The Capitoline Museums are among the most interesting in Rome. This formidable collection of art and archeology, known locally as Musei Capitolini, is located in Piazza del Campidoglio, one of the prettiest squares in the Eternal City, at the top of the Capitoline Hill. Often overlooked in favor of other museums, this is actually a fantastic place to learn more about the history of the Italian capital.
If you are planning to visit the Capitoline Museums when in Rome, this post is for you! In this post I detail the history of the museums, the most important sights and share important information on how to get Capitoline Museums tickets and how to plan your visit.
The History Of The Capitoline Museums, Rome
The Capitoline Museums are located at, for the most part, an important part of the city: Capitoline Hill. The Capitoline Hill has played a big part in the history of Rome, stretching back to the foundation of the Eternal City.
It was here that the Sabines crept into the walled Roman city to attack, led by the Roman maiden Tarpeia; she gave her name to a cliff on the hill, the Tarpeian Rock, where she was executed for her treachery (and where many more would be executed over the centuries).
The hill was also the site of numerous temples; the Temple for the Capitoline Triad, for example, which was founded by the fifth King of Rome, Tarquinius Priscius. There have also been several other ancient temples on the hill, including the Temple of Juno Moneta, the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus. This last temple was one of the most important in Rome; built in 509 BC, it was almost as large as the Pantheon.
From these early beginnings, the Capitoline Hill became not just the geographical but also the ceremonial center of the city of Rome.
During the Medieval period, the temples and sacred function of the hill were replaced by civic structures, and in the 12th century it briefly became a commune. Around this time, popular resistance and rebellion to Papal authority and noble families eventually led to a senator escaping central Rome, taking up his official residence on the hill.
The palazzo that he lived in (Palazzo Senatorio), and the small piazza in front of it, became the basis for Michelangelo’s later design. Later, in the 14th century, courts of justice were built there; many buildings surrounded the piazza by the 16th century.
However, the former ancient center of the Capitoline Hill had by the Renaissance fallen into disrepair, past their former glory. It was even used as the site of executions.
Michelangelo was brought in at the height of his fame by Pope Paul III (from the Farnese family). He commissioned the Renaissance artist and architect to design a symbol of a “new Rome” in order to impress the visiting Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who was scheduled to visit in 1538.
Michelangelo set about rebuilding the civic piazza in order to establish the grandeur of Rome. His designs date from 1536 – and he had big plans. He wanted to accentuate the orientation already in place from the senator’s Medieval palazzo (facing St Peter’s Basilica), and at the center of the piazza Michelangelo would place the ancient bronze Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius.
The Palazzo Senatorio was restored, with the addition of a double outer stairway, too. The Palazzo dei Conservatori was also restored, and later the Palazzo Nuovo was built. These buildings created an unusual trapezoidal piazza. Finally, steps were built that led up to the new piazza – Piazza del Campidoglio – from below.
There was much disorder that surrounded the designs, and Michelangelo himself passed away before it was all finished. Those three buildings, however, now make up the main buildings of the Capitoline Museums.
However, the history of museums stretches back to 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV donated a collection of ancient bronze statues to the city, putting them on display at the Capitoline Hill. The private collection grew to include not just bronze statues, but also marble sculptures, jewelry, mosaics, ancient coins, and Medieval artifacts.
The museums themselves, however, were not opened to the public until 1734 under Pope Clement XII. Today they are considered one of the first of their kind in the world – a museum where historic art could be seen and appreciated by the public and not just the private owners.
What To See When Visiting The Capitoline Museums
Buildings of the Capitoline Museums
The Capitoline Museums are made up of three main buildings (though there are more) that are interlinked by an underground passageway. These are…
Built by a senator in the 12th century, the aptly named Palazzo Senatorio once housed the ancient archives of Rome. It was redesigned according to Michelangelo.
Palazzo dei Conservatori
The Palazzo dei Conservatori was built for the local magistrates for Rome in the Middle Ages. It was built on the foundations of the 6th-century BC Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus. Again, this was also redesigned by Michelangelo. It houses mostly Roman but also ancient Greek and Egyptian sculptures.
True to its name, Palazzo Nuovo is the newest of the three. It was constructed in 1603 to Michelangelo’s exact plans, and features an exterior that is identical to that of the Palazzo dei Conservatori. As a museum, it houses numerous artifacts including statues, busts, mosaics, inscriptions and sarcophagi.
Galleria di Congiunzione
This is the name of the covered passageway that runs beneath the piazza, connecting the three palazzos above. Built in the 1930s, the passageway is home to the ruins of a second-century Roman dwelling. It also is where you’ll find the Galleria Lapidaria, which displays a collection of epigraphs.
A large, glass-covered hall, this new part of the Capitoline Museums was designed in 1996. At its center is the original bronze Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, which once sat in the Piazza del Campidoglio (the one there today is a copy). It’s also home to a number of other fascinating archaeological finds from antiquity, including the bronze Colossus of Constantine.
Colossus of Constantine
Only a few pieces remain of what was once an enormous white marble statue depicting Emperor Constantine I (not to be confused with the bronze statue pictures above). Thought to have been constructed between 312 and 315 AD, it is estimated to have been over 40 feet tall. The statue was commissioned by Constantine himself, and originally stood close to the Colosseum.
Capitoline She Wolf
Dating back to the 5th century BC, the Capitoline She Wolf was one of the original pieces donated to the museum by Pope Sixtus IV. The bronze statue depicts the founding legend of the city – namely, a she-wolf and the suckling twins, Romulus and Remus. There are multiple copies, but this original forms the nucleus of the Capitoline Museums.
Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius
This magnificent bronze statue stands 4.24 meters tall. Depicting Emperor Marcus Aurelius riding a horse, it is thought to have originally been located at the Roman Forum. Following this, for many centuries, it was located at the center of the Piazza del Campidoglio, until a replica was made in the 1980s and put in its place. Today it can be found in the Palazzo dei Conservatori.
The Dying Gaul
This emotive piece of marble sculpture is ancient, thought to have been made in the 1st or 2nd century AD. However, it’s a copy of an even older ancient Greek statue, widely believed to have been sculpted by Epigonus, who was a court sculptor of Pergamon. The original was created between 220 and 230 BC to celebrate the victory of the Pergamon King Attalus I over the Galatians, a Celtic people of Anatolia (present-day Turkey).
This copy was found in the gardens of Villa Ludovisi in the 17th century. Also called the Dying Galatian, the piece was first put on display in the Louvre, having been taken by Napoleon’s forces and put on display there until its return in 1816.
Created by Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini around 1640, this bust is a depiction of the mythical monster, Medusa. This snake-haired woman turned anyone she looked at to stone, and Bernini’s depiction is an interesting twist on the myth, portraying her as living in stone herself (instead of being decapitated by the Greek hero, Perseus).
Boy with Thorn
Also known as Fedele or Spinario, this ancient bronze statue in the Hellenistic style is interesting in its depiction of daily life. It captures the moment when a young boy sits trying to pluck a thorn from his foot. Specifically, the subject is believed to be a shepherd boy on his way to deliver a message to the Roman Senate, who had to pause to remove the thorn.
Dating from the 1st century AD, this sculpture stood outside the Lateran Palace for centuries before being taken by Pope Sixtus IV to the Palazzo dei Conservatori. It’s believed to be one of the first ever Roman sculptures to have been copied by Renaissance artists.
Practical Info About Visiting The Capitoline Museums
Capitoline Museums opening hours
The Capitoline Museums are open every day from 9:30 am to 7:30 pm. The last admission is at 6:30 p.m.
On the 24th and 31st December, the Capitoline Museums are open only from 9:30 am to 2:00 pm. It’s closed on 1st January, 1st May and 25th December.
Capitoline Museums tickets
Capitoline Museums tickets for adults, purchased online ahead of your visit, cost €11,50. Concessions (students 18-25, children and seniors over 65 years) are €9,50. Please be advised that during special exhibits the price of tickets increases.
There’s also the option to purchase the Capitolini Card, which is valid for 7 days and allows a week’s worth of access to the Capitoline Museums and the Centrale Montemartini. For adults, prices for the Capitolini Card are €13,50, with concessions being €11,50.
Should you get a guided tour?
Given the amount of ancient sculptures and works of art on display across the three buildings, it would be a good idea to get a guided tour of the Capitoline Museums. That way, you will be whisked between only the most famous pieces, all the while being informed of the history and anecdotes behind them.
For a guided tour of the Capitoline Museums, which includes Capitoline Museum tickets, click here.
There’s also the option of using either the video guide or the audio guide. Both of these can be purchased directly from the ticket office on the day of your visit. The video guide offers information on the permanent exhibitions in the Capitoline Museums and comes in a variety of languages; it costs €7.
Alternatively, the audio guide is for children (between 6 and 12 is the recommended age) and families, and provides information in Italian, English and French. This costs €5.
The museum app (€3.99) is also a good option to gain further insight.
That said, if you want to spend as much time as you like at the museum, without being herded around in a tour group – or having to pay attention to a video or audio guide the whole time – then it is perfectly fine to explore by yourself at your leisure. I would recommend reading up on some of the items in the collection first, though!
You must go through security checks, which include passing through metal detectors, in order to enter the museum. This can take some time, so it’s best to arrive early. You’re not allowed to enter the Capitoline Museums with bulky bags, luggage or large umbrellas; small daypacks or handbags should be fine, however. The cloakroom is free of charge to use.
Is photography allowed?
Photography is allowed at the Capitoline Museums, however, you won’t be allowed to take pictures with a flash or a tripod (selfie sticks are also not advised). In certain exhibitions, it is not possible to take photographs. Video cameras are also prohibited.
There are multiple restrooms situated around the museums for visitors to use. If you are on a guided tour, simply ask your guide for the nearest one. Make sure to pick up a map if you know that you’ll need to use the bathroom, so you can easily locate the restroom closest to your location.
Though efforts have been made to make the Capitoline Museums as accessible as possible, this is an old building with limitations on how much can be done. However, there is the addition of ramps, lifts and barrier free routes to help with access for those with mobility issues. Wheelchairs are also available, and staff will be happy to assist if needed.
Routes for blind and visually impaired visitors have also been created, as well as videos for deaf visitors.
How to get there
If you want to reach the Capitoline Museums via the metro, then take Line B to Colosseo – from there it’s around a kilometer walk to Piazza del Campidoglio and the museum.
To get there by bus, you can take several different buses, including numbers 30, 44, 51, 63, 81, 83 and 85 (among others) to Teatro Marcello/Ara Coeli bus stop. From there it’s just a few minutes walk to the top of the hill.