Almost every tourist visiting Rome will know the Piazza Venezia, the large square in front of the rather pompous Altare della Patria, the monument for Victor Emmanuel II, Italy’s first king. Most people will also know about the Palazzo Venezia to the west of the square, and about the balcony that Il Duce Benito Mussolini used to address large audiences (see Rome: A fascist past). But it seems that very few people bother to actually visit the Palazzo and its museum. This is a pity, because the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Venezia has quite a few interesting objects on display, although it can by no means be compared to, for instance, the Vatican Museums. The fact that many people ignore this museum means that it is usually nice and quiet inside.
The Palazzo was built in 1455 by order of cardinal Pietro Barbo, who in 1464 was elected Pope Paulus II (1464-1471). Barbo was a Venetian by birth and his palazzo almost completely surrounds the most ‘Venetian’ of all the churches in Rome, the San Marco Evangelista al Campidoglio. There is discussion about who designed the Palazzo Venezia. The names of both Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) and Giuliano da Maiano (ca. 1432-1490) are mentioned, and perhaps both were involved and worked on different parts of the building during different stages. What is certain is that the builders used materials taken from the nearby Colosseum. The palazzo was originally intended as the residence of the titular cardinal of San Marco, but in 1464, upon Barbo’s election, it became a papal residence. Exactly 100 years later, in 1564, Pope Pius IV (1559-1565) donated the building to the Republic of Venice, which turned it into its embassy.
The Venetian Republic was dissolved in 1797 and its territories were divided between France and Austria. The Palazzo Venezia was turned over to the Austrians, who used it as a residence for their ambassador to the Holy See. The building was confiscated by the Italian authorities during World War I, when Italy was at war with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The fascists subsequently used it and Mussolini had his office in the Sala del Mappamondo. People visiting the museum will have to climb several stairs and walk through this room to reach the entrance of the museum proper. Although still impressive, the Sala del Mappamondo also feels rather empty nowadays. The walls were frescoed by Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1431-1506) and the emblem of Pope Innocentius VIII (1484-1492) features prominently on the central wall.
The Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Venezia has several interesting objects on display. In one of the first rooms, we can admire a beautiful Byzantine casket, carved from ivory. The caption states that it was made between the ninth and the twelfth century, but it was probably carved in about 900 during the reign of the Eastern Roman emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912). On the lid of the casket we see Christ blessing an emperor and an empress, while other parts of the casket feature scenes from the life of David. We see the mass murder at Nob, David as a baby and young child, David playing the flute among his sheep and David killing a lion.
Other highlights in the museum include a head of a woman by Pisanello (ca. 1395-1455), a truly gorgeous head of Christ by Fra Angelico (ca. 1395-1455) and a painting of two friends by Giorgione (ca. 1477-1510). In terms of sculpture, we can admire a bust of Pope Paulus II by Mino da Fiesole (ca. 1429-1484) and a bust of Pope Innocentius X (1644-1655) by Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654). More work by Mino da Fiesole can be found in the colonnades surrounding the second inner court of the Palazzo. His four reliefs with scenes from the life of Saint Jerome, the man who wrote the Vulgate, are very good. One of the most curious pieces of art to be found in this part of the museum is a relief of an Egyptian deity who has been identified as Geb, god of the earth and husband of Nut, goddess of the sky. Most likely it was once part of the Isaeum, the temple of Isis on the Campus Martius (see Rome: Santa Maria sopra Minerva).
- Capitool Reisgidsen Rome, 2009 Dutch edition, p. 75;
- Luc Verhuyck, SPQR. Anekdotische reisgids voor Rome, p. 57 and p. 151.
 Anthony Cutler and Nicolas Oikonomides, An Imperial Byzantine Casket and Its Fate at a Humanist’s Hands, The Art Bulletin Vol. 70, No. 1 (Mar., 1988), pp. 77-87.