A Walk Among Heroes and Legends
In the 3000 years of Rome’s history, millions of people have walked the streets of the forum, the old center and the seven hills of the city. A few of the more famous, and infamous, characters in Roman history can still be found in these cobbled streets, for the lucky few who know where to look. Art lover or not, the famous statues in Rome are a beautiful connection to the past and very easy on the eyes. My guide to the best statues in Rome will ensure you get to stand toe to toe with these historical figures while enjoying some of the lesser known spots in Rome.
How Many Statues in Rome?
There are simply too many to count. Throughout Roman history there have been thousands of statues in the buildings and streets of Rome. The Ancient forum was decorated with sculptures of gods and emperors inside temples, palaces, lining porticoes and scattered throughout the forum and Campus Martius. Some of these were ancient Rome sculptures, others Greek brought to Rome as the empire expanded, and as time went on the collection grew. Today you will find museums lined with sculptures, sculptures in squares and parks and even along busy streets.
Two of the largest collections of sculpture in the city are at the Capitoline Museums and in the Vatican Museums in Vatican City. There are rooms and hallways lined with hundreds of sculptures from throughout the history of Rome. There are so many, it’s impossible to see them all in one Roman holiday, at least if you want to keep the soles of your shoes and your sanity. I have created a guide to sculpture in Rome that will highlight some of the most important and accessible sculptures.
A Guide to Rome Statues by Era
Ancient Rome Sculptures (Including Ancient Greek Sculptures)
In the center of Rome on top of the Capitoline Hill lies the 16th century square known as the Campidoglio. Designed by Michelangelo, the square itself contains 5 examples of ancient Rome sculptures, and inside the museums on either side of the square are countless others. The sculptures in the square:
The Rivers Tiber and Nile
These river gods are lounging in front of the Palazzo Senatorio with their symbols to show the viewer which river they represent. The Nile rests on a sphinx while the Tiber rests his arm on the Roman she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus.
In the center of the rivers is the Dea Roma (Goddess Roma) also known as Minerva, goddess of wisdom and war, similar to the Greek goddess Athena.
To the left of the Palazzo Senatorio just around the corner is a copy of the Lupa Capitolina, as she is known in Italian. The original is in the Capitoline Museums and dates back to the 5th century BCE. Under the she-wolf are the twins Romulus & Remus, the are the legendary founders of Rome.
The mounted statue in the center of the piazza is a copy of the original inside the Capitoline Museums. There is a tale regarding this sculpture that while the Catholic church was melting down the bronze pagan sculptures from ancient Rome they saved this one thinking that it was Constantine, the emperor who legalized Christianity in the 4th Century. But it seems they got it wrong as this is actually a depiction of Marcus Aurelius, one of the emperors who was known to persecute Christians during his reign.
The museums are full of sculptures from ancient Rome that can be viewed for a low priced ticket. A few noteworthy sculptures to see are the Dying Gaul, the large statue of Constantine (now in pieces) and the originals of the sculptures described above.
The Vatican Museums
On the other side of town in the Vatican City are the Vatican Museums. This is perhaps the most extensive collection of art and artifacts in the world and the sculpture lines the walls of rooms and hallways throughout the complex. Some of the pieces to take special note of are the Belvedere Torso, the sculpture of the Emperor Augustus and the giant bronze statue of Hercules, an excellent example of a Roman god statue which lies in the room with Nero’s giant porphyry bath.
The Roman Forum
Most of the sculptures from the ancient Roman forum are no longer there, to be truthful many of them ended up in the Capitoline and Vatican Museums, but there are still a few to see. In the House of the Vestals in the center of the forum, visitors can enter the atrium of the Vestals and see the beautiful statues depicting vestals that once lived here.
While the Renaissance was happening in Florence, Rome was getting in on some of the action with their own Renaissance a bit further south. Unfortunately we don’t find quite as many examples of Renaissance sculpture in Rome as we do painting, but what is here is well worth visiting. The great master Michelangelo sculpted two of his most beautiful works here in Rome.
The Pieta – located in the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican City, this is one of Michelangelo’s most beautiful sculptures. Only 23 years old when he began cutting the marble to create this work, it remains to this day, the only sculpture that the artist ever signed.
The Tomb of Pope Julius II (Moses) – Most commonly known as the Horned Moses by Michelangelo, the Tomb of Pope Julius II was begun in 1505, but it was not until long after the Pope passed away that the tomb was finally completed in 1545 on a scale much less grand than the original designs. It is said that Michelangelo buffed the sculpture of Moses so much that the marble began to take on a transparent glow. Michelangelo was so proud of his work on the Moses and its life like appearance it is said that he commanded it to “Speak!”
