ome has about 130 museums, depending on whether you count some truly obscure and rarely open saints’ shrines and catacombs. Some are so exclusive you need a reservation (Villa Borghese), others so popular you can almost never find time to enjoy them properly (the Vatican Museums). Some of the city’s most interesting museums, however, offering glimpses into daily Roman life through the centuries, are often nearly empty. Two days of edifying solitude in one of the world’s most crowded and noisy cities can be downright weird, but undeniably healing.
Start in the staid Prati neighborhood, where good Catholic tourists cozy up to St. Peter’s and wealthy Roman ladies nibble on €6 ices. The neo-Gothic Church of the Sacred Heart, built between 1914-1916, looms over the Tiber. The church itself is striking, but no guidebooks mention its Little Museum of the Souls of Purgatory. It takes some asking, but near the sacristy is a dim corridor with a wall of 10 framed proofs, apparently, that the dead do return. They come from the 17th through the early 20th centuries. The souls have seemingly avoided this world since 1920; who can blame them?
The ghostly hand or finger-mark, seared into something earthly, was the preferred contact method. Those souls knew how to make an impression. Asleep the night of June 5, 1894, Sister Margaret in a nunnery near Perugia was visited by her late colleague Sister Maria, who’d died that morning. Sister Maria had suffered for two years with tuberculosis, longing for release. That night she told Sister Margaret that she was in Purgatory because of her impatience, and she needed prayers. She burned her finger-mark into Sister Margaret’s pillowcase, on display here, and promised to return. Later that month she did return with the good news that the sisters’ prayers had sprung her.
Other handprints are from a mother returned to warn her son off his errant ways and from a man’s dead brother, seeking prayers to counter his impious life. The most recent is a photocopy of a 10-lire banknote with a handprint from a dead monk of the monastery of San Leonardo in Montefalco who left 30 such bills there between Aug. 18 and Nov. 9, 1919, asking for Masses. The monks have the original banknotes, the display said.
If you’re lucky, you’ll exit into a gloomy autumn Roman evening, as I did, one that soon exploded with a cloudburst. I ran for my favorite old school haven of Roman comfort food on this side of the Tiber, Ai Villini. The distant but unswervingly polite elderly waiters serve a heavenly stracciatella, egg drop soup, and stracetti di vitello and manzo brasato, inadequately translated as “veal strips” and “braised beef” (Via Marcantonio Colonna, 48; dinner for two about €40).
Purgatory must have seemed milder than earthly Roman justice under the popes, judging from the Museo Criminologico, run by Rome’s police in a narrow, four story building off tasteful Via Giulia back on the Tiber’s trendier eastern side. It makes for a nice early morning visit, especially if you need to unload some unrealistically rosy notions about human nature. An inappropriately whimsical wooden miniature of “la Veglia” (“The Vigil”), carved and painted by 1930s inmates, recalls this punishment: a man is tied astraddle a pointed wooden block, his limbs weighed down. A real and well-worn example of “La Mordacchia” (“The Muzzle,” an iron mask fastened around the mouths of litigious and slanderous women, hangs nearby.
Next up is a cilice, notorious thanks to the “Da Vinci Code.” It was indeed used for penance, but it also punished adulterers, who were forced to sit on a churchyard “seat of penance” with its triple spine digging into their thighs. There was a banco di fustigazione, the whipping block used to punish beggars and unlicensed vendors, who also often had their ears cut off and foreheads branded. The whips on display were corded and heavy, and they made the next attraction, the guillotine, seem kind.
The French introduced Rome to the guillotine during their short-lived Roman Republic in 1798. Its operator, nicknamed Mastro Titto, executed his first man with it on Feb. 28, 1810 and followed with 52 more over the next three years. When the popes returned to rule Rome in 1815, they nostalgically brought back the stake, but pragmatically kept the guillotine, too, continuing to employ Mastro Titto. He “was called to rest,” says his display, in 1868, at age 85. His beloved guillotine was last used shortly after his death on Nov. 24, 1868, to behead two revolutionaries who’d killed 25 papal troops with a bomb in their barracks.
All that’s just the first floor. The second displays 19th century criminal tattoos, seized contraband from weapons to ancient art counterfeits to drug paraphernalia, and even a counterfeit Michael Bolton CD. More criminal memorabilia overflows the third floor, including the box in which two men from the United Arab Emirates tried to smuggle a drugged Israeli spy through Leonardo Da Vinci Airport and on to Cairo in 1964 until he started awakening, an image that sets me inexplicably giggling even now. Here were the tales and tools of murderous 1940s sisters Lidia and Franca Cataldi, as well as criminal-of-passion Lt. Bruno Vincenzo Paterni, who killed his married lover Countess Giulia Trigna in 1917 when she tried to end their affair; there were the weapons and jewelry of 1940s Sicilian brigand Salvatore Giuliano and modern Neapolitan gangster Pupetta Maresca.
If it’s a little early for Rome’s rigid 1 p.m. lunch hour, try a cop’s snack like I did, punched out of the ground floor machines: a chocolate milk, a bag of fried pork rinds and an Italian candy bar. The machines also sell antacids. On the other hand, it’s just a short walk south to Piazza Campo de’ Fiori, where the colorful outdoor food market lets you stock up on pane, salami, prosciutti, formaggi, vino, as well as vegetables and fruits.
Proceeding to the brigands who become politicians, head next for the Museo Napoleonico just north of here and still in the centro storico neighborhood called Ponte. Napoleon had special plans for Rome. Occupying it in 1808, he declared his newborn son Napoleon II King of Rome in 1811. From that year a tapestry shows Napoleon giving his code of law to “Goddess Rome,” intended for his planned 1812 visit — but then Waterloo intervened.
Napoleon planted relatives as royalty throughout Western Europe. There is his sister Elise Bonaparte, whom he made Princess of Lucca and Duchess of Tuscany, who tried unsuccessfully to install his son Napoleon II as French king after Charles X’s 1830 death. “She was the businesswoman of the family,” a lonely museum attendant told me.
There is his brother Lucien, the idealist who supported him until it grew clear that Napoleon liked the republic better in theory than in practice. Lucien and his second wife Alexandrine de Bleschamp moved to Rome in 1804, starting the family’s Roman line that ended in 1927 with the death of his great-grandson Count Giuseppe Primoli, who donated this palazzo.
The exhibits move from First to Second Empire, and the intervening drop in family fortune. After Napoleon’s 1814 downfall, his brother Louis, erstwhile King of Holland, left his wife Hortense and settled in Rome. Hortense followed and settled in Rome on her own, establishing a artists’ and writers’ salon in her new home, Palazzo Ruspoli. Upstaging France’s democratic revolution of 1848, her son Louis Napoleon was elected president of France and, stealing a page from his uncle’s playbook, staged a coup in 1851 wherein he extended his term 10 years. The next year he held a plebiscite endorsing himself as Emperor Napoleon III. In paintings and sculptures here, he seems a mean little man. His motto was: “Empire equals peace.”
Another room is dedicated to sad Napoleon II, who died at 21. He resembles a smart, lazy college student, with wavy hair, chubby face, and thoughtful but sleepy eyes. His aunt Pauline Bonaparte, Napoleon’s devoted sister, reached Rome in 1815 and lived what the exhibit delicately calls “an anti-conformist life” — posing languidly nude for Canova’s famous “Venus” (to be found at the Borghese Gallery), taking many lovers, dying of syphilis. Her portraits here show sympathetic eyes, whimsical smile, and unpretentiousness. But it was bedroom slippers I liked best.
The Kingdom of Naples was Napoleon’s first gift to a sibling, initially to his brother Joseph in 1806 and then to his sister Caroline and her husband Joaquin Murat when Joseph was made King of Spain in 1808. Caroline’s jewelry in this branch of the family’s room is charming, especially the figurines in folk costumes, but more compelling is the painting of Joseph’s daughters Zenaide and Carlotta, holding a letter from their exiled father in Philadelphia. Carlotta married her confusingly named cousin Napoleon Louis, brother of Louis Napoleon — from picking spouses at will among Europe’s royalty, the Bonapartes became nearly unmarriageable except to one another.
More rooms follow the family into the late 19th and 20th centuries. There’s Lucien’s son Carlo Luciano and his wife Zenaide, Carlotta’s sister (I know, it’s confusing), who married their children to Roman nobility (except for Luigi, who became a cardinal; his collection of books his great-uncle read while exiled on Elba is displayed here).
The last of their branch, granddaughter Eugenia, who married a Russian prince, died in 1950. The last of all Lucien’s descendants, Maria, married Prince George of Greece and died in 1964. But fear not — or fear, if you will — for more Bonapartes remain. They are baby boomer descendants of Napoleon’s youngest brother Girolamo, King of Westphalia, and their brood.
You are well-situated now for lunch at one of the local eateries that has broken the city’s sometimes tiresome daily menu (gnocchi on Thursday, baccalà on Friday, etc.) while playing off local tradition. Récafe just north of here, between “starchitect” Richard Meier’s controversial structure housing Emperor Augustus’ Ara Pacis (“Altar of Peace” and shopping artery Via del Corso, is a perfect Roman lunch stop. Its outdoor tables are plentiful and indoors it just keeps going. Pizzas are the thicker Neapolitan kind, and the menu generally is tinted Neapolitan. (06.6813.4730; entrees, €6-17).
Nearby is the Osteria della Frezza, part of the Gusto food complex which includes a fancier restaurant and cool kitchen gear shop, has a formaggeria with a takeout window for picnics (Via della Frezza, 16; 06.322.6273; entrees, €6-14). For quicker and simpler fare, the barely marked Latteria on Via in Campo Marzio offers a real downtown Roman working lunch, cafeteria style. Its tavola calda draws bureaucrats from the Chamber of Deputies and other government ministries nearby.
Next spend a sobering afternoon at the Museum of the Liberation (Museo della Liberazione), which inhabits a building halfway up Via Tasso on the working class Esquiline hill. Few Romans were eager to enter here while the Gestapo ruled Rome from Sept. 11, 1943 to June 4, 1944. The left hand doors at No. 155 led to SS offices and barracks. At the right hand doors, No. 145, you were given a mess tin, a wooden spoon, and a thin blanket before being brought to your cell, unless you were important enough for immediate interrogation. The only windows were grated 70×50 centimeter openings; in spring 1944, as the prison filled, the cells got additional small openings to relieve the stench. Doors were also removed from bathrooms to humiliate prisoners, softening them for interrogation.
Awakened at 7 a.m., prisoners had to clean their cells for inspection and then were given two minutes apiece in the bathroom. Those not scheduled for interrogation went to assigned maintenance duties until the day’s single meal, a thin broth with potatoes and cabbage and 200 grams of bread. If you were interrogated during dinner, you missed it. Between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. you could go to the bathroom, where you could fill your tin with water for the night. At eight was lights out, absolute silence, and no more bathroom trips. Night was the Gestapo’s favorite interrogation time, for it made a good impression to return a tortured prisoner to his cellmates then.
The museum focused on the Resistance, a subject whose awkwardness fades as the last Roman survivors of 1943-45 die off. One display honors Ettore Rosso, a young officer given the hopeless order to secure the city’s northern side against Germans moving in to fill the vacuum left when Mussolini was deposed. He blocked the road with mined trucks and when the Germans arrived, refused their order to move and opened fire with his small detachment.
As they closed in, he blew up himself with his men, taking many German troops with him. At Porta San Paolo, already wounded Lieutenant Raffaele Persichetti led a group who wore civilian clothes to confuse the Germans. “A hero among heroes,” the display said, “With words and example he invited his fellow fighters to the ultimate resistance unto death, sacrificing his young manhood for the vision of a fatherland reborn in freedom.”
Esquilino is one of the world’s most enduring working class neighborhoods. Its eateries also remain real. Consider boisterous Trattoria Galilei for dinner. The lasagna is just right, meaty and chewy, though its pizzas are also very good (dinner for two is a very reasonable €30 with a half-liter of castelli romani).
North of Termini train station and a world away from Esquilino in the elegant Ludovisi neighborhood, the Museo Buoncompagni Ludovisi displays 19th and 20th century fashion in a turn of the century neo-classical palazzo. Beginning Dec. 4, the museum features an exhibit on the aesthetics of the Rome household between 1900 and World War I. When I visited, the theme was the work of late 20th century designer Mila Schön. Her stuff from the late 60s and early 70s seems more enduring than the era’s other mod fashions. Some bejewelled 1971 leggings, for example, could be easily worn today, without the diluted retro quality of some current looks. The exhibit showed how her styles were elaborated by Ugo Mulus, the Italian fashion photographer who helped make mod elegant.
The exhibit showed how the best designers stay ahead of trends. A 1980 skirt and jacket combination had a crisp lift instead of big shoulders and a nice shortness-cum-slit instead of the longish frump of the era’s mainstream.
I could be a fashion writer, I thought, but then I remembered all the other odd little museums on my list for next time, starting with Dario Argento’s Museum of Horrors, where the master of Italian terror flicks himself is said to sometimes lurk. Then there’s the Museum of Pasta (a dozen rooms!) and the Museum of Hospital Arts (15th century surgical instruments). The Sistine Chapel, which I saw last in 1993, will just have to wait.
Autumnal Rome is a treat. Chilly, wet spells mix with brilliant days. Get a settimanale (weekly) ATAC ticket from the stores marked “T” (the machines are less trustworthy). Everything is in walking distance of everything else, but Rome’s hills are real to the walker and it’s a great opportunity to learn the city’s crowded but efficient bus system. Bus lines were changed about a decade ago but have remained more or less stable since then. Still, it’s best to double-check the route on the street sign.
THE MUSEUMS (not all sites in English)
Via del Gonfalone, 29, tel. 06.6830.0234. Tuesday-Saturday 9 a.m.- 1 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays also open 2:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m. Closed most of August. Admission €2. Take bus 23, 116 (the minibus cruising the historic center), or 280 to Via Giulia; Via del Gonfalone is three streets north of Ponte Mazzini.
Piazza di Ponte Umberto I, tel. 06.6880.6286. Open 9 a.m.- 7 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Admission €3. Take bus 70 from Via Nazionale or Corso Vittorio Emmanuele heading west to the river and get off at the Umberto I bridge.
Via Tasso, 145, tel. 06.700.3866. Open Tuesday-Friday 9:30-3:30; weekends 9:30-12:30. Free. From Termini Station take the 714 bus down Via Merulana; get off at Via Galilei and walk one block left to Via Tasso.
Via Boncompagni, 18, tel. 06.4282.4074. Open 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Free. Take Metro line A to the Barberini stop, then buses 52, 53, or 80 (express) to get you close, or walk up Via Veneto and turn right on Via Boncompagni.
Museo del Purgatorio
Luntogevere Prati 12, tel. 06.6880.6517. In the Santa Cuore del Suffragio church. Open approximately 6:30 a.m.-11 a.m. and 5 p.m.-6:30 p.m. Free. Take the bus to Piazza Cavour (34, 49, 87, 926, 990) and walk around the left side of the Palazzo di Giustizia to this riverside church.