exterior of the Capitoline Museums at night
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The spectacular Capitoline Museums in Rome

While all of Rome is technically an outdoor museum, the city is home to several impressive museums with extensive art collections. One of the largest and most impressive is the Capitoline Museums complex on top of Capitoline Hill in the heart of Rome. If you’re a museum lover like me or simply want to learn more about Ancient Rome, this is the place to visit.

The Capitoline Museums, or Musei Capitolini in Italian, is a single museum dedicated to preserving the memory of Ancient Rome. It is the world’s oldest public museum and home to the city’s finest collections of Roman sculptures. Like many other museums, this one is housed in two separate buildings that are works of art in themselves.

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Where are the Capitoline Museums?

The Capitoline Museums are located on the Piazza del Campidoglio on top of the Capitoline Hill, just south of the Piazza Venezia. The complex is behind the iconic white monument dedicated to Vittorio Emanuele II.  

The simplest way to access the Capitoline Museums is by climbing the massive steps, known as Cordonata, from Via del Teatro di Marcello. Michelangelo designed the wide steps, presided by enormous statues of Castor and Pollux, the Piazza Campidoglio and two of the buildings flanking is during the 16th century.

The spectacular Capitoline Museums in Rome | kasiawrites
Visiting the Capitoline Museums

A brief history of the Capitoline Museums

In 1471, Pope Sixtus IV donated a collection of ancient bronze statues to the people of Rome. These statues formed the core of the collection. Additional works were added by subsequent popes who expanded the collection with art and sculptures.

In 1734, Pope Clement XII declared the museum open to everyone, making this the first museum open to the public. Many items housed here were moved here over time from the Vatican, while others were purchased specifically for the museum. Archeological finds in later centuries were added to expand the collection.

Today, there is an exhibition about the pre-Romand days of the Capitol. In addition to several Etruscan artifacts and tombs, there are several renderings of what the area looked like in the Iron age and during the Archaic period. I recommend you don’t skip it as it’s fascinating.

Exhibit of pre-Roman settlement on the Capitoline Hill in Rome
Learn about the history of the Capitol

Collections and exhibits

The Capitoline Museums are housed in two buildings around the piazza, the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo. The two buildings face each other over the replica statue of Marcus Aurelius and are linked by an underground tunnel, which houses the Galleria Lapidaria.

The extensive collections include classical sculptures and bronze statues, paintings and frescoes. Visitors can admire unique items and objects from Ancient Rome and works of various masters, including Caravaggio, Van Dyck, Rubens, Titian and Tintoretto. The Museums frequently house temporary exhibitions, conferences and concerts.

Palazzo Senatorio

The palazzo was built during the 13th and 14th centuries. It sits on what used to be the Roman Tabularium, which once housed the archives of Ancient Rome. Michelangelo designed this beautiful Renaissance building’s façade and double staircases. During the 18th century, it was converted into a residence for Senator Abbondio Rezzonico. Today, it serves as Rome’s city hall.

Palazzo Senatorio is not part of the museum, but the tunnel that connects the two other buildings goes under it. The Galleria Lapidaria leads to the ancient Tabularium and overlooks the Roman Forum. If you want to visit this building, you have to exit the museum.

Palazzo dei Conservatori

The palazzo was built on top of a sixth-century temple to Jupiter during the Middle Ages. It housed offices of various guilds, and many trade disputes were negotiated here. Michelangelo’s 1530 renovation included the addition of columns, a new portico and an updated façade. The palazzo was also used as the city market until the late 17th century.

The entrance to the Capitoline Museums is through the Palazzo dei Conservatori. While you wait in line, make sure you look up and admire the stunning handiwork above you. Upon entering the museums, you can explore the courtyard with fragments of the Colossus of Constantine and several other interesting reliefs.

Capitoline Museums exhibits collage
Capitoline Museums

The building houses the original collection of bronzes, impossibly large tapestries and sculptures. Here you’ll find the She-Wolf (the symbol of Rome) statue, the original 160 AD bronze statue of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius on horseback and the lo spinario (boy with a thorn) statue.

The museums’ picture collection is upstairs. Here you’ll find many Italian works from the 16th and 17th centuries. Art lovers will recognize two of Caravaggio’s canvasses, Ventura (The Fortune Teller, 1595) of a gypsy stealing a man’s ring while pretending to read his fortune, and San Giovanni Battista (St John the Baptist, 1602) a depiction of the youthful saint in the nude with a ram.

Underground Galleria Lapidaria

The Galleria that links the two palazzos was built in the late 1930s and lies eight meters under Piazza del Campidoglio. During the excavation, workers discovered remnants of an ancient road and several buildings that have been incorporated into the structure. In the 1950s, a collection of Greek and Roman inscriptions reflecting various aspects of public and private life in Ancient Rome were added. These included table games, legal decrees, burial monuments and military to name a few.

The Galleria Lapidaria closed in the 1970s and reopened in 2005. Follow the underground tunnel to discover the Tabularium’s terrace that features a vaulted ceiling and a panoramic view of the Roman Forum.

The spectacular Capitoline Museums in Rome | kasiawrites
Galleria Lapidaria and the Tabularium

Palazzo Nuovo

The Palazzo Nuovo (new) is a copy of the Palazzo Conservatori and was completed a century later, between 1603 and 1650s, by Girolamo and Carlo Rainaldi. It features a courtyard with a fountain of a reclining statue of the River god Marforio that is spectacular.