The Baroque style of art closely followed the Renaissance, adding more realism and emotion to paintings and sculptures. One of the masters of the Baroque era was Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and you can see his work all throughout Rome and the Vatican City.
The Ecstasy of St. Theresa
Found in a chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria on the northeast side of the city near Termini Station, this is one of my personal favorites. Sculpted in 1652, this stunning sculpture represents the moment when St Theresa is caught up in a moment of “religious ecstasy.” Such an erotic moment depicting a religious scene sets this sculpture apart from the rest. It was also recently cleaned and shimmers in the light of the chapel.
For art lovers, or just those who want to take in as much Roman art culture as they can, the Borghese Gallery is one of the very best museums in the city. Located in the Borghese Villa, which resembles central park in NYC, visitors must book tickets in advance and should consider exploring the park as well as the gallery. Of the many Bernini sculptures in this gallery the three you must not miss are:
Apollo and Daphne, a Greek myth about a girl running from the sexual advances of the god Apollo when she begs the gods to help her and she is turned into a laurel tree just as Apollo catches up with her.
The Rape of Proserpina, another example of mythology, this time Roman, where a god takes what he wants. The god of the underworld, Pluto takes the young maiden down to Hades with him. He is depicted here with his dog Cerberus who guards the entrance to hell. The detail that must not be missed is the place where Pluto’s hand and fingers dig into Proserpina’s thigh, the realism and sculpting of the marble is truly remarkable.
David from the old testament story of David and Goliath is one of the only sculptures of this subject matter that is actually in motion. Most other sculptures of David are standing still, stoic, proud in victory after having slain the giant. But Bernini’s David depicts the moment that the boy is winding up his slingshot and about to let it loose to strike Goliath down. The tension in the face, especially around the mouth, will keep you gazing at it for quite a long time.
This bridge connecting the old city center to Hadrian’s mausoleum, now known as Castel Sant’Angelo, is decorated with 10 beautiful angels that were sculpted by Bernini and his workshop. Each of the angels holds an object from the Passion of the Christ, including the Spear of Longinus, the crown of thorns and the cross Christ was nailed to. Only two of the angels were carved by Bernini himself (one holds the crown of thorns, the other the plaque with INRI “King of Jews”) and are now kept in the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte.
The Unification of Italy Statues
In the 19th century a group of military leaders fought hard to bring the separate governments in the various regions on the peninsula of Italy together under one flag. By 1861 they had succeeded in unifying the entire country with the exception of Rome, which was defended by the army of the Pope. By 1870 the Pope was defeated and Rome was brought into the unification and made Italy’s capital as it had once been the capital of the Roman empire. After the unification, the Italian government began erecting statues and monuments to commemorate the battles and the heroes who fought to bring Italy together.
Altare della Patria
The Altar of the Fatherland is the largest monument in Rome and one of the most popular with people on holiday. Constructed between 1885 and 1925, it sits in Piazza Venezia at the base of the Capitoline Hill and can’t be missed, not because you should make an effort to see it, but because it is so large, and white and elaborate that you can’t help but see it towering above the rest of the buildings in the city. Sitting in the very center of the front of the monument is an enormous sculpture of Italy’s first king Vittorio Emanuele II. This sculpture is so large that during the inauguration of the monument they hosted a banquet in the belly of the horse!
Via Fori Imperiali
This road runs from Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum and was constructed in 1932 by Mussolini. The construction of the road destroyed parts of the five ancient imperial forums that border it today. As retribution for this destruction, Mussolini had bronze sculptures of the emperors placed in the vicinity of the forums that bear their names. There are sculptures of Julius Caesar, Emperor Augustus, Emperor Nerva and Emperor Trajan. You may wonder why there are only four sculptures but five forums, that is because Mussolini did not understand or possibly care that Emperor Vespasian built the Forum of Peace, and therefore did not place a statue of him.
The Gianicolo Hill
Considered the seventh hill of Rome, the Gianicolo lies on the right bank of the Tiber above the neighborhood of Trastevere. At the top of the hill, beyond the fountain of the Acqua Paola, there is a spectacular look out point called the Belvedere del Gianicolo where visitors can view the entire city of Rome. In this square is a large statue of General Garibaldi who was an integral part of the battles for unification. On the way up the hill as you approach the lookout, and in the park beyond the square, there are busts of generals and military figures who were noted for their service in the unification as well.
The Spirits of Rome Brought to Life
Most of the sculptures in this guide are so beautifully carved and fortunately well-preserved, that we are lucky to have them as life-like representations of the people who walked the streets of Rome throughout the past three millennia. Historical and mythical figures are depicted with such beauty and grace that we are inspired to wander the museums, churches, palaces and squares to seek out their company and learn their stories.