Art treasures from the Pompeii and Herculaneum excavations, including the best mosaics and frescoes, and the giant Farnese sculptures from ancient Rome are the top highlights in the magnificent National Museum of Archaeology in Naples, Italy.
The National Museum of Archaeology in Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli) is one of the world’s greatest museums on Roman art. The Farnese collection comprises a large number of Roman sculptures including the Farnese Bull – the largest intact marble sculpture from antiquity. The museum also famously claimed the best artworks discovered during the excavations of the Vesuvian towns Pompeii and Herculaneum. These include mosaics, frescoes, sculptures, and a range of other items. The popular secret room displays remarkable erotic art from the Roman period. The museum also has one of the largest Egyptian collections in Italy.
Note: Due to hygiene measures some of the exhibitions may be closed. This includes amongst others the popular Secret Cabinet (erotica), the Egyptian, epigraphic, and coin collections. The museum had the decency to lower admission ticket prices even though almost all the top works are still on display.
Highlights of the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples
The top collections of the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli) include:
- Farnese Sculptures
- Farnese Gems
- Mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum
- Frescos from Pompeii and Herculaneum
- Secret Room (erotic art from Pompeii and Herculaneum)
- Decorative Art and Household Objects from Pompeii and Herculaneum
- Egyptian Collection
- Epigraphic Collection
The ancient Naples, numismatic, prehistory and protohistory collections are currently not open to the public.
Plan to spend around two hours to see the highlights of the Archaeology Museum and a lot longer to go into more detail of the vast collection on display.
Unfortunately, the museum has no café, which is a pity, as many visitors would probably enjoy having a break before seeing more of this impressive museum. Vending machines sells drinks but it is hardly the same experience.
The Farnese Collection in Naples
The Farnese family was a hugely influential noble house in Renaissance Italy with much of their art treasures coming to Naples through Charles III Bourbon, who ascended to the throne of Naples in 1734. He, and his successors, brought to Naples much of the family’s treasures from antiquity, as well as the best artworks from the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The Farnese sculptures from antiquity are still at the core of the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples. Some of the most impressive works are larger-than-life sculptures excavated from the baths of Caracalla in Rome. These include the Farnese bull, which is the largest mostly intact sculpture to have survived from Roman times.
The statue of Hercules holding the apples of the Hesperides behind his back was re-discovered in 1546 but sans lower legs. He was only reunited with his original legs in 1787 – the temporary legs are displayed nearby and have clearly less muscular calves. This image of Hercules was frequently copied both in antiquity and more recently.
Of the large collection of further Roman sculptures and busts, the Aphrodite Callipygos (or Venus Kallipygos) is particularly popular. Her name literally translates as Aphrodite with the beautiful buttocks, or sexy bum. This marble statue is from the 1st century BC and thought to be based on a Greek bronze from around 300 BC.
Also note the Farnese Atlas, currently displayed in the Hall of the Sundial on the top floor. Once again a 2nd-century Roman marble copy of an earlier Greek work, this is the oldest surviving statue of Atlas and the earliest known representation of the celestial sphere.
The small but exquisite collection of Farnese gems is in two rooms (behind Hercules). The displays include the Farnese cup – a Ptolemaic bowl of agate, and a large collection of engraved gems of exceptionally high quality.
Art from Pompeii and Herculaneum in the Museum of Archaeology
King Charles III Bourbon demanded the best works from Pompeii and Herculaneum for his planned museum in Naples and today the best works from these excavations are still on display here with copies often shown at the archaeological sites.
The items from Pompeii and Herculaneum are spread over several rooms but mostly grouped in the following themes: mosaics, frescoes, bronzes, erotic art, and a large collection of objects of metal, ivory, and glass.
