The real pity about the Vittoriano is that it obscures views of the Capitoline Hill behind – once the spiritual and political centre of the Roman Empire. Apart from anything else, this hill has contributed key words to the English language, including, of course, “capitol”, and “money”, which comes from the temple to Juno Moneta that once stood up here and housed the Roman mint. The Capitoline also played a significant role in medieval and Renaissance times: the flamboyant fourteenth-century dictator Cola di Rienzo stood here in triumph in 1347, and was murdered here by an angry mob seven years later – a humble statue marks the spot.
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The Capitoline Museums
The Capitoline Museums
The Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo together make up the Capitoline Museums, containing some of the city’s most important ancient sculpture and art.
Palazzo dei Conservatori
The Palazzo dei Conservatori holds the larger, more varied collection. Among its many treasures are the so-called Spinario, a Roman statue of a boy picking a thorn out of his foot; the Etruscan bronze she-wolf nursing the mythic founders of the city; and the Hannibal Room, covered in wonderfully vivid fifteenth-century paintings recording Rome’s wars with Carthage, and so named for a rendering of Hannibal seated impressively on an elephant.
The wonderfully airy new wing holds the original of Marcus Aurelius, formerly in the square outside, alongside a giant bronze statue of Constantine, or at least its head, hand and orb. Nearby stands the rippling bronze of Hercules, behind which are part of the foundations and a retaining wall from the original temple of Jupiter here, discovered when the work for the new wing was undertaken. And when museum fatigue sets in you can climb up to the floor above to the second-floor café, whose terrace commands one of the best views in Rome. The second-floor pinacoteca holds Renaissance painting from the fourteenth century to the late seventeenth century. Highlights include a couple of portraits by Van Dyck, a penetrating Portrait of a Crossbowman by Lorenzo Lotto, a pair of paintings from 1590 by Tintoretto, and a very fine early work by Lodovico Carracci, Head of a Boy. In one of the two large main galleries, there’s a vast picture by Guercino, depicting the Burial of Santa Petronilla (an early Roman martyr who was the supposed daughter of St Peter), and two paintings by Caravaggio, one a replica of the young John the Baptist which hangs in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, the other an early work known as The Fortune-Teller.
The Palazzo Nuovo across the square – also accessible by way of an underground walkway that takes in good views of the Roman Forum just below – is the more manageable of the two museums, with some of the best of the city’s Roman sculpture crammed into half a dozen or so rooms. Among them is the remarkable statue Dying Gaul, as well as a Satyr Resting that was the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The Marble Faun; and the red marble Laughing Silenus. There are also busts and statues of Roman emperors and other famous names: a young Augustus, a cruel Caracalla and, the centrepiece, a life-size portrait of Helena, the mother of Constantine, reclining gracefully. Don’t miss the coy, delicate Capitoline Venus, housed in a room on its own.