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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Capitoline Museums in Rome

What are the Capitoline Museums?

The Capitoline Museums are a complex of museums in Rome housing an impressive and diverse collection of classical sculpture and 16th to 18th-century art.

Capitoline Museums in Rome

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Capitoline Museums History

In the 15th century, collections of art and sculpture were enjoyed solely by their owners and esteemed guests. All that changed in 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV donated five marvellous ancient bronzes to the people of Rome, which were then deposited in the Palazzo dei Conservatori (the 15th-century Renaissance building located to your right if you stand at the top of the graded ramp). These formed the nucleus of the Capitoline Museums’ collection, considered by many to be the world’s first public museum.

Among the set of bronzes donated by Pope Sixtus IV was the Capitoline She-Wolf, a depiction of Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, suckling from the wolf that famously raised them (the brothers were added in the 15th century and are attributed to Florentine artist Antonio del Pollaiuolo). For many centuries, this was the most famous piece of sculpture in all of Rome. It was long considered to be a work of the Etruscans, a civilisation of central Italy that predates the ancient Romans, and was crafted two and a half thousand years ago. However, recent restoration work has revealed that the sculpture was made with the lost wax method, where molten metal is poured into a wax mould and cast as a single piece, meaning the she-wolf might date from the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, this beautiful bronze work, which was initially placed within the façade of the building, now resides within the expansive collection of the Capitoline Museums, alongside countless other masterpieces of Greek and Roman sculpture, and a gallery filled with gems from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

Ceiling Chandeliers Capitoline Museum

Within the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, one of the two buildings (along with the Palazzo Nuovo) that make up the Capitoline Museums, you’ll find the enormous fragments of the Colossus of Constantine, a 12-metre-high statue of the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. Although the head and extremities that remain are carved in stone, the statue was actually composed as an acrolith, meaning that the emperor’s body was constructed in wood and probably covered with bronze. Constantine’s head would likely have been crowned with a diadem (a jewelled headband), and his forefinger is raised possibly in order to hold a spear or sceptre (the ivory rods introduced by the first Emperor Augustus as a symbol of political power). The fragments, which include the best-known portrait of the emperor, were discovered in the Forum in the late 15th century, and have been proudly displayed here ever since.

Within the glass-roofed Hall of Marcus Aurelius, you’ll unsurprisingly find a depiction of the emperor after which the room is named. The colossal gilded bronze equestrian statue appears often in medieval representations of the city, as it originally stood at the centre of the adjoining piazza, and was only moved to the safety of the museum in 1981.

In the Palazzo Nuovo (located to your left as you stand at the top of the graded ramp), you’ll encounter a splendid collection of sculpture begun by the monumentally wealthy Pope Clement XII and which was later augmented by other popes. The atmosphere in here is particularly striking, with its grand yet intimate setting, and is not to be missed.

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