In my mind, I’m a cosmopolitan young lady who’s always out exploring the city of Rome. In reality, I take a lot of naps and watch more Netflix than I’d care to admit. Luckily, I signed up for “Museum History and Theory in Rome” this semester with Professor Laurie Kalb, which has pretty much been the perfect class for about a dozen different reasons: a) I don’t have anything like it at my home university, b) it gets me out and into the city, and c) I get walked around every week by someone way more knowledgeable than any tour guide I’ve ever encountered. Plus, when you’re getting a tour through a museum, you don’t have to feel guilty about skipping over most of the explanatory plaques (let’s be real, who actually has the attention span to read them all?), and I can say impressive things like “Sorry mom, I’m going to have to call you back, I’m about to walk into the Museum of the Imperial Fora and Market of Trajan.” Basically it’s been a total win/win.
The theory behind the class is fascinating; museums have undergone a huge transformation since their earliest incarnation as cabinets of curiosities, curated by early aristocrats, naturalists, and scholars. Museums are also implicated in larger discourses of nationalism, citizenship, patrimony, politics, and culture—museums have agendas, and they help craft narratives of state identity. The really exciting part, though, is seeing all of these abstract concepts actually being enacted in the places we visit.
On our site visits thus far we’ve dutifully covered our bases and been to some of the big-name spots, the most important probably being the Capitoline (arguably the first museum in Europe!), followed by the Palazzo Massimo (with an impressive collection of Roman statues) and the nearby Baths of Diocletian (originally built to accommodate literally thousands of people). What’s been a really lovely surprise, however, is all of the hidden gems that we’ve visited along the way. Here are just a few of my favorites:
This museum is actually pretty well-known, but it’s one of my favorites. Located in the Borghese Gardens (a fantastic place to spend some time wandering through, I might add), the museum is housed in the former villa of the Borghese family. It features an impressive collection of Caravaggio paintings and Bernini sculptures, but even if you’re not impressed by the art, the building itself is a masterpiece. The rooms are decorated wall-to-ceiling and are absolutely gorgeous.
This one is pretty exciting because it’s half art gallery and half house museum. One of the most interesting parts of the experience is the audio guide, which is narrated by Prince Jonathan Doria-Pamphilj himself, who grew up in the palace. The gallery features a few Caravaggio and Raphael paintings, but the most famous piece in the collection is the Velazquez portrait of Pope Innocent X (as a point of reference, I assume that any piece of art that I’ve actually heard of is famous).
This one really has something for everyone. The grounds of the villa are open to the public, and they’re a great place to go running or have a picnic. The main house of the villa has an eclectically designed interior, ranging from Gothic to neoclassical to Egpyt-themed, and it’s attached to airtight bunkers built by Mussolini during his residence there. The best part, though, is definitely the Casina delle Civette, or the House of the Owls. Largely designed by Giovanni Torlonia (the “odd duck” of the family), the house is absolutely whimsical and fabulous, featuring incredible stained glass windows and nocturnal animals embedded into the architecture of the building.