I love museums. Even so, I avoided them in Rome for a long time, preferring to spend my days wandering through the open air, many square mile museum that is the city’s Centro Storico (historical center). Then one day instead of walking past the entrance do the Galleria Doria Pamphilj which really looks more like an entry to a courtyard, I went inside. And my world expanded.
Museums can be daunting; this one is not. It is enchantingly small – for a museum… for a palace. The entrance leads you into a courtyard through hallways, up stairs, and finally into the museum proper – which is actually just a section of the home that has been opened to the public.
The palazzo itself was built in the fifteenth century and was home to a number of famous Italian families before falling, by marriage, into the hands of the Pamphilj family who own it today. Through the centuries it was expanded, with each family adding rooms and entire wings in the style of the day; it is now the largest private residence in the center of Rome.
In the early 1600s, Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini began collecting paintings and from this relatively small endeavor grew what has become quite a stupendous collection that includes original works of Caravaggio, Velazquez, Filippo Lippi, Annibale Carracci, and many more.
Ceilings are 20 feet high, walls are deep, blood red, or gold or blue, some covered so thoroughly with paintings that they look like wallpaper themselves. Each room features a different kind of art: landscape painting, biblical figures, portraits, a mixture… there are brocade wall hangings, 16th century armchairs, and an original wooden floor. The hall of mirrors, I am told, is just like a mini Versailles, and lined with sculpture from ancient to Renaissance. Just off the main area is another, dedicated room for sculptures, and a marble bath set on a marble floor… and it goes on and on. But, not forever.
You can easily see everything in the museum in less than two hours – more quickly if you hurry. But you won’t want to. Each piece of art, hand chosen by a family member to adorn the walls, to be part of lived space, is meaningful in a way that most museums never manage. For this is not just a museum, a place for random strangers to wander and become lost; this is a space of family, of memory, of beauty chosen for the way it made someone feel. Sharing its wonders is, for those of us who take two hours to look more deeply, just a little bit like touching that beauty for ourselves, and feeling the echoes of centuries.
Don’t miss the experience.