Rome’s Sublime Museo Capitolino


We were expecting rain Saturday, so we visited the Museo Capitolino on the Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill). We walked there and ate breakfast just before we climbed Michelangelo’s beautiful Cordonata, the staircase on the west side of the hill. This time I didn’t have to be pushed in a wheelchair—I walked every step by myself! I was so thrilled (thank you for my new hip, Dr. Barrett).

We only had time to do one of the Campidoglio museums, so I chose the one with the original bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius astride his horse. Completed in 175 AD, it’s been inside the museum for only 10 years or so, but I’m glad it’s now safe from environmental pollution, not to mention the infernal pigeons! It has barely any gold left on the outside. The fact that the statue exists at all is amazing, considering that most of the other bronze statues of Roman emperors were melted down after the decline of Rome. Scholars think that this one survived because Marcus was mistaken for the Christian emperor Constantine. The statue is housed in a special gallery with a majestic gilded bronze statue of Hercules just around the corner.

Remains of a colossal statue in the museum’s courtyard

Not surprisingly the museum is chock-a-block with ancient statues, mosaics, jewelry, and art, including two paintings by Caravaggio. I especially liked The Fortune Teller, one of his early paintings in which a gypsy steals a ring off an unsuspecting gentleman’s finger while she tells his fortune.

Much to our surprise, however, the highlight of the day wasn’t the regular collection of the Museo Capitolino, despite Marcus Aurelius and Caravaggio, but a special exhibition, “Lux in Arcana,” which presented 100 or so documents from the secret archives of the Vatican. The collection spans 12 centuries, from the 8th to the 20th. It was one of the best exhibitions that I’ve ever seen, and it was beautifully shown, albeit a bit dark for preservation reasons, and clearly signed in Italian and English. We saw a letter that Marie Antoinette wrote after her imprisonment during the French Revolution, a request from Gian Lorenzo Bernini to pay workers for some of the sculptures on the Ponte Sant’Angelo, a document excommunicating Martin Luther, a gold seal of Philip of Spain, documents describing an air raid on the Vatican in 1943, and a book with the names of the priests of Dachau (gave me chills), to name a few.

View from the rooftop courtyard – St. Peter’s in the middle

My favorite almost knocked me off of my feet! It was a petition from England to annul the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon (his first wife) so he could marry Anne Boleyn. It was signed in 13 columns by 83 people, including 70 percent of the House of Lords; all of the dukes, marquesses, and earls; most of the barons; and abbots in charge of the major abbeys in England. Below each column on leather straps hung the seals of the signers. I’d never seen anything like it, and it was fascinating and gorgeous. I had just finished reading Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, a wonderful book that tells the story of Thomas Cromwell during that period of English history, so seeing this document was especially moving for me.

Original Marcus Aurelius

If you’re in Rome between now and September 9, 2012, and you have extra time and an interest in original historical documents, I highly recommend this exhibit! The museum itself is interesting as well, although I don’t recommend the museum’s rooftop restaurant, which has a lovely view of Rome’s skyline to the south and west but lousy and expensive food.


Rossella Re sent me a photo of the Henry VIII document–thanks Rossella!

Colossal hand in the museum courtyard

Colossal face in the museum courtyard




Caravaggio’s Fortune Teller

One of the many rooftop gardens in Rome

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2 Responses to Rome’s Sublime Museo Capitolino

  1. Charlie Gehringer says:

    Thanks Sue, great pictures. Charlie

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