1st century BCE: considered the Roman national costume, the toga had to be worn by magistrates and common citizens alike every time they entered public places. The Emperor has his head veiled, as was the practice of Roman priests during the sacred rites; probably in his right hand he once held the patera (the sacrificial cup) and in his left the volumen (papyrus scroll or parchment).
The portrait reproduces faithfully the distinctive traits of the Emperor's face like the dovetail motif, formed by the locks at the center of his fringe, or the slightly protruding cheekbones; the wrinkles on his forehead and at the sides of his nose are signs of advanced age. It is an example of the classicistic style, typical of the Augustan Age, in which the realistic traits are coupled with an expression of pensive and detached intensity.
The work probably dates from the years immediately following 12 CE, when the Emperor assumed the priestly office of Pontifex Maximus (High Priest).
The statue was executed in separate parts, according to a technique of Hellenistic tradition, using diverse varieties of marble (Greek for the exposed parts, Italic for the garments).
The statue represents a young woman who, wounded to death by an arrow, falls to her knees striving to extract it. In her we can recognize one of the daughters of Niobe, the mythical queen who, mother to seven sons and seven daughters, dared boast of being more prolific than Leto and for this reason was punished by Apollo and Artemis with the murder of her children.
According to a recent and evocative hypothesis (by E. La Rocca), the statue, a Greek original dateable between 440 and 430 BCE, was part of the pedimental group of the Temple of Apollo Daphnephoros at Eretria.
It was transferred to Rome in the Augustan Age by the Roman general Gaius Sosius, who had it placed as a decoration in one of the sides of the pediment of the Temple of Apollo built at his own expense in the Circus Flaminius.
The myth of the Niobids was, in fact, extremely suitable for emphasizing the affinity between Apollo, the avenger God, and the emperor Augustus, avenger of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, as well as protector of Gaius Sosius. The statue would be successively moved to the Horti Sallustiani (Gardens of Sallust), perhaps as a component of an open air ornamental complex.
Two copies of the 2nd c. CE from a bronze original of the fifth-century sculptor Myron, much celebrated by the ancient writers as a fundamental work for the study of the athletic figure in motion.
The Lancelotti Discobolous, discovered in 1871 on the Esquiline Hill in an area anciently occupied by villas and gardens and then entered into the collections of Palazzo Massimo-Lancellotti, during World War II was transferred to Germany and returned to Italy in 1948.
Executed in the Antonine Age, because of its lack of tridimensionality it is considered one of the closest replicas to the original, generally dated from about 450 BCE.
On the other hand, the Discobolus from Castel Porziano, unfortunately lacking the head, was found in 1906 among the remains of an Imperial villa in the estate of Castel Porziano.
It constitutes a more naturalistic and evolved version in comparison with the Lancelloti copy, which perhaps was executed in the age of Hadrian, as suggested by the support in the shape of a palm trunk and by the shape of the plinth.
The god is represented naked in a youthful aspect, with the right leg extended and the left one slightly bent, the right arm is extended while the left one is bent and in his hand he holds a thyrsus. The head, slightly oriented towards the right and the eyes looking downwards. Some details are executed with the technique of the damascening, which the insertion of leaves of other metals in the lowered surface of the sculpture: copper for the anatomical details (lips, nipples) and for the diadem, decorated with copper and silver triangles, berries and ivy leaves. The orbits of the eyes are, in contrast, in ivory and the irises, lacking, were probably made of coloured hard stone or vitreous paste.
The schema of the figure, denoting the influence of Polykleitos in the execution of the limbs but also the knowledge of the Praxitelic art, shown in the gentle movement of the head and in the sinous aspect of the hips, is ascribable to a famous statuary model created about the mid-4th century BCE, the so-called Dyonisus of the Woburn Abbey type, known through around 20 exemplars. Other elements, like the bent right arm, the hairdressing of long curling locks and the rendition of the eyes enable us to consider the work as an eclectic creation of the mid-imperial age, a reflection of the classicistic taste of that epoch.
The fore part of the grand sarcophagus represents a battle scene staged on several planes and focused on the haughty advance of a Roman knight depicted in the capacity of universal victor.
The dramatic animation of the combat is emphasized by means of the deep chiaroscuro obtained thanks to a skillful use of intaglios.
The sanguinary scenes are framed by two couples of captive barbarians, whose woebegone expressions convey the torment incumbent on those who rebel against the rule of Rome. The bas-reliefs on the sides of the sarcophagus show events subsequent to the clash: on one side, barbarian prisoners crossing a river led by Roman soldiers along a boat bridge, on the other side the chieftains submitting to the Roman officials.
The frieze on the lid, between two corner mascarons, celebrates the deceased and his spouse, portrayed in the centre in the act of the dextrarum iunctio (clasping of right hands). The faces of the main personages were left unfinished, awaiting the features of the deceased to be sculpted. The decoration of the sarcophagus, inspired by many scenes of the Antonine Column, is dateable to about 180 CE.
The military insignia on the upper rim of the case - the eagle of the Legio IIII Flavia (Fourth Flavian Legion) and the boar of the Legio I Italica (First Italic Legion) - allow the identification of the deceased as Aulus Iulius Pompilius, official of Marcus Aurelius, in command of two cavalry squadrons drafted to these two legions during the Marcomannic Wars.
On the second floor of the museum are exhibited frescoes, mosaics and inlaid works of high value.
The triclinium (dining room) with the painted garden from the Villa of Livia and the rooms of the Villa of the Farnesina, evocatively reconstructed in their original dimensions, constitute an example of the domestic decoration of prestigious roman dwellings.
A large display of pavement mosaics, mostly polychrome, culminates in the emblemata of the Villa of Baccanus.
Noteworthy among the fine intarsia decorations are the inlaid stones from the Basilica of Junius Bassus.
This lush painted garden covered the walls of a semi-subterranean chamber, probably a cool triclinium (dining room) for summer banquets, in the suburban Villa of Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus.
This Second style fresco, the most ancient example of continuous garden painting (30 - 20 BCE), presents a variety of plants and birds rendered in a naturalistic way.
Many are the botanical species identified: in the foreground, the umbrella pine, the oak, the red fir; beyond a marble enclosure grow apple quinces, pomegranates, myrtles, oleanders, date palms, strawberry trees, laurels, viburnums, holm oaks, box trees, cypresses, ivy and acanthus.
In the meadow under the trees bloom roses, poppies, chrysanthemums and chamomile, while along the footpaths in the foreground, ferns alternate with violets and irises.
The Villa of the Farnesina, sumptuous residence of the Augustan age, was brought back to light in Trastevere in 1879, during the regulation works of the banks of the Tiber.
The remains of the Villa were only partially explored and then destroyed, but the elevated quality of the decorations required the salvage of the frescoes, mosaics and stuccoes, since preserved in the Museo Nazionale Romano. In the exhibition space of Palazzo Massimo the stripped decorations have been recomposed within rooms of the original dimensions.
The goal was to recreate, to the extent possible, the sequence of the visual perceptions of the Ancient age, walking through the long gallery of the cryptoporticus (hidden portico) as far as the garden, on which faced the winter triclinium (dining room) and two cubicola (bedchambers) with vermillion walls, thence reaching, through another corridor, a third cubiculum.
The diverse references to the Egyptian world present in the decorations of the villa can be read as a celebration of the conquest of Egypt. In fact the owner of the residence is probably, according to reliable hypotheses, to be identified as the general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa himself, author of the victory at Actium. The frescoes, exemplars of the great painting of the Imperial age in Rome, are ascribable to the final phase of the Second style.