Upstairs you’ll find impressive interiors and collections of Greek and Roman marble sculptures and busts of Roman emperors and philosophers. The Great Hall features an original gilded ceiling from the 16th century, geometric black and white floors, and more statues.  

Marble statues at the Capitoline Museum
Marble statues at Palazzo Nuovo

Also, worth noting is the fragment of a Tabula Illiaca from around 245 BC. It came from the ancient Library of Alexandria and is was by scholars to calculate the days of the Iliad by Homer.

Visitor’s information

The Capitoline Museums are located near many of the popular ancient sights like the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and make a great stop after visiting the other sites. You will need between two to three hours for visiting.

The Capitoline Museums are open daily, from 09:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., with the last entry at 6:30 p.m. Adult tickets cost €15, reduced €13 for Rome residents with valid ID, and free for children under the age of six. Always check the official website before visiting.

Final thoughts on visiting the Capitoline Museums

I really enjoyed visiting the Capitoline Museums. All the statues and art there are very impressive, especially when you realize how old they are. Then there are the buildings themselves. If you love architecture, you’ll love this place. The buildings are exquisite both inside and out. Floom the floors, to the stairs, the windows and especially the ceilings. There is beauty all around you.

The Galleria Lapidaria is impressive as well. It has a very different feel than what you get above, but it’s impressive just the same. The remnants of the Roman arches and vaulted ceilings seem bare when compared to the spaces designed by Michelangelo, and yet they are majestic in their own way.

The spectacular Capitoline Museums in Rome | kasiawrites
River god Marforio

When you step out on the Tabularium’s terrace, the Roman Forum lies before you. It’s a strange feeling. You’re standing in the same space that many others did millennia ago, overlooking the same view. Theirs was more unquestionably more impressive, but considering how old the Forum is, I think this view is impressive for different reasons.

Have you been to the Capitoline Museums yet?

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    Carina | bucketlist2life
    22 Feb 2022

    I consider myself a museum lover and still I didn’t know that this is the world’s oldest public museum… This belongs on my bucketlist I guess…

      22 Feb 2022

      I didn’t know that either! It’s a gorgeous place to explore

    Chalk and cheese travels
    22 Feb 2022

    Wow these museums are fantastic, but equally impressive are the buildings these museums are in. Only in Rome could the building almost outshine the Staues and art.

      23 Feb 2022

      What a great way to describe it! I think I might have to borrow that description

    22 Feb 2022

    How cool is that place. Never knew about this museum. Great post. Next time I’m in Rome this is on the list of things to do.

      23 Feb 2022

      I think you’d love it. Not too busy even though it’s in the middle of a touristy area in Rome.

    Elena at TravelByExample
    23 Feb 2022

    You’re right – Rome itself is like a giant outdoor museum. We didn’t even go to any ‘proper’ museums when we visited Rome for the first time. But now I’m going to add the Capitoline Museums to things to do when next time in Rome!

      24 Feb 2022

      There are so many great museums in Rome that are not too packed (other than the Vatican) because there is so much to see!

    Mitch - Very Tasty World
    24 Feb 2022

    I didn’t know about The Capitoline Museums so really enjoyed learning about them. Really impressed at how extensive the collection is as well as how magnificent the buildings themselves are – the architecture is amazing. We absolutely love visiting museums on our travels so these would be high on our list of places to visit.

      24 Feb 2022

      Yes, the collection is impressive. Even more so when you realize how old some of the items are. It’s remarkable.

    24 Feb 2022

    I think I am about due for another visit to Rome! I have not visited these museums, although the guide we had when we toured the Vatican last time did mention them – but we ran out of time. They look awesome. Definitely top of the list for the next Rome visit.

      24 Feb 2022

      I think the only museum I visited on my first visit to Rome was the Vatican! I definitely recommend going back and checking out some of the museums. They are really impressive.

    Hannah S
    26 Feb 2022

    Wow, there’s just so much to see here. I don’t think I visited the museums on my trip to Rome but it was a long time ago now and I’d love to go back.

    I also just love how you describe Rome as a museum in itself. So true!

      26 Feb 2022

      There is so much to see in Rome! Definitely not enough time in one trip to see it all and the museums. Hope you get to go back soon.

    Peggy Zipperer
    26 Feb 2022

    I had not heard of the Capitoline Museums and found the history fascinating! Beautiful pictures!

      26 Feb 2022

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Rome has many stunning museums worth seeing.

    1 Mar 2022

    The Musei Capitolini sound fun. Visited Rome quite a few times but never managed to go to any of the museums so far. Will put it on the list.

      1 Mar 2022

      Rome has so much to offer that it’s hard to see it all in one visit. I try to see different museums on every visit.

    Vanessa Shields
    1 Mar 2022

    I love everything about Italian art and architecture so I know I’d enjoy explore this museum. I’m definitely overdue for a visit back to Rome!

      1 Mar 2022

      I hope you get back to Rome soon then! I still feel that what I’ve seen after all these visits is just a drop in the water!

    Paul (Paul Passing Through)
    1 Mar 2022

    I’m planning my trip to Italy and Rome now! I’ll make sure to add this museum. Those statues are so impressive. Like you said, it’s almost mind boggling when you consider how old they are.

      1 Mar 2022

      I hope you get a chance to visit then. It’s a great place for admiring all sculptures and Renaissance buildings 🙂