Next to the steps up to Santa Maria is the cordonata, an elegant, gently rising ramp, topped with two Roman statues of Castor and Pollux, leading to one of Rome's most elegant squares, Piazza del Campidoglio. The square was designed by Michelangelo in the last years of his life for Pope Paul III (though it wasn't in fact completed until the late seventeenth century); Michelangelo balanced the piazza, redesigning the facade of what is now the Palazzo dei Conservatori and projecting an identical building across the way, known as the Palazzo Nuovo. Both are angled slightly to focus on Palazzo Senatorio, Rome's town hall. In the centre of the square Michelangelo placed an equestrian statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which had previously stood for years outside San Giovanni in Laterano. After careful restoration, the original is now behind a glass wall in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, and a copy has taken its place at the centre of the piazza.
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 statue of Marcus Aurelius, formerly in the square outside, alongside a giant bronze statue of Constantine, or at least his 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. 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 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 Galleria 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 holds the Galleria Lapidaria, a collection of Roman marble inscriptions – 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.