Exiting from Rome’s Stazione Termini – itself one of Rome’s iconic buildings and the mis-en-scene of Vittorio de Sica’s heartrending 1953 film ‘Stazione Termini’, AKA in a bad US cut version as ‘Indiscretions of an American wife’, starring Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift –
one enters the city’s largest square the Piazza dei Cinquecento (incidentally, named cinquecento, ‘500’, in memory of the Italian soldiers who died in the 1887 battle of Dogali against the Ethiopian empire. I would have preferred Piazza Termini or even Terme….imperialism is somewhat out of fashion now!)
(Battle of Dogali – Italy’s late bid for an Empire…)
The square has, beyond the seemingly interminable bus stands, the ruins of the greatest Roman baths of the city, Diocletian’s, which date back to 300 AD.
(From Bannister Fletcher’s plan of the baths)
These baths, besides comprising the Michelangelo-designed Santa Maria degli Angeli, contain the main part of Rome’s (and perhaps the world’s) finest museum of classical antiquities.
The National Roman Museum was founded in 1889 with the intention of being one of the main “Centres of historical and artistic culture of re-united Italy”.
The museum has been reorganized into four separate divisions, each in a different location:
- The National Museum of Rome in Diocletian’s baths (visited in 2011).
- The Palazzo Altemps (which I visited in 2017)
- The Palazzo Massimo (visited in 2011 and again this year)
- The Crypta Balbi (not yet visited).
The palazzo Massimo is conveniently placed near the Stazione Termini and on the morning of my departure from Rome I was able to visit it in the company of my two friends, John and Carol.
The palazzo itself is a massive nineteenth-century neo-Renaissance style building with great views over the ‘cinquecento’ square,
It is most suitable for housing one of the most important ancient art collections in the world: sculptures, frescoes, mosaics, coins and goldsmiths’ works document the evolution of Roman artistic culture.
Here is the plan of the Museo di Palazzo Massimo:
We wisely started on the second floor where frescoes, stuccoes and mosaics document the decoration of prestigious Roman residences. Here I was particularly struck by the evocative frescoes of the pomegranate gardens of the Emperor Augustus’s wife, Livia Drusilla’s villa, here recomposed from its original location at Prima Porta, and the Farnesina villa.
Isn’t it easy for any ornithologist or botanist to recognize the life in these pictures, even after two thousand years? Spot the hoopoe (Upupa in Italian).
The mosaics and intarsia are equally astounding.
Suddenly I felt a déjà vue. Of course, I have been here before! It was in 2011, with my wife Sandra on a visit to meet school friends John Wagstaff and Martin Cardwell at Piazza dell’Esedra.. Such is the richness of the Imperial city however, that I saw these wonders with new eyes.
(Me and old school-mates with consorts at fountain in piazza dell’Esedra, 2011)
The first floor is dedicated to the development of sculpture and portraiture. Here is the girl from Anzio and Roman copies of celebrated Greek statues: the discus thrower, the crouching Aphrodite:
Surely Bagni di Lucca’s own bather is inspired by her.
(Statue in foyer of Bagni di Lucca’s town hall)
Then there’s the discus thrower, and the gender-bending sleeping hermaphrodite.
I was particularly taken by the bronze sculptures which are all that remain of Caligula’s ceremonial ships dredged from the lake of Nemi in 1930’s after centuries of futile effort in recovering them.
Sadly, the hulks were the victims of the last war. The description in the museum states they were destroyed by arson in 1944. My HM government pamphlet on destruction of monuments in Italy in WW2 issued in 1945 states that they were set alight in a revenge attack by retreating German troops. A more recent report describes the situation thus:
“At that time, Allied forces were pursuing the retreating German army northward through the Alban Hills toward Rome. On May 28, a German artillery post was established within 400 feet (120 m) of the museum … An official report filed in Rome later that year described the tragedy as a wilful act on the part of the German soldiers. A German editorial blamed the destruction on American artillery fire. The true story of what happened that night will probably never be known”
What will also never be known is what happened to ‘Project Diana’ of 2004 to rebuild these ships in their original size (sufficient drawings exist for this to be achievable – the Nemi museum now only houses copies built to one fifth the original size). Anyway, let us be grateful that at least these impressive bronze pieces have survived from what must have been hugely impressive galleys. But if only they’d waited to dredge them after that war!
Also to wonder at on this floor is the Portonaccio sarcophagus: a virtuoso piece of sculpture describing battles fought by one of Marcus Aurelius’ generals.
Isn’t the lighting in this museum superb!
The ground floor houses stunning original Greek sculpture found in Rome: the Boxer, the Hellenistic Prince and the Niobe from the Sallustian gardens, and culminating in the statue of the emperor Augustus, Pontiff Maximum.
Time was now no longer on my side and, besides, there is only so much one can take in, even if it is the finest Roman collection of Roman antiquities in the world.
A surprisingly good lunch was followed by a heart-felt goodbye to my dear friends
and a hasty departure to catch my train to Pisa and thence to Bagni di Lucca, homeward bound to Longoio.
It was a journey of a little over six hours on the coast railway which always gives splendid views and is somewhat cheaper than going on the TAV to Florence (which actually doesn’t cut the journey time very much especially when one considers it takes longer to get from Bagni di Lucca to Florence than from Florence to Rome!)
Goodbye beautiful Eternal City. See you soon again!
PS As I approached Lucca I thought of the words of the magnificent ‘Inno a Roma’ composed by that city’s most famous son, Giacomo Puccini. Here it is conducted by my friend Andrea Colombini in Vienna’s Musikverein. (yes we were there!!!!!). See words below with my translation,
PPS Here are my return train tickets:
In case you didn’t work it out, it cost me £22.59 to travel 237 miles without any rubbish pre-booking – just on the spot. Check that out with a typical UK train fare….
Inno a Roma
Roma divina, a te sul Campidoglio
dove eterno verdeggia il sacro alloro,
a te, nostra fortezza e nostro orgoglio,
ascende il coro.
Salve, Dea Roma! Ti sfavilla in fronte
il sol che nasce sulla nuova Storia.
Fulgida in arme, all’ultimo orizzonte,
sta la Vittoria.
Sole che sorgi libero e giocondo,
sul Colle nostro i tuoi cavalli doma:
tu non vedrai nessuna cosa al mondo
maggior di Roma.
Per tutto il cielo è un volo di bandiere
e la pace del mondo oggi è latina.
Il tricolore canta sul cantiere,
Madre di messi e di lanosi armenti;
d’opere schiette e di pensose scuole,
tornano alle tue case i reggimenti
e sorge il sole.
Sole che sorgi libero e giocondo…
Hymn to Rome
Divine Rome, our choir’s voices soar towards you
on the Capitoline hill
where the sacred laurel is eternally green;
our choir rises to you, our fortress and our pride,
Hail, Goddess Rome! the sun, born in a new chapter of history,
shines before you.
resplendent in arms, upon the new horizon,
The sun, rising free and jubilantly,
tames the horses on our hill:
you will not see anything in the world
greater than Rome.
Throughout the sky flags are flying
and today the world’s peace is Latinate.
The tricolour flag sings on the construction site
and on the factory.
Mother of harvests and woolly flocks,
of honest work and diligent schools,
our regiments return to your homes
and the sun rises.
A sun that rises free and joyous …)
PS The basement of Palazzo Massimo displays a large numismatic collection and the sceptres of the Imperial Insignia, in addition to the jewels coming from sumptuous funerary furnishings such as that of the girl from Grottarossa. Another reason to return and see what jewels the girl was wearing when she died so young…