Weather forecast for the next three days: Rain
What’s the perfect rainy day activity? Museuming. But already been to the Capitoline Museum? Tired of Trajan’s Markets? Too rainy for Ostia Antica? Take advantage of La Settimana della Cultura, Rome’s Cultural Week offering free entry to many sites, and do something a little different: Check out this lesser-known museum: Museo della Civiltà Romana, The Museum of Roman Civilization in Rome’s EUR district.
This quirky museum built in fascist Rome under Mussolini houses a collection of Rome’s “greatest cultural hits.” From its Etruscan founding in the eighth century BCE, through the formation of the Republic in 509 BCE, to Julius Caesar, the creation of the Empire under Augustus, its apex under Trajan, and Christianization under Constantine I, this museum has it all. All of Rome’s most precious artifacts under one roof? You rightfully ask. Here’s what makes the museum quirky: they’re all replicas. But don’t shy away from the museum because of that. Go and revel in life-size plaster casts of victory monuments and epic inscriptions, highly-detailed models of Rome’s topography over its history, a recreation of an ancient Roman library, and even replicas of ancient Roman musical instruments. The museum is a site in its own right.
As you can imagine, the huge expanse of time the museum tries to cover offers a life-time of exploration, but each room features a different segment of Roman history. Amidst such careful (and probably propagandizing) curation, make sure to check out these two must-sees:
1) Plaster Casts of Trajan’s Column
You know the huge column standing near Piazza Venezia (next to the “Wedding Cake”)? This is Trajan’s victory column: twenty-nine drums of Carrara marble feature a continuous frieze that narrates Trajan’s successful military campaigns against the Dacians (modern day Romania). Standing nearly 100 feet tall, the friezes can be hard to make out from ground level. Fortunately, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, plaster casts were created of all the friezes. These replicas have themselves become a precious artifact as the column now deteriorates in the open air and pollution of the city. Displayed horizontally here from beginning (near the base of the column) to end (near the very top, where it was capped with a statue of Trajan himself, now St. Peter), the panels stretch for over 200 meters and contain over 2,500 carefully sculpted figures.
Check out Roman soldiers bringing Dacian heads to a displeased Trajan, Dacian women torturing Roman soldiers, and scale-covered Dacian cavalrymen in this fascinating portrayal of the war from Imperial Rome’s point of view.
2) Gismondi’s Gigantic Model of Ancient Rome
Do you have kids that love models? Or does the inner child in you secretly adore them? Regardless, indulge your inner-geek like I did and feast your eyes on the best and greatest of all the highly-detailed miniature models at the museum: Italo Gismondi’s model of Imperial Rome under Emperor Constatine I in the early fourth-century CE.
This enormous model, made completely to scale (1:250), took thirty-six years to create (1935-1971). That’s over three and a half times as long as it took to build the Colosseum. As you gaze in awe at arguably the most important reference work for reconstructing Ancient Rome, test your new knowledge of ancient Roman history: Can you locate the Colosseum? How about the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline? The Stadium of Domitian (now Piazza Navona)? The Theater of Pompey the Great (near which Julius Caesar was assassinated by his fellow senators)? The Circus Maxmius?
When you’ve had your fill of Roman history, I suggest you refuel at Caffé Palombini for a coffee and delicious salty cornetto, or SOHO, a sleek, new café-gym-spa that has a lunch buffet (8 euros for a “piccolo” (actually huge) plate or full restaurant menu if you’re there around dinner time).
How to get there: Jump on Metro line B (blue) and get off at the EUR Fermi stop. A 10-minute walk brings you to the Museum at Piazza Giovanni Agnelli, 10, 00144 (Map here).
Cost: Free during Cultural Week; 7.50 euros normally.
Many thanks to Dr. Albert Prieto of the American Institute for Roman Culture for his expertise and inspiration!