The Capitoline Museums in Rome, or Musei Capitolini, contain some of Rome's greatest artistic and archaeological treasures. Actually one museum spread out in two buildings – the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo – the Capitoline Museums sit atop the Capitoline Hill, or the Campidoglio, one of the famous seven hills of Rome. Occupied since at least the 8th-century BC, the Capitoline Hill was an area of ancient temples. Overlooking the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill beyond, it was and is the geographic and symbolic center of the city.
The museums were established by Pope Clement XII in 1734, making them the first museums in the world open to the public. For any visitor with an interest in understanding the history and development of Rome from the ancient era to the Renaissance, the Capitoline Museums are a must-see.
To get to the Capitoline Hill, most visitors climb the Cordonata, an elegant, monumental staircase designed by Michelangelo, who also designed the geometrically patterned Piazza del Campidoglio at the top of the stairs. In the center of the piazza stands the bronze famous statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius on horseback. The largest bronze statue from Roman antiquity, the version on the piazza is actually a copy—the original is in the museum.
Palazzo dei Conservatori
As you stand at the top of the Cordonata, the Palazzo dei Conservatori is on your right. It is the largest building of the Capitoline and it is broken down into several sections, including the Conservators’ Apartments, the courtyard, the Palazzo dei Conservatori Museum, and other halls. There’s also a café and a bookshop located in this wing of the Capitoline.
The Palazzo dei Conservatori contains several famous artworks from antiquity. Primary among them is the She-Wolf bronze (La Lupa), which dates from the fifth century BC, and is the de facto symbol of Rome. It depicts Romulus and Remus, the ancient founders of Rome, suckling a she-wolf. Other well-known works from ancient times are Il Spinario, a first century BC marble of a boy removing a thorn from his foot; the original equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, and fragments from a colossal statue of Emperor Constantine.
Rome’s legends and triumphs are also exhibited in the frescoes, statues, coins, ceramics, and ancient jewelry of the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Here you will find portrayals of the Punic Wars, inscriptions of Roman magistrates, the foundations of an ancient temple dedicated to the God Jupiter, and a stunning collection of statues of athletes, gods and goddesses, warriors, and emperors ranging from the days of the Roman Empire to the Baroque period.
In addition to the many archaeological finds there are also paintings and sculptures from medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque artists. The third floor has a picture gallery with works by Caravaggio and Veronese, among others. There is also a very famous bust of the head of Medusa sculpted by Bernini.
Galleria Lapidaria and Tabularium
In an underground passageway that leads from the Palazzo dei Conservatori to the Palazzo Nuovo is a special gallery that opens up onto views of the Roman Forum. The Galleria Lapidaria contains epigraphs, epitaphs (tomb inscriptions) and the foundations of two ancient Roman homes. This is also where you will find the Tabularium, which contains additional foundations and fragments from ancient Rome. Passing through the Galleria Lapidaria and the Tabularium is a superb way to gain a better understanding of ancient Rome and get a unique view of the Roman Forum.
While the Palazzo Nuovo is the smaller of the two museums of the Capitoline, it is no less spectacular. Despite its name, the “new palace” also includes numerous objects from antiquity, including a large lounging statue of a water god called “Marforio”; ornate sarcophagi; the statue of Discobolus; and mosaics and statues recovered from Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli.
Capitoline Museums Visiting Information
Location: Piazza del Campidoglio, 1, on the Capitoline Hill
Hours: Daily, 9:30 am until 7:30 pm (last entrance 6:30 pm), closes at 2:00 pm on December 24 and 31. Closed Mondays and January 1, May 1, December 25.
Information: Check the website for updated hours, prices, and special events. Tel. (0039) 060608
Admission: €16 (as of July 2019). Children 6 and under enter for free. Save on admission with the Roma Pass.
For more Rome museum ideas, see our list of Top Museums in Rome.
This article has been expanded and updated by Elizabeth Heath