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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of the National Archaeological Museum in Venice

What is the National Archaeological Museum?

The National Archaeological Museum of Venice is a museum of Archaeology first established in the 16th century by the noble Grimani family. It exhibits an impressive collection of Roman and Greek sculptures and artifacts.

Sculpture collection in the Venice Archaeological Museum

User:Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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National Archaeological Museum History

In the summer of 1523, Cardinal Domenico Grimani fell fatally ill in Rome. Knowing that death was near, he reflected on his life and legacy. 30 years earlier, his wealthy father had secured Grimani a powerful position in the Catholic Church by paying for him to be appointed as a cardinal. Unbelievably, Domenico Grimani wasn’t even an ordained priest at this time, though was eventually ordained five years into his tenure.

Before entering the Church, Grimani had studied in Florence, where he befriended Lorenzo de’ Medici and became influenced by Renaissance Humanism, leading him to collect both classical antiques and contemporary art. Like so many cardinals and popes over the centuries, he chose to ignore his priestly vow of poverty and continued to collect antiques while living in Rome.

On his deathbed, Grimani composed a new will that would endow his native Venice with some of his priceless treasures. He bequeathed precious ancient sculptures to the city, among them works unearthed from a vineyard near his house in Rome. Domenico Grimani also left a large part of his collection to his nephew, Giovanni. Following his uncle’s example, Giovanni in turn donated his own expanded archaeological collection to the City of Venice when he died. These two collections combined form the core holdings of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale.

Southern Italy pottery at archaeology museum venice

User:Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Although his name is not often remembered, Domenico Grimani’s humanist legacy has endured. The Museo Archeologico Nazionale is one of the oldest public museums in Europe. Each year, thousands of visitors have the chance to admire archaeological treasures and to learn about the ancient cultures that fashioned them. Highlights of the Grimani collection include a trio of wounded Gallic warriors, a wonderful series of Greek statues from the 5th and 4th centuries BC, and the beautiful marble Grimani Altar decorated with scenes of revelry.

As you walk around the museum, you’ll notice that few items originated in Venice. Until very recently it was thought that the city was founded in the year AD 421, which is relatively young for an Italian city. In 2021, however, the remains of a Roman road and dock were discovered in the Venetian Lagoon, with the aid of 3D sonar mapping technology. Distinctive Roman paving stones, called basoli, were identified under the water and layers of sand. During the Roman era, large areas around Venice that are now submerged would have been accessible on foot. Due to shifting sea levels and subsidence in the lagoon, however, it’s unlikely that this Roman road was visible by the time the modern city was founded in 421.

In the 20th century, a Venetian archaeologist called Ernesto Canal conducted ground-breaking research into his city’s ancient past. He suspected that a road lay at the bottom of the lagoon, because various Roman artefacts had been found over the centuries, indicating that this area would have been a trade route. Unfortunately, the technology that could have given him a clearer insight into the area’s historic topography was not yet available. Instead, the young man explored the water and shores of Venice by fishing boat, with the help of his siblings and a local fisherman. As further secrets of the lagoon’s lost history are unearthed over the next few decades, hopefully the Museo Archeologico Nazionale will be able to tell us more about the ancient civilisations of this area.

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