From the Mammertine Prison that dates back to the 4th century BC, you’ve now walked up the 1st century “Stairs of Mourning” to reach the summit of the Capitoline Hill. For over two millennia this hill, like the forum below it, has been at the center of development and governance of the city of Rome. And today, it is the home of my favorite museum in the city – The Capitoline Museum.
This is perhaps the smallest of the “Seven Hills of Rome” and it was known as the Campidoglio, or “the capital” because of its importance to the city and its government. Today, the hill’s magnificent square is known simply as the “Piazza del Campidoglio”. Designed by Michelangelo early in the 16th century, the square now stands between the two buildings of what is perhaps Rome’s most prominent museum.
Equally beautiful is the architect’s grand staircase known as the “Cordonata”, referring to a sloped road composed of many sections. Although usually referred to as a “stairway” this sloped pathway eliminated actual steps so that horses and the carriages they might pull could make the journey from the bottom of the hill. Symbolically, it also connected the center of ancient Rome to the developing area of the new city below.
Three large building are located on Piazza del Campidoglio. The oldest is the Palazzo Senatorio or “Palace of the Senators”. This central building with its large fountain stands opposite the grand Cordonata stairway and overlooks the Forum itself. A fortress was first built at this site in the 11th century on top of an ancient building known as the “Tabularium” that housed the public records of ancient Rome. The current structure then served as the seat of the Roman Senate until 1870 when the City Hall and official seat of the Municipality of Rome began to occupy the building. (Before you leave the square, walk along the path leading past the right side of the palace and you’ll find a broad terrace overlooking the forum with a panoramic view that extends all the way to the coliseum. This is one of the most dramatic views of the area that you can find and a perfect place for a picture.)
Facing each other from across the square are the two magnificent buildings that make up the Capitoline Museum: the Palazzo dei Conservatori, or “Palace of the Conservators”, that dates to the Middle Ages and the Palazzo Nuovo, or “New Palace”, which was finished in 1654. Many of Rome’s most famous sculptures and artworks can be found in these two buildings.
Facing the Senate Palace, the building to your left is the Palazzo Nuovo, designed by Michelangelo but not completed finished until long after his death. Inside you can see mostly classical sculpture including the famous ‘Dying Gaul’, a Roman marble copy of a lost ancient Greek statue from the 3rd century BC. And one gallery holds the Capitoline Venus, another Roman copy of a 3rd-century BC Greek statue that was the symbol of feminine beauty for centuries. This building also offers the beautiful equestrian statue of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius that was originally located at the center of the square until being moved for safety and replaced by a replica.
Directly across from the Palazzo Nuovo is the final building on the square: the Palazzo dei Conservatori. This palace housed the city government of Rome during the Middle Ages but it is now the second Capitoline Museum on the square. Inside, you’ll find a collection of sculpture and paintings including the famous statue of Lupa Capitoline, or “Capitoline Wolf” – the statue of a she-wolf suckling the twins Romulus and Remus that has become one of the best known symbols of Rome. (Picture by Rosemania (http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosemania/5384048970). There’s also Lo Spinario, or “Boy with Thorn”, a famous and often reproduced bronze statue of a boy removing a thorn from his foot. But my favorite exhibits in this building are the pieces that remain of the giant statue of Emperor Constantine the Second that was originally located in the Roman forum.
These surviving parts, like the ruins of many ancient statues, are mostly the head, hands, and feet of the statue. That’s because this statue, like so many ancient statues, was what is known as an “acrolith”, meaning that the head, hands and feet were made of marble while the rest of the statue was made from less expensive materials, usually wood. The wood was normally hidden by cloth so that only the marble parts of the statue were exposed and visible.
If you want to visit any museums in Rome, the Capitoline Museum is the one I’d highly recommend.