NO matter where you are in Rome there is probably a house museum around the corner if not right in front of you. The popes were not alone in thinking that the rooms, hallways and loggias of their stately residences ought to be overscaled and highly decorated, with frescoed ceilings, gilt-framed paintings and gleaming marble Greek gods and goddesses propped in every corner. Popes had nephews who also used their digs for personal art collections; so did several centuries worth of cardinals, wealthy nobles, queens in exile, art-loving French imperialists and Romantic-leaning English poets, as well as painters, sculptors and other artists from around the globe. Collectively, they left behind a wealth of treasure palaces and curious cubby holes displaying something for every taste.
Not all house museums in Rome are created equal. Some, like the Borghese and Doria Pamphilj galleries, are bigger, better known and better stocked than others. But for tourists, a higher profile can mean advance booking and steep ticket prices. Lesser-known museums are usually a cinch to get into and get through; most can be appreciated in an hour. Newly expanded hours (from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.) and entrance fees of just a few euros — even less with the recently started Roma Pass — can make finding a hitherto unseen Renaissance masterpiece all the easier.
At the Palazzo Barberini, for instance, the recently reopened first floor displays a substantial portion of the collections of National Gallery of Ancient Art, including works from the Barberini collection and other donors. The renovated space is cause for jubilation among art and architecture buffs. After years of a painfully slow restoration that had reduced the garden to a garbage dump and the museum to a one-room greatest-hits display, the palazzo — which was built beginning in 1625 for Francesco Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VIII, by architects like Bernini and Borromini — once again has a gurgling fountain and shady palm trees welcoming visitors to its dramatically terraced entrance.
Highlights of the collection include Raphael’s “Fornarina” — an icon of Renaissance beauty — and two important works by Caravaggio: “Judith Beheading Holofernes” and “Narcissus.” Don’t miss the central hall, capped by Pietro da Cortona’s painted ceiling, “Triumph of Divine Providence,” a swirling, angel-filled skyward vista that cleverly links the Barberini clan with the image of heaven. Children can be entertained finding all the bees — the symbol of the Barberini family — deftly inserted throughout the palace, from Cortona’s fresco to the mosaic floors and even the radiator grilles.
The National Gallery also occupies a suite of rooms in the Palazzo Corsini, across the Tiber at the northern tip of Trastevere. Originally belonging to the Riario family, the palace is perhaps best known as the residence of Queen Christina of Sweden, who set up residence after her 1654 abdication and conversion to Catholicism. It was later owned and expanded by the Corsini family. About 300 paintings by the likes of Fra Angelico, Annibale Carracci, Caravaggio, Murillo and Rubens are tidily compressed into eight galleries. Even at the height of the tourist season, daily attendance rarely tops 50 visitors so it’s like having these masterpieces to oneself.
Back across the Tiber is the Palazzo Spada, former residence of Cardinal Bernardino Spada, who in 1652 commissioned one of Rome’s most delightful architectural follies from Francesco Borromini. Known as Borromini’s perspective gallery, it is a trompe l’oeil loggia in which the architect, by tilting the floor, walls and vaulted ceiling, creates the illusion of a colonnade stretching nearly 120 feet, when it is in reality less than 30 feet long. Among the masterpieces inside the museum are two paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi, among the first known European female painters.
Individual paintings seem almost a secondary consideration at the Palazzo Colonna. The inauspicious public entrance — up a narrow spiral staircase from the cramped ticket office — only adds to the sense of awe upon seeing the grand main gallery in all its Baroque splendor. Catching her breath from the climb, a Judy Dench-ish woman turned to her companion and said: “Now this is exactly the sort of place that could lead one to suspect that Rome really was the center of the universe.”
Overhead, images of Marcantonio Colonna II, the family scion who played a decisive role in defeating the Ottomans in the 1571 naval Battle of Lepanto, confronts the Turks at sea and is otherwise glorified in a series of action-packed frescoes that offer no respite for the weary eye. Over the doors, carved and gilded military standards and trophy armor seem to explode out of the over-scaled marble moldings. A double row of Murano chandeliers hangs in front of the windows along either side of the gallery; between the windows giant mirrors have been painted with vases of flowers and frolicking cherubs. Beneath them, marble table tops are supported by writhing Ottoman slaves.
The overall effect is a riot of sumptuous, self-aggrandizing Baroque ornament. Give in to a moment of envy while pondering that the family still lives here and for this reason, the gallery is open only on Saturday mornings.
