Rome is filled to the brim with cultural sights and attractions – many of which are filled to the brim with tourists. The Colosseum alone attracted over 7 million tourists a year, while other noteworthy sites like the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps are crowded at all hours of the day. Add in the draw of the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel and you could easily spend your whole time in Rome shuffling in between attractions without the time – or space – to catch your breath.
The good news is you don’t need to spend hours in line to get up close and personal with the city’s many artistic treasures. The Eternal City is home to dozens of small museums and secret galleries that are well worth a visit and spared the heavy foot traffic of more famous sights. These 9 lesser-known villas and palazzi are some of my favorites in the city because they showcase Rome’s outstanding art in incredible settings, often hidden in plain sight of major squares like Piazza Navona and Campo de Fiori. When you wander off the beaten path, you’ll enjoy some of the city’s greatest paintings, statues and frescoes – all to yourself.
Located just north of Piazza Navona but seemingly worlds away from its crowds, Palazzo Altemps is a gorgeous gallery that houses an important collection of Greek and Roman sculptures within its luminous halls. Set within an elegant 15th century palace, the classical works enhance the beauty of the building itself, which features a central courtyard and a frescoed loggia lined with marble busts. The best thing about Palazzo Altemps is its relaxed and unhurried atmosphere: the statues are carefully arranged within the rooms to give ample space to each work, allowing you to admire the art without being overwhelmed by too many pieces. Palazzo Altemps is one of Rome’s four National Museums which you can visit on a combined ticket.
Another one of Rome’s four National Museums, Palazzo Massimo has a more traditional layout than Palazzo Altemps and contains an extensive collection of classical art from marble and bronze sculptures to frescoes, mosaics and jewels. Some of the most important pieces in the museum include the Greek bronze sculpture Boxer at Rest, the marble Lancellotti Discobolus (Discus Thrower) and the extremely intricate Sarcophagus of Portonaccio, decorated with a battle scene between Romans and Barberians. The museum also has vivid garden frescoes from the Villa of Livia Drusilla, wife of Augustus, that date back to 30 BC. You can visit both Palazzo Altemps and Palazzo Massimo on a combined museum ticket (€12).
The National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia lies just a short walk from Galleria Borghese but attracts a fraction of its tourists. This grand museum has an extensive collection of Etruscan artifacts and antiquities discovered in Lazio and Umbria, providing a fascinating glimpse into the history of the ancient civilization that proceeded the Romans. The most important work in the collection is a terracotta Sarcophagus of the Spouses from the 6th century BC that depicts a husband and wife reclining at a banquet in the afterlife, a truly evocative work that has survived through the millennia. Villa Giulia itself is among the city’s most properties and is an excellent example of Mannerist architecture. Wander through the grounds and be sure to wander beneath the incredible hemispherical painted loggia that looks onto a sunken nympheum, an ancient grotto devoted to water nymphs.
Rome’s most famous frescoes may lie within the Sistine Chapel but the city’s next most important painted ceilings are located within Villa Farnesina, a true jewel of the Italian Renaissance. This 16th century palace was built by Agostino Chigi, a Sienese banker and treasurer of Pope Julius II, who had exceptionally good taste: the property is designed to be a suburban villa and has manicured gardens and sun-filled loggias that look out onto the property below. Chigi also commissioned Raphael Sanzio to paint frescoes of mythical scenes (The Triumph of Galatea and Cupid & Psyche), exquisite in their detail and beauty. Another standout room is the Hall of Perspectives with trompe l’oeil landscapes that will make you feel transported into the countryside.
Located opposite Villa Farnesina, Galleria Corsini is part of Rome’s Arte Antica collections, along with Galleria Borghese and Palazzo Barberini, though it is the least known of the three museums. It is housed in the impressive late-Baroque Palazzo Corsini which belonged to the prominent Corsini family (who incidentally also founded the Capitoline Museums, commissioned the Trevi Fountain and other notable structures in Rome). The gallery has a wide breadth of Italian art from early Renaissance to the late 18th century, including works by Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, Van Dyke, Rubens and Reni, though the highlight of the museum may be the Biblioteca Corsini, a gorgeous library embellished with columns, trompe l’oeil painted busts and elaborate ceiling frescoes.
One of the most unconventional museums in Rome, Central Montemartini is set within an old power plant and juxtaposes classical sculptures with industrial architecture to a wonderful effect. The Giovanni Montemartini Thermoelectric Center was the first public electricity plant in Rome and powered much of the city between 1912 and 1963; today, its enormous diesel engines and steam turbines serve as the backdrop for ancient Roman statues. The museum was first used as a special exhibition space in 1997, when sculptures from the Capitoline Museums collection were temporarily relocated here during restoration works, but the exhibition proved so popular that it became a permanent museum. Centrale Montemartini is an important part of the cultural revival of Rome’s Ostiense neighborhood, traditionally a working class quartiere in the city.
Galleria Spada is best known for Francesco Borromini’s forced perspective gallery, an impressive optical illusion that lies within the palazzo’s garden. This masterpiece of the Baroque period features an ornate corridor that appear to stretch on for 37 meters (though it is actually only 8 meters in length), and a seemingly life-sized sculpture at the end of the corridor that is only 60 cm high. Borromini created an illusion of depth by featuring diminishing rows of columns, coupled with a rising floor, that tricks the eye into thinking the subject is much further than it actually is. The gallery also houses a collection of 16th and 17th century art by masters such as Titian, Guercino, Artemisia Gentileschi and Guido Reni. Bonus: the museum is one of the few in Rome that is open on Mondays.
At the southern end of Piazza Navona, Palazzo Braschi looks out onto the famous square but is largely overlooked by tourists despite its prominent position. Palazzo Braschi, also known as the Museum of Rome, recounts the artistic and cultural history of the city from the Middle Ages through the 19th century in its myriad of works. The Neoclassical palace is spacious and extremely ornate, with a monumental staircase that takes visitors up to the different levels of the museum and beautifully decorated galleries. The permanent collection has some nice paintings of the city of Rome and sculptures of its important political figures and the museum also holds rotating exhibitions on the first floor which require a separate entrance ticket.
Palazzo Barracco isn’t only worth a visit for its quality collection of antiquities, which includes ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Cypriot and Phoenician works in addition to some Greek and Roman sculptures from the classical period. The museum also has free admission and is centrally located along Corso Vittorio Emanuele, halfway between Piazza Navona and Campo de Fiori, meaning it’s easy to pop in for a short visit. Giovanni Barracco, a wealthy nobleman and avid art collector from Calabria with a passion for ancient civilizations, amassed the works during his lifestyle and donated the collection to the city of Rome in 1902.