Inside the walls of Rome’s many magnificent palaces and exquisite villas are some of the city’s best-kept secrets. These places tell the city’s history, all the way from ancient times up to the 18th century, uncovering many historical facts and bringing travelers closer to the life of the Roman nobility. Here are a handful of the most noteworthy.
One of the most alluring palazzos in Rome is the Palazzo Barberini, located in Esquilino, which is among the oldest neighborhoods in Rome. In 1625, Maffeo Barberini, a.k.a. Pope Urban VIII, bought the building for his family. The redesign of the original structure was the work of the most renowned architects of the 17th century – Carlo Maderno, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Francesco Borromini. Since 1949, together with the Palazzo Corsini, the palace has been home to the National Gallery of Ancient Art, available with one entrance ticket.
In addition to being an extraordinary example of Baroque architecture, the Gallery features over 5000 artworks, including paintings, sculptures, and frescoes by big-name artists like Rafael, Caravaggio, and Tintoretto. The highlight of the visit is the frescoed Triumph of Divine Providence by Pietro da Cortona. One peculiar aspect to look for inside the palace is the illustrated bees, once the symbol of the Barberini family.
Palazzo Massimo alle Terme
Conveniently located near the city’s railway station, Palazzo Massimo is a fantastic opportunity to learn about ancient Rome. The building is one of the four venues of the National Roman Museum, established in 1889. The palace, designed by Camillo Pistrucci and built from 1883 to 1887, originally functioned as a Jesuit educational facility. Today, the museum’s four floors display world-famous sculptures, frescoes, and mosaics. The collection comprises various archaeological findings, restored to reflect the significance of the Roman Empire. Among the most precious pieces in the museum are sculptures like The Boxer at Rest, The Discobolus, and The Sleeping Hermaphroditus. The ancient mummy of The Girl of Grottarossa is also a must-see exhibit.
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The 16th-century Villa Giulia is a valuable historic setting in Rome. Formerly a suburban residence for Pope Julius III, it is a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. The beautiful building features green, peaceful gardens with fountains and a 4th-century Temple of Alatri. The architects of the Villa were Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, Bartolomeo Ammannati, Giorgio Vasari, and Michelangelo Buonarroti.
However, the main reason for so many annual visits to the villa is the extensive collection of the National Etruscan Museum. It is one of the finest collections of Etruscan art and artifacts in the world, a unique chance to dive into daily life, culture, and history of ancient Etruria. The displayed items include sculptures, pottery, jewelry, and funerary objects. The most phenomenal objects in the collection are the Sarcophagus of the Spouses, the statue of Apollo of Veii, and the Pyrgi Tablets.
The Palazzo Altemps is another venue of the National Roman Museum. Cardinal Altemps, the nephew of Pope Pius IV, bought the palace in 1568, and it belonged to the family up to the 19th century. The elegant palace underwent 15 years of careful restoration and became a museum in 1997. The collection consists of items collected by the Cardinal and other noble families of the time, such as Ludovisi, Mattei, and Del Drago. Inside the palace’s walls visitors will find precious Greek and Roman sculptures, rare books, and beautiful frescoes. Palazzo Altemps is home to ancient stone masterpieces including the Ludovisi Throne (459 BC) and Gaul Killing Himself and His Wife (Epigonus, 2nd century CE).
Visiting the Villa Farnesina is a fantastic way to immerse oneself in Renaissance Rome. While strolling the palace’s rooms, visitors can taste the life of the city’s richest and most famous people at the time. The villa, designed by Baldassare Peruzzi at the dawn of the 16th century, was a residence and an event venue for a banker named Agostino Chigi. The building and its interior are the work of Raphael and a few other talented artists. Among them were Peruzzi himself, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Sodoma.
Today, the villa is open to the public, functioning as an art gallery and the seat of the Academy of Lynceans. Travelers coming to the Villa Farnesina can enjoy incredible frescoes by Raphael in the Loggia of Galatea and the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche. Another room every visitor should see is the Perspectives’ Hall, decorated by the villa’s architect, Peruzzi.
The 14th-century Palazzo Colonna is one of Rome’s most breathtaking private palazzos. The palace, still the residence of the noble Colonna family, is also home to the Colonna Gallery. It boasts a stunning collection of paintings and sculptures curated from the 14th to the 18th century. The building combines several architectural styles, including Renaissance and Baroque, beautifully embellished by marble and gold. The rooms display precious antique furniture, Venetian glass chandeliers, and fantastic frescoes. The artworks in the Gallery are by the world’s most renowned artists, including Tintoretto, Veronese, Salviati, Rosa, Bernini, and many others. One of the most exciting parts of the palace is the apartment of Princess Isabelle, which still looks the same way it did during the Princess’ life.
Last but not least on this list is Castel Sant’Angelo, or the Castle of the Holy Angel. Indeed, it is not a palace, but its historical and cultural value is impeccable. The Roman landmark originally was the tomb of Hadrian. Later, it served as a military fortress and a place of refuge for several Popes during some turbulent times in the history of Rome. An 800-meter-long corridor, Passetto di Borgo, built in 1277, linked the castle and the Vatican. Nowadays, it is a complex consisting of a national museum, the Papal Apartments, and historic underground prisons.
Eager travelers visit the museum for its extensive collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture, weapons and memorabilia of the Italian Army. Once done sightseeing, visitors can climb up the terrace, offering fantastic views and a spacious cafe. The bridge called Ponte Sant’Angelo and the statue of Archangel Michael on the castle top are also iconic symbols of the Eternal City.