Such displays of family values, or at least a family’s valuables, have always been very much in fashion in Rome. The French, arriving with Napoleon in the early 19th century, were no strangers to demonstrations of dynastic importance and did all they could to visually ally themselves with the ancient Roman artistic traditions. The Napoleonic Museum, former residence of Count Giuseppe Primoli, son of Carlotta Bonaparte, vividly reflects how this played out in the fine and decorative arts of the period — from furniture and porcelain to portraits of the Bonaparte family.
Around the corner is the Museo Mario Praz, the life’s work of an avid collector who shopped the city’s flea markets and antiques dealers to assemble a collection of some 1,200 examples of neo-Classical taste in virtually all media. The museum, which opened in 1995, offers a glimpse of how passionately people have embraced the idea of classical Rome right up to the present day.
Even the city’s glamorous shopping district around the Via del Corso and the Piazza di Spagna harbors a few noteworthy cultural destinations like the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, the house where the English poet Keats finally succumbed to tuberculosis. The museum displays manuscripts and memorabilia of Keats, Shelley, Byron and other 19th-century Romantics.
A few doors down is the house where 20th-century Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico lived during the last 30 years of his life. It is open by appointment, but is often booked months in advance.
Nearby, a squat, angular building amid the posh antique shops on Via Babuino turns out to house the Museum-Atelier Canova-Tadolini, the former studio of the neo-Classical sculptor Antonio Canova and later, his favored pupil Adamo Tadolini. Packed with plaster casts of everything from the artists’ most monumental sculptures to studies of body parts, it has the added charm of being a cafe with tables tucked in among the sculpture displays.
For those who prefer Classical sculpture without the neo- in front of it, just off the Piazza Navona is the Palazzo Altemps, once home to a succession of noble and papal families and today part of the Roman National Museum. It features impressive sculptures from the famous Ludovisi Collection in galleries adorned with original 15th- and 16th-century frescoes.
Slipping outside the gates of the Piazza del Popolo, it’s a short walk to the home and studio of another sculptor smitten with the Classical ideal. The Norwegian-born Hendrik Christian Andersen established himself in Rome in 1897 and upon his death in 1940 left the building and all its contents to the Italian state, which established the Hendrik Christian Andersen Museum. The artist’s sculptures tend toward robust nudes. Perhaps more engaging are the elaborate plans he created for a world city that was to incorporate the art, science, philosophy and all religions in a city mapped out like a giant college campus. There is something rather amusing that this plan was hatched and refined at the heart of one of the world’s most enduringly chaotic cultural capitals.
A 20-euro (about $31.40 at $1.57 to the euro), three-day Romapass (www.romapass.it) offers free entrance to your first two museums and discounted admission to another 40 institutions in and around Rome. It also includes free travel on the city’s transit services.
Palazzo Colonna, Via della Pilotta 17; (39-06) 678-4350; www.galleriacolonna.it; open Saturdays only, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; 7 euros.
Hendrik Christian Andersen Museum, Via Pasquale Stanislao Mancini 20; (39-06) 321-9089; Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; free.
Casa Museo G. de Chirico, Piazza di Spagna 31, (39-06) 679-6546, Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. plus the first Sunday of each month, reservations required; 5 euros.
Keats-Shelley Memorial House, Piazza di Spagna 26; (39-06) 678-4235; www.keats-shelley-house.org. Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. and Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 3 to 6 p.m.; 4 euros.
Museum-Atelier Canova Tadolini, Via del Babuino 150; (39-06) 321-10702; Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; 3 euros.
Mario Praz Museum , Via Giuseppe Zanardelli 1; (39-06) 686-1089; Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., 2:30 to 6:30 p.m., Monday 2:30 to 6:30 p.m.; free.
Napoleonic Museum, Piazza di Ponte Umberto I 1; (39-06) 688-06286; www.museonapoleonico.it; Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; 3 euros.
The National Gallery of Ancient Art — Palazzo Barberini, Via delle Quatro Fontane 13; (39-06) 328-10; Tuesday through Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; 5 euros.
The National Gallery of Ancient Art — Palazzo Corsini, Via della Lungara 10; (39-06) 688-02323; Tuesday through Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; 4 euros.
Roman National Museum — Palazzo Altemps, Piazza de Sant’Apollinare 48; (39-06) 399-67700; Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 7:45 p.m.; 10 euros includes admission to three other archaeological museums.
Palazzo Spada, Piazza Capo de Ferro 13; (39-06) 683-2409; Tuesday through Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; 5 euros.