Since antiquity the Italian capital has attracted the noble and the powerful who set up house in the city’s sumptuous palaces and decorated them with the most treasured cultural objects in existence. Now, many of these former homes are museums preserved as they were at the height of their grandeur and visiting them is one of the many distinct pleasures that you can only find in Rome.
Stepping into the Doria Pamphilj Gallery provides the opportunity to view one of the world’s finest art collections still in private hands. Housed in an ornate palazzo, the collection has been acquired over time since the 17th century by one of Italy’s most aristocratic families. The contemporary heirs who still maintain private apartments within the palace have opened the breathtakingly frescoed public salons filled with paintings, sculpture and decorative objects for public appreciation. Masterpieces on display include works by Titian, Raphael, Bruegel, Caravaggio and most famously a Velazquez portrait of Pope Innocent X.
The Baroque Palazzo Corsini served as the residence of a titled family who amassed the outstanding collection of canvases during the 17th and 18th centuries. Visitors pass through public rooms that contain significant works of art dating from the Renaissance to the late 18th century including portions of an important papal collection. Thrill to paintings by Fra Angelico, Caravaggio, Murillo and Rubens hung as they were when this was the home of one of the most privileged families in Rome. Stroll eight galleries stretching throughout the first floor of the palace which is surrounded by a botanical garden perfect for a post-tour picnic.
To visit the Palazzo Colonna is to time travel back to the height of the Baroque when those who had it flaunted it. Although there is a collection of art to appreciate, rather than a repository of objects and artifacts, it is the over-the-top decoration that makes this grandest of palaces worthy of a visit. Polished marble, gilded plaster and fantastical frescoes adorn every inch of the grand gallery that rivals that of Versailles. Viewing the private family quarters maintained exactly as they were in their 18th century splendor makes the lifestyles of today’s rich and famous seem tame by comparison. The palace remains a private home to this day and is therefore, only open for public tours on Saturday mornings.
Within the whimsical Palazzo Spada, the preserved intact home of a mischievous 17th century cardinal, visitors encounter a trompe l'oeil tour de force designed by the architect Borromini who through the use of forced perspective complete with sloping floors and ceiling as well as narrowing walls, makes a 30-foot gallery look 100 feet long. Along with eccentric architecture is a unique collection of paintings on view that includes two works by Artemisia Gentileschi considered the first documented European female painter.
Connoisseurs of sculpture will not want to miss the Palazzo Altemps, home to a succession of royals as well as the renowned collection of Classical ancient statuary known as the Ludovisi Collection that remains displayed in a series of salons boasting lush 15th century frescoes overhead. Admirers of neo-Classical sculpture of the 19th century head to the Museum-Atelier Canova-Tadolini where the studio of the sculptor Canova and his pupil Tadolini has been preserved and where their own majestic works inspired by the ancient ideals are displayed amidst tools of their trade and partially finished casts.
Literary admirers make their own pilgrimage to the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, the home where Romantic poet John Keats spent the last part of his life. Preserved as it was in 1820 when he came to live there it includes a collection of his original manuscripts and first editions as well as paintings, sculptures and relics that celebrate both his life and the lives of his Romantic compatriots Lord Byron and Percy Shelley. The House library of more than 8,000 titles is the most complete library of Romantic literature in the world as well as a repository of valuable manuscripts of writers ranging from Oscar Wilde to Mary Shelley to William Wordsworth.
Peeping behind the doors of palaces filled with precious objects is a pleasure most particularly in Rome because what you discover is incomparable masterpieces of art, architecture, design and decoration. Even passing through temporarily on a tour fires the imagination and brings the past to life in a way that no ordinary museum gallery can.