Il Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

If you only have one day to spend in Naples, I highly recommend that you spend the first part of it exploring the Naples National Archaeological Museum. So far this is definitively my favorite museum visit ever.

Augusto and Campania Exhibit

Upon entering the museum there is a special exhibition celebrating the two thousandth anniversary of Octavian Augustus’ death. Born Gaius Octavius, Augustus was the founder and first Emperor of the Roman Empire. He was instrumental in establishing the Second Triumvirate with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus after the death of Caesar in 44 BC. In 31 BC, the Triumvirate was disbanded due to the competing ambitions of its members. After this dissolution, Augustus restored the facade of the free Republic with power distributed amongst the Roman Senate, the executive magistrates and the legislative assemblies. Realistically, though, Augustus retained autocratic power over the Republic through military dictatorship. The period of his rule from 27 BC until his death at he age of 75 in AD 14 ushered in a time known as the beginning of the Pax Romana (The Roman Peace).


Meandering through the Augusto and Campania exhibit, there were many sculptural statues. The level of details in these works of art were astounding. The color of Apollo’s and Isis’ robe, the life-like folds in the robes carved in to the marble and the life-like expressions on the bust faces were breathtaking to behold in person.

Farnese Bull

One of the most magnificent artworks on display was the Farnese Bull. This glorious Hellenistic sculpture was originally carved from one block of fine-grained yellowish white marble.  When discovered in the Baths of Caracalla, it was in fragments. The current sculpture, which had undergone restorations in the 16th, 18th and 19h centuries, was integrated with various qualities of marble from each of these times periods.

The sculpture represents the torment and death of Dirce, the first wife of Lycus, the King of Thebes. Dirce was tied to a bull by the sons of Antiope, Amphion and Zethus, who wanted to punish her for the ill-treatment she inflicted on their mother.

This sculpture was overwhelming to view.  I wish that I could have spent a whole day taking in all of the details chiseled into this striking piece of marble antiquity.

Hercules at Rest

This lost-wax casting statue depicts a weary Hercules leaning on his clubs, which has the skin of a Nemean lion draped over it; in the hand behind his back, he holds an apple of Hesperides. It is thought that this statue shows Hercules after he has performed one of the last of the Twelve Labours. This sculpture from the Farnese collection is a Roman copy from the end of the 2nd century AD through the early 3rd century AD.  The Greek original was from the second half of the 4th century BC.

One a personal note, this sculpture was amazing coming (from the front) and amaze-balls going (from behind).

Wondrous Mosaics

After traveling through the rooms of sculptures housed in the Museum, wonderfully colored artworks that look like paintings come into view. As these objects get sharper, you begin to notice that these awe-inspiring objects are mosaics made with tiny colored stones, each chiseled to fit next to each other and made to unfurl into eye-catching decorations when viewed from afar.

You can really see the level of detail achieved by these works in the panel of the woman drinking around a table and the two roosters’ panel. My mind was blown by the colors and shapes achieved by these master craftsmen.

The Alexander Mosaic

The Alexander Mosaic is one of the most impressive mosaics found and salvaged from the ruins of the House of Faun in Pompeii.  This Roman mosaic, which was created circa 100 BC, depicts a battle between the armies of Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia. Originally, the mosaic would have resembled the painting below.


In actuality, though, the mosaic was heavily damaged (and oddly enough, preserved) after the eruption of Vesuvius.

Remnants of the Alexander Mosaic
Remnants of the Alexander Mosaic

The two main subjects of the mosaic are Alexander and Darius. Alexander has a breastplate adorned with the gorgon, Medusa and his hair is wavy, which was typical of royal portraiture during the 4th century BC. He is seen charging into battle on his horse, Bucephalus with a piercing gaze on the Persian leader. Darius is seen with a worried expression on his face. He is on a chariot commanding his charioteer to flee the battle. The charioteer is whipping the horses as he tries to escape. The Persian soldiers faces wear expressions of determination and perturbation. Clearly Alexander has the upper hand. Many believe that this mosaic depicts the Battle of Issus.

A replica of the completed mosaic currently can be seen at the House of Faun at the ruins of Pompeii.

The Secret Museum

The secret museum (also known as the secret cabinet) is not for the faint of heart.  This section of the Naples National Archaeological Museum contains a collection of erotic art from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Throughout ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum, erotic frescoes, depictions of the god Priapus, sexually explicit symbols, inscriptions, and even household items (such as phallic oil lamps) were found. At the time of the creation of these artworks, sexuality and sexually explicit materials did not carry the same prudent stigma that was cultivated around the 18th century and exist to this day.

When these artifacts were labeled as being obscene and unsuitable for the general public, they were locked away in a “secret museum” in 1819. In 1849, the doorway to the “secret museum” was bricked up. At the Pompeii site, locked metal cabinets were constructed over erotic frescos, which could be shown, for a modest additional fee, to gentlemen but not to ladies. The “museum” was also only accessible to educated males. This practice was still in operation at Pompeii in the 1960s.

Eventually the room was re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly a hundred years. It was briefly made accessible again at the end of the 1960s before being finally re-opened in the year 2000. Since 2005, the collection is kept in a separate room in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. A sign on the door warns the public of its contents, and an extra ticket is required.

NOTE: Sexually explicit images follow.

I don’t think I’ve ever blushed as much in my life as I did in this part of the museum.

Temple of Isis

The Museum also contained a scaled model of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii. This 2nd century BC Roman temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis was one of the first discoveries during the excavation in Pompeii in 1764.  When discovered it was mostly intact, preserved by the volcanic ash from Vesuvius. The original paintings and sculptures were removed and are part of the collection at the Naples National Archaeological Museum. Copies of some o the artworks can be seen at displayed at the Pompeian ruins in their original locations.

This scaled model shows the true glory that was the  Temple of Isis in Pompeii.


In addition to the many mosaics on view at the Museum, there were also many fresco on display. Some of these frescos were discovered at the Herculaneum and Pompeii sites.

Remnants from Vesuvius

Many household items were also discovered buried under the ash of Vesuvius. You can see from the condition of some of these items that the heat from the eruption and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum was enormous. You can also see by some of the pieces still being intact the wonder of nature; it is simply amazing that some of these things were preserved by this same destructive force that killed people where they stood.


More than 1000 texts written on papyrus rolls were found in a villa in Herculaneum. These papyri rolls were laid under a blank of lava and subjected to extremely high temperatures. This created a process of combustion, which allowed them to be preserved despite their extremely fragile conditions.

To unroll these papyrus, Father Antonio Piaggio, designed and built a machine based on the horizontal movement of the papyrus roll.  This machine allowed the papyrus sheet to slowly detach from the others while also being reinforced by a thin film made from a pig or sheep bladder.

Once opened, newly discovered Greek texts were revealed. This text would otherwise be “lost” today.

Second Thoughts on Naples

After visiting the Naples National Archaeological Museum, I began to question whether or not my first impression of Naples, the City, was fare.  My takeaway from a visit to this museum was that Naples had at least one redeeming factor: this spectacularly marvelous museum.


Up next: Herculaneum





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