Great Museums – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Our occasional series of looks at some of the stand-out museums around Europe has thus far been confined to the east of the continent. Clearly, there are many museums and galleries of considerable note in the west and the Archaeological Museum in Naples ranks as one of the best.

This is a building that is well worth a visit in its own right. However, providing one has the time and the schedule, it is an even better place to see taken in conjunction with a trip to Pompeii and/or Herculaneum. Indeed, in the case of the former, there is a lot to see, simply as a result of the way that the two towns were destroyed. Pompeii suffered from volcanic ash and thus many items of interest would be lost if retained in their original setting.

Of course, Naples is a fine city to visit at any time with as much to see and do as one might expect from a large and bustling city. The archaeological museum is just one of many attractions, but will provide interest and entertainment even if you don’t have the opportunity to visit the nearby sites.

Naples is a city that is easily accessed by public transport, even from quite far afield. There is an airport, a ferry terminal and several railway stations. The Duck Holiday team, enjoying the considerable pleasures of the town of Sorrento, made use of all of these transport hubs, arriving in Italy via plane, taking the ferry across to Naples and then the train back to Sorrento.

The museum is centrally located, next to a metro station called – wait for a surprise – Museo. Originally, the building was the home of the royal cavalry and put to use as a riding school before being rebuilt as the main part of Naples university. When the university moved home in 1777, the Real Museo Borbonico took over and the building became public property in 1860.

Initially, the museum held the Farnese Collection of paintings, books and other ancient artefacts, but gradually the artwork and library were relocated and the archaeological museum was the result. While the emphasis is on the finds from Pompeii, Herculaneum and other towns in Campania, there is also an extensive and impressive collection of Egyptian art.

The museum

A highly useful and inventive display, which helps to put many of the exhibits into context, is the model of Pompeii. This is not, as one might imagine, a new addition, but was constructed in various stages between 1861 and 1877. The model depicts an exact representation of every detail found in the ruins and is not only a truly remarkable piece of work, but also an important historical document.

Clearly, different approaches work for different people, but we found that visiting the historical sites first and finishing with a trip to the archaeological museum was a thoroughly satisfactory method. The museum fills in gaps, in a quite literal sense.

The museum does not deal exclusively in treasures recovered from the devastation caused by Mount Vesuvius, although the vast majority of the mosaics on show date from this period. One notable recovery from Pompeii depicts Alexander the Great leading his cavalry against the Persian emperor, Darius III.

Likewise, most of the fine collection of Greco-Roman sculpture consists of recoveries from excavations made in the area surrounding Vesuvius. Most are Roman copies of Greek originals.

An entrance to entrance

One of the most famous houses in Herculaneum was the Villa of the Papyri (Villa dei Papiri), which was an art gallery in its own time. Naturally, therefore, some of the most spectacular artwork was retrieved from this building. A map of the villa shows where each object was found during the excavations of 1750-1761. Most of the sculptures were inspired by Greek figurative art. The villa’s name, incidentally, refers to a library of around 1,700 papyrus scrolls that was found in the villa. These scrolls are not, however, in the archaeological museum, but can be seen in the Biblioteca Nazionale, part of the Palazzo Reale complex in another part of the city.

Another notable collection is of the paintings, sculptures and furnishings from the Temple of Isis in Pompeii. It was discovered in 1764 and has been arranged so that the layout is exactly as it appeared to the archaeologists who unearthed it. The marble head of Isis, the goddess to whom the temple was dedicated, remains intact.

You’re a lyre

The museum also houses a large number of frescoes, most of which originate from the site at Herculaneum, though there is a famous collection from one of the largest houses in Pompeii, popularly known as the House of Julia Felix, including scenes from the forum, one of the few objects that can give us a small glimpse into how life looked in the first century AD.

Positively imperial

Finally, for those who fancy something a little racier, there is the Secret Cabinet. This contains erotic works from Pompeii and Herculaneum. In these more liberated times, nothing seems too scandalous, but it is probably safe to assume that the scenes caused no little stir during the period in which they were discovered.

Great Museums – Muzeul National de Istorie

Visitors to Bucharest’s National History Museum should not be put off by the appalling statue on the front steps. This abomination purportedly shows the emperor Trajan holding a wolf. It should be ignored, unless one takes the view that, like some cult films, it is so awful that it is, paradoxically, good.

Wolf-free version

Wolf-free version

Behind the ghastly statue sits the magnificent Neo-Classical building that houses the museum. It was completed in 1900 and was, until 1970, the home of the Romanian postal service, Poşta Romană. There are sixty or so rooms, though not all tend to be open at the same time.

Some critics might suggest that the museum is something of a one-trick pony. This, however, would be unfair, and in any case, the pony in question is a particularly impressive one and worth the admission money on its own. That pony is the replica of Trajan’s Column. Not just any replica – this is a full-scale affair.

Detail from Trajan's Column

Detail from Trajan’s Column

There are two significant and impressive collections. One is the Lapidarium, which displays some magnificent statues from a Bronze Age necropolis. This is where the visitor can follow, along the frieze of the column, the progress of the Dacian Wars (there were two in rapid succession) and the eventual and inevitable victory of the Romans – under Trajan, naturally – over the heroic Dacians. The extraordinary carved work shows around 2,500 figures, mostly soldiers, of course, but also statesmen and priests. Naturally, Trajan appears at very regular intervals.

Pietroasele dish

Pietroasele dish

The other superb collection is known as the Romanian Treasury. This includes Dacian jewellery and the Romanian Crown Jewels. The Pietroasele Treasure is a glorious collection of Gothic art, with gold dishes, cups and jewellery. Don’t be fooled by black-clad modern day Goths; fourth century Goths liked a bit of flashy colour.

Dacian bling

Dacian bling

The Crown Jewels comprise various crowns, swords, sceptres and jewellery. The Kingdom of Romania was a rather short-lived affair, lasting from 1881 until 1947, with only four kings, though one was to reign on two separate occasions. The collection is not, therefore, huge, but is impressive nonetheless. Top place in over-the-top jewel overload is probably the sword of King Carol I, Romania’s first king, encrusted with around 1,200 jewels.

Crown of Maria

Crown of Maria

The museum holds various exhibitions, often of an international nature. There is almost inevitably some kind of building work going on, but the museum always tries to keep its star attractions available for viewing.

Bucharest may not be everyone’s idea of a picturesque place and indeed there are some awful monstrosities (see the Presidential Palace). Many fine buildings were lost during the Ceaușescu period in particular, but thankfully the lovely National History Museum remains. But please do something with that statue…