The ground floor of the museum has sculpture from the Farnese collection, displayed at its best in the mighty Great Hall, which holds imperial-era figures like the Farnese Bull and Farnese Hercules from the Baths of Caracalla in Rome – the former the largest piece of classical sculpture ever found. Don’t miss Ephesian Artemis, an alabaster and bronze statue with rows of bulbous objects peeling off her chest – variously interpreted as breasts, eggs, bulls’ scrota, dates or pollen sacs, and bees, mini-beasts and sphinxes adorning her lower half.
The mezzanine floor holds the museum’s collection of mosaics – remarkably preserved works that give a superb insight into ordinary Roman customs, beliefs and humour. All are worth looking at – images of fish, crustacea, wildlife on the banks of the Nile, a cheeky cat and quail with still-life beneath, masks and simple abstract decoration. But some highlights include a realistic Battle Scene (no. 10020); the Three Musicians with Dwarf (no. 9985); an urbane meeting of the Platonic Academy (no. 124545); and a marvellously captured scene from a comedy, The Consultation of the Fattucchiera (no. 9987), with a soothsayer giving a dour and doomy prediction. While at the far end the fascinating Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Room) contains erotic material taken from the brothels, baths, houses and taverns of Pompeii and Herculaneum – languidly sensual wall-paintings, preposterously phallic lamps and the like.
The Campanian wall paintings
Upstairs through the Salone della Meridiana, which contains a sparse but fine assortment of Roman figures, a series of rooms holds the Campanian wall paintings, lifted from the villas of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and rich in colour and invention. There are plenty here, and it’s worth devoting some time to this section, which includes works from the Sacrarium – part of Pompeii’s Egyptian temple of Isis, the most celebrated mystery cult of antiquity.
In the next series of rooms, some of the smallest and most easily missed works are among the most exquisite. Among those to look out for are a paternal Achilles and Chirone (no. 9109); the Sacrifice of Iphiginia (no. 9112) in the next room, one of the best preserved of all the murals; and a group of four small pictures, the best of which is a depiction of a woman gathering flowers entitled Allegoria della Primavera – a fluid, impressionistic piece of work capturing both the gentleness of Spring and the graceful beauty of the woman.
Other Campanian finds
Beyond the murals are the actual finds from the Campanian cities – everyday items like glass, silver, ceramics, charred pieces of rope, even foodstuffs (petrified cakes, figs, fruit and nuts), together with a model layout of Pompeii in cork. On the other side of the first floor, there are finds from the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum – sculptures in bronze mainly. The Hermes at Rest in the centre of the second room is perhaps the most arresting item, boyishly rapt and naked except for wings on his feet, while all around are other adept statues – a languid Resting Satyr, the convincingly woozy Drunken Silenus, and a pair of youthful Runners.