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One of Rome's great unheralded museums, this is a fabulous treasure trove of classical art. The ground and 1st floors are devoted to sculpture with some breathtaking pieces – check out the Pugile (Boxer), a 2nd-century-BC Greek bronze; the graceful 2nd-century-BC Ermafrodite dormiente (Sleeping Hermaphrodite); and the idealised Il discobolo (Discus Thrower). It's the magnificent and vibrantly coloured frescoes on the 2nd floor, however, that are the undisputed highlight.
These vibrantly coloured panels were originally used as interior decor and provide a vivid picture of the inside of a grand ancient Roman villa. There are intimate cubicula (bedroom) frescoes focusing on nature, mythology, domestic and erotic life; and delicate landscape paintings from a dark-painted winter triclinium.
Particularly breathtaking are the frescoes (dating from 30 BC to 20 BC) from Villa Livia, one of the homes of Augustus' wife Livia Drusilla. These cover an entire room and depict a paradisiacal garden full of a wild tangle of roses, pomegranates, irises and camomile under a deep-blue sky. They once decorated a summer triclinium, a large living and dining area built half underground to provide protection from the heat.
The 2nd floor also features some exquisitely fine floor mosaics and rare inlay work. That these mosaics carpeted the floors of plush villas of aristocratic Romans in the 13th and 14th centuries is really quite extraordinary.
In the basement, the unexciting-sounding coin collection is far more absorbing than you might expect, tracing the Roman Empire's propaganda offensive through its coins. There's also jewellery dating back several millennia, and the disturbing remains of a mummified eight-year-old girl, the only known example of mummification dating from the Roman Empire.
Note that the museum is one of four that collectively make up the Museo Nazionale Romano. A combined ticket, which is valid for three days, includes admission to the other three sites: the Terme di Diocleziano, Palazzo Altemps and the Crypta Balbi. Count on €5 for an audio guide.