Of Rome's seven hills, the Capitoline Hill(Campidoglio) is the most sacred. The Capitoline Hill is where the city's first and holiest temples stood, including its most sacred, the Temple to Jupiter and the Capitoline Triad (Jupiter, Juno, and their daughter Minerva). Today, Capitoline Hill is home to the Capitoline Museum, a world-class museum of Roman artifacts.
History of the Capitoline Museums
In ancient times, the Capitoline Hill was the nerve center of the Roman Empire. The great Temple to Jupiter and the Capitoline Triad was constructed under Rome's last king, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and was considered one of the largest and the most beautiful temples in the city. When the Celtic Gauls raided Rome in 390 BC, the Capitoline Hill was the one section of the city to evade capture by the barbarians.
The Capitoline echoes with famous events in Roman history. It was here that Brutus and the assassins locked themselves inside the Temple of Jupiter after murdering Caesar; here that the Gracchi plotted and died; here the triumphant generals overlooked the city for which they fought; here that the Gauls, creeping to the Citadel, were let in by the infamous Vestal Virgin Tarpeia.
Political criminals were murdered by being thrown off the steep crest of the Capitoline Hill to the dagger-sharp Tarpeian Rocks below. When Julius Caesar suffered an accident during his Triumph, he approached the hill and Jupiter's temple on his knees as a way of averting the unlucky omen. Apparently not successful, he was murdered six months later.
By the Middle Ages, Monte Caprino (Goat Hill), as the hill was called, had fallen into ruin. But in 1536 Pope Paul III (1468-1549) decided to restore its grandeur for the triumphal entry into the city of Charles V (1500-58), the Holy Roman Emperor. He called upon Michelangelo to create the staircase ramp, the buildings and facades on three sides of the Capitoline Hill, the slightly convex pavement and its decoration, and the pedestal for the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.
What to See at the Capitoline Museums
In ancient times, the Capitoline Hill's main features were the Temple of the Capitoline Triad and the Tabularium (hall of records), where the city's archives were kept. The latter was a tall tufa structure that forms the foundation of today's city hall, the Palazzo Senatorio.
But most of the buildings on the Capitoline Hill that survive today date from the Renaissance. Climbing Michelangelo's long, sloping steps makes for a dramatic approach, and at the top is a perfectly proportioned square, Piazza del Campidoglio, also laid out by the Florentine artist. As Michelangelo's preeminent urban set piece, the piazza sums up all the majesty of High Renaissance Rome.
Michelangelo positioned the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the center. You can see the original in the museum; a copy was placed on the original pedestal in 1997. The other steps adjoining Michelangelo's approach will take you to Santa Maria d'Aracoeli.
One side of the piazza is open; the others are bounded by the Senatorium (Town Council), the statuary-filled Palace of the Conservatori (Curators), and the Capitoline Museum. These museums house some of the greatest pieces of classical sculpture in the world.
The Capitoline Museums, built in the 17th century, were based on an architectural sketch by Michelangelo. The museum complex consists of two separate galleries that stand across the square from each other: the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazza Nuovo. The former has the larger and more varied collection.
In the Palazzo dei Conservatori, one of the major highlights is the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius from the 2nd century AD. It stood on the Piazza del Campidoglio from the 16th century until 1981. Its years in the piazza made it a victim of pollution and it has recently been restored and is now kept in the museum for protection. The statue is housed in a glassed-in room, the Cortile di Marforio; it's a kind of Renaissance greenhouse.
The only equestrian bronze statue to survive from ancient Rome, it likely endured because it was mistakenly believed to represent the Christian emperor Constantine rather than the pagan Marcus Aurelius. The statue is beautiful, although the perspective is rather odd. A legend foretells that some day the statue's original gold patina will return, heralding the end of the world.
This room also contains the head from a giant bronze statue of Constantine and rippling bronze statue of Hercules, brandishing his club. The Hannibal Room is covered in vivid 15th-century paintings depicting Rome's wars with its arch-rival Carthage. Beyond this is the sacred symbol of Rome, the Etruscan bronze she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. The twins were added to the Etruscan wolf in the 15th century.
The second floor of the Palazzo dei Conservatori contains Renaissance painting from the 14th to late 17th century. Highlights include the Burial of Santa Petronilla (an early Roman martyr said to be the daughter of St. Peter) by Guercino and a Caravaggio of the young John the Baptist.
In a pale-orange painted courtyard stands what survives of a marble colossal statue of the Emperor Constantine: his head (with eyes looking piously heavenward), part of an arm, and a hand with index finger pointing up. This originally stood outside his basilica in the Forum.
In the first room of the Palazzo Nuovo is The Dying Gaul, a famous work of great skill that's a copy of a Greek original dating from the 3rd century BC. In a special gallery all to herself is the Capitoline Venus, who demurely covers herself. This statue, also a Roman copy of a 3rd-century-BC Greek original, was the symbol of feminine beauty and charm down through the centuries. Amore (Cupid) and Psyche are up to their old tricks near the window. There are also busts and statues of emperors and other famous figures, including a young Augustus, a cruel Caracalla, and a life-sized portrait of Empress St. Helena, mother of Constantine.
Quick Facts on the Capitoline Museums
|Names:||Capitoline Museums · Musei Capitolini|
|Categories:||museums; World Heritage Sites|
|Dedication:||Jupiter and Capitoline Triad|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||41.893049° N, 12.482668° E|
|Address:||Piazza del Campidoglio 1|
Dec 24, 31: 9am-2pm
Closed Dec 25, Jan 1, May 1
|Lodging:||View hotels near the Capitoline Museums|
- Personal visits (July 6, 2006; April 16, 2008).
- Capitoline Museums – Official Website
- Frommer's Rome, 17th ed.
- The Rough Guide to Italy
- Photos of the Capitoline Museums - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of the Capitoline Museums, Rome
Below is a location map and aerial view of the Capitoline Museums. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.