Returning to Rome: My visit to the Musei Capitolini

Returning to Rome: My visit to the Musei Capitolini

Back in Ireland once more. The evening before I last I stepped onto the tarmac at Belfast International Airport. The cold, damp night air smelled slightly of manure. Clouds lurked only a few meters above my head, and the tarmac gleamed with rainwater. So now I have time to write about whatever I care to write about.

This time, I choose Constantine’s accusing finger. This is one of the first things one sees on entering the Musei Capitolini in Rome, on the Palatine Hill. It was a Wednesday in November, cold and unusually wet. The museum was almost empty. Entering one passes directly into a small courtyard filled with fragments of statues most of which are more than a thousand years old, arranged around the courtyard, mounted on the walls. Amongst them is an enormous head, the head of Emperor Constantine, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire — and his hand, an accusing index figure pointing skywards. This is all that remains. Echoes of Ozymandias, but no “trunkless legs of stone” here.

The museum is a wonderful collection of artifacts spanning thousands of years of the city of Rome. One of the first public museums in the world, we are told. Before I went there, I knew almost nothing about the collections and so I was constantly amazed when each right turn or left turn took me back through another few hundred years of history. Even back into pre-history. After carefully examining room after room of sculptures and bronzes, a sudden turn took me before the foundations of the temple of Zeus, one of the very first structures constructed in Rome. Here were the foundation stones. Another turn, and there was a vast atrium with an ancient bronze statue of Marcus Aureilius on horseback. In the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci had placed this statue at the centre of the square on Palatine hill, on a plinth he had designed himself. Now the plinth holds a copy, and the original is here, in this beautiful glass atrium.

A tunnel, descending deep into the hill, connects the old museum building to the new one, and the dimly lit walls are lined with Roman funerary inscription for slaves, freemen and senators. But before ascending to recent centuries, a left turn leads to another ancient temple, more foundation stones and statues. Another turn, follow the corridor here, and we leave the museum behind, we are in the Tabularium, which once housed the archives of the Roman state. A long hall with tall windows looks out across the ruins of the Roman city, the Foro Romano. Another level of history.

Climbing back up the tunnel and ancient Rome fades away, and we are back in the Renaissance. There are many wonders to be seen here. One small room is completely filled with busts of famous philosophers, many of which are Roman copies of Greek sculptures. Serried ranks of great thinkers. Nearby, in a small alcove, there is a beautiful statue of a woman. What most struck me about this was the incidental detail that the statue had been found buried near one of the walls of the city. The owners had presumably hidden it there for safe keeping during one of the many invasions which had swept over Rome. They never returned to collect it.

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