Palazzo Massimo alle Terme ★★

Rome's Palazzo Massimo alle Terme houses the best collection of the Museo Nazionale Romano, a treasure trove of ancient sculptures, frescoes, and mosaics

Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme ★★
Largo di Villa Peretti (where Piazza del Cinquecento—the giant square outside Termini—meets Via Viminale)
tel. +39-06-390-8071
Open Tues–Sun 9am–7:45pm

Roma Pass: Yes (free)

Palazzo Massimo tours
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Roman sarcofagus from Portonaccio (180–190 AD) in Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
Roman sarcophagus from Portonaccio (180–190 AD). (Photo by Lansbricae)
Opened in June 1998, this museum (paired with its sister collections in the nearby Baths of Diocletian and Aula Ottagona, and in the Palazzo Altemps, near Piazza Navona) simply blows away anything else you'll find in Rome when it comes to Classical-era statues, frescoes, and mosaics.

It's a veritable "Where have you been all my life?" experience for antiquities buffs, and promises an aesthetically pleasant and informative afternoon even for the mildly curious.

MNR Branches
Palazzo Massimo
 Palazzo Altemps
 Baths of Diocletian
 Aula Ottagona
This 19th-century palazzo near Termini houses a fully modernized museum of advanced lighting systems, explanatory placards in English, and a curatorial attention to detail heretofore unseen on the dusty old Roman museum scene.

The ground floor and first floor - Statues and sculptures

The statue of Augustus di Via Labicana in Rome's Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.
The statue of Augustus di Via Labicana. (Photo by Folegandros)
There are no boring ranks of broken marble busts here—portrait busts there are aplenty, but most are masterworks of expression and character, representing famous Romans and giving you an opportunity to put marble faces to the names of all those emperors and other ancient bigwigs.

Among them is a statue of Augustus Caesar wearing his toga pulled over his head like a shawl, a sign he had assumed the role of a priest (actually, of the head priest, which in Latin is Pontifex Maximus, a title the Christian popes would later adopt).

Also on the ground floor is an altar from Ostia Antica whose reliefs bear a striking resemblance to 15th-century frescoes of the Nativity

Wounded Niobid in Rome's Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.
Wounded Niobid.
There's also a hauntingly beautiful 440 BC statue of a wounded Niobid, collapsing as she reaches for her back where one of Apollo and Artemis' spiteful arrows struck.

Among the masterpieces up on the first floor are a discus thrower, a bronze Dionysus fished out of the Tiber, bronze bits from ancient shipwrecks on Lake Nemi, and an incredibly well-preserved sarcophagus (pictured above) featuring a tumultuous battle scene between Romans and Germanic barbarians (all from the AD 2nd century).

The second floor - Frescoes and mosaics

Up on second floor are Roman frescoes, stuccoes, and mosaics spanning the 1st century BC to the AD 5th century, most never seen by the general public since they were discovered in the 19th century.

Frescoes from the Villa di Livia in Rome's Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.
Frescoes from the Villa di Livia. (Photo by Folegandros)
The frescoes and stuccoes are mainly countryside scenes, decorative strips, and a few naval battles, all carefully restored and reattached into spaces that are faithful to the original dimensions of the rooms from which they came.

They came primarily from two sites: the Augustus' summer villa of "Prima Porta" (AD 1st century), and the ancient "Villa della Farnesina," unearthed near the existing Renaissance Villa Farnesina on the Trastevere banks of the Tiber in the 1870s as they were preparing to build the river embankments.

This 30-20 BC villa—most likely built for general Agrippa to celebrate his marriage to Emperor Augustus' daughter, but probably never actually lived in—was quickly excavated, the frescoes detached, and the whole thing buried in concrete to raise the embankments. The ancient frescoes remained "under restoration" for the next 119 years until this museum opened.

Among the recreated rooms of detached frescoes from the ancient Villa Farnesina is the viridarium, all four walls decorated as if the room were actually a tent with a "view" out to the gardens on all four sides (in reality, it was a sunken space used as a winter dining room so you could pretend it was still spring outdoors).

The best part? This would not look at all out of place in the existing Villa Farnesina, built 1,500 years later, which has a room upstairs with an almost identical theme: the walls frescoed to appear to be open loggias looking out over the surrounding countryside.

Mosaic emblema of a Roman charioteer in Rome's Museo Nazionale Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
Mosaic emblema of a Roman charioteer.
Also up here are halls and rooms lined with incredible mosaic scenes, among them the famous Four Charioteers standing with their horses in the four traditional team colors (red, blue, green, and white) that would run the races around the Circus Maximus.

There are also several rare, AD 4th-century opus sectile (marble inlay) scenes from the Basilica of Giunio Bassa.

The basement - Decorative arts and coinage

The basement has two sections. The first contains ancient jewelry, gold hair nets, ivory dolls, didactic CD-ROM consoles, and the mummy of an eight-year-old girl.

The second is an oversized vault containing Rome's greatest numismatic collection. It traces Italian coinage from ancient Roman Republic monies through the pocket change of Imperial Rome, medieval Italian empires, and Renaissance principalities, to the Italian lira, the Euro, and a computer live feed of the Italian stock exchange.


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This article was written by Reid Bramblett and was last updated in April 2013. All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 2008–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett