Museum Musings – A Local Guide Manifesto

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled; it is fire to be kindled”.

 Plutarch, Greek historian (I would like this printed on a t-shirt)

[This is part #2 of my “Visit to the Capitoline Museums in 3 Glimpses” that started in my previous post. I realize this section is even longer than usual. It contains some of the guiding ideas I am most passionate about. This is the first time I put them in writing and I realize how much I needed this. I hope it can be read in installments!]

Until last year I went to the Capitoline Museums quite often as the Rick Steves South of Italy Tour includes them and individual travelers fortunately request them for private tours. I had a chance to think about them and observe the response of visitors who were with me. Using this year to pause and write down what I experienced and understood is a possible way of staying connected to what I love and miss, and explore where all of this can go.

As my friend Ilaria and I walk through the entrance, say hello and enquire about the health and mood of the staff we have come to know so well, we realize that the idea of coming here to check new safety procedures and itineraries is an excuse. We miss guiding and specifically the infinite combinations of Place – Story of the Place –Travelers – Us that create a different energy every day and is ultimately why we still enjoy it so much after all these years . We console ourselves by looking at the art, sharing memories of magic moments, and defining common, foundational beliefs.

Getting started: The Facts


What:  Ancient Roman art, ancient inscriptions and a Pinacoteca (painting gallery).

When: The initial core of the collection was a gift of iconic ancient (bronze) statues made by Pope Sixtus IV (after whom the Sistine Chapel is named) to the Roman people in 1471. Private collections were acquired later, along with items unearthed during modern excavations when Rome became capital of newly unified Italy in 1871, and the city started expanding again. Digs for the foundations of new neighborhoods in areas that had been abandoned for centuries revealed incredible treasures. I always like to think of what might still be under my feet as I walk around Rome today.

Where: The museum is located in Piazza del Campidoglio, in the historical buildings on the sides of the square and underneath City Hall.

E Adesso? Now What?

We all recognize the importance of museums to preserve art, make it accessible to the general public and allow scholars to continue studying it so the conversation with the past never ends (hooray for the Humanities!).

We are attracted to them for the promise of higher understanding through the direct experience of Art, a form of communication that has been produced in every era of human history, and because we know beauty can lift the spirit and elicit the powerful emotions we crave and that seem harder to access in our everyday lives.

Sometimes this happens easily, immediately. I remember standing in front of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and feeling overcome as if I had been pushed hard in the chest, my lungs constricting, the texture of the yellow wheat almost pressing into my fingertips and the blue of the sky sticking to the inside of my pupils and brain. It was close to unbearable, but I felt so alive and engaged, I never forgot it and can still go back there in my memory. Stendhal Syndrome perhaps. I would be curious to know what work of art did that to you? Turning the corner at the Accademia in Florence and laying eyes on Michelangelo’s David for the very first time makes me happy to be alive just thinking about it.

Yet somehow, sometimes, in Italian art galleries and museums crammed with row after row of seemingly empty-eyed white marble statues, walls covered with dozens of paintings that our eyes struggle to sort and select, we feel lost and overwhelmed. The art stays silent and we tend to think the responsibility is ours (“museum guilt”) or, even worse, that it just isn’t for us. Admitting this in tranquility is important. I have learned that if we ask basic questions and find the right tools, the art will speak to us and museum visits will be rewarding and exciting.

I have an American friend to thank for this. In my very first years as a guide we went to the Sistine Chapel together and I recited the facts I had memorized with great effort. He turned to me and asked: “But why does it matter to me, now? How do I know it’s important?” I admit I got rather ruffled and indignant in the moment, but it gave me pause and forced me to rethink everything. “It’s important because it’s important, and there are thousands of people here to prove it” is not nearly enough. Let’s try a different angle.

The Heart of the Matter

As we climb up the travertine staircase of the Capitoline Museums, Ilaria and I remind ourselves that the crux of the matter is context. Nothing of what we see here was intended to be here. The people who commissioned and made this art in ancient times could never have imagined us today, 2000 years later, with our smartphones, the airplanes and cars that got us here. They were having a conversation with contemporaries who were fluent in the language they were using. The definition that keeps it fresh in my mind is that a pottery maker in ancient Athens never thought of me.

So if the art wasn’t meant to be displayed here and the artists and patrons were not addressing us directly, learning something about their world can help us connect. After all, we see only what we know so the more we know the more we see.

An Example

If we use our imagination and remove a Renaissance painting of Mary and the Child from a museum wall where it hangs among many others, and put it back in the church chapel it was painted for, with an altar and candles below it, and evoke a person of faith praying for something or someone dear to them while looking at it, we can access an experiential dimension that will make us more receptive to details on style and technique.

Knowing the art we see in museums was not originally meant to be there also allows us to explore the often splendid ideas behind the way they are displayed in their present locations and leads to even greater appreciation.

Museum Space

As we walk through the many sections of the Capitoline Museums, Ilaria and I count four different ways the art is displayed. We hope you will visit this fantastic place when the world is safe again, and see what you think, and even recognize these ideas elsewhere.


horti ila

In this section, Ancient Roman sculpture is displayed according to the site where it was excavated. These minimalist yet elegant rooms contain the art discovered in the late 19th century and that used to decorate the Horti, the luxurious residential complexes of the wealthiest people in ancient Rome. These homes remind me conceptually of the Hearst Castle in California and the idea of “conspicuous consumption”. If we know this, we can enjoy how the art is highlighted here in a modern display, but also imagine it where it was, shown off and admired by the original owners and their guests.



esedra marco aurelio

The original bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius was made to be outside, in (we can assume) an open space. When the statue was brought inside the museum to protect it, this room was designed in the 1990s specifically to evoke the experience of the original setting. The glass ceiling lets in the ever-changing natural light (oh, the passing of the hours and of clouds over the sun in here!) giving us the illusion of being outside. The room is vast but with very few other pieces. There are stairs we can sit on. It’s like a piazza inside a museum, brilliant!


This is the oldest type of display and it took me years to appreciate it. Corridors full of statues lined against the walls, no labels, and no indication of what to focus on (the galleries of the Vatican Museums are another superb example).

I have often felt “museum fatigue” and “visual overload” in places like these. Yet, if we look more closely, we will see that there is a criterion, a rhythm to this display. For example, we see a tall statue with two smaller ones at its sides and shelves with portrait busts on the sides of those. Repeat. Repeat. It’s about symmetry, the overall effect; we are not supposed to look at each and every piece with the same degree of attention. Ilaria stresses that we inherited this display from the past, when works of art were considered above all as beautiful objects. Collectors determined their value exclusively in aesthetic terms and displayed them to show exactly that by arranging other beautiful objects around them. These displays invite modern museum visitors, just like guests in aristocratic homes in the past, to find excellence amidst this abundance of beauty. We can let our eyes wander and enjoy the cumulative effect, selecting what draws our attention the way we would in an antique store, without pressure.

This display is often combined with another feature of museums located in historical buildings: the rooms of the museum (the “container”) are art in themselves: they are covered in frescoes, have magnificent marble or mosaic floors.

Borghese container(The glorious Borghese Gallery!)

I have learned to allow myself to enjoy them as a whole, being completely surrounded by beauty, without fear of missing anything. When I do this and combine it with careful focus on a few really important pieces, I leave with a sense of accomplishment and great pleasure.


lapidaria giusta

Underneath City Hall lies an ancient Roman structure, the Tabularium, maybe a public archive-temple with a road and residential buildings close by. It contains the Capitoline collection of ancient inscriptions which are lined against the walls. They are grouped thematically and many are funerary epitaphs. The Romans buried their dead along roads, outside the city. Their idea was to keep a clear separation between the two, but also for people to greet the dead before entering the city of the living (so many epitaphs start with the invitation “Stop for a moment stranger and read this brief message…”). There is no natural light here, and the ceiling is painted dark blue like a night sky with constellations of letters instead of stars, alluding to the inscriptions below. The idea of the present display (which is very recent as it dates to 2005) is to invite us modern visitors to imagine walking along an ancient road outside the city, pausing by the tombs of the Romans, reading about their lives in their epitaphs, and answering their call to be remembered. It is an invitation to feel an emotional bond with people who walked the Earth two thousand years ago, to connect with the human element that art so powerfully carries through the centuries, all the way down to us, here, now.

As I write this here in Seattle, I think of my friend Ilaria and our favorite moment of that morning. We discreetly took a picture; here it is.


The empty gallery had the unique silence of library reading rooms that always feels so rich and elevated to me. This gentleman had brought a folding stool and contemplated a single Latin inscription the entire time we were there. He never looked up, was never aware of our presence. He was in another world, we could feel the nourishment and fulfillment he was receiving and imagined the museum itself content to have him there. We walked away quietly, beaming at each other, back into the Roman sunshine and our day.

Next time we will look at a few pieces together.





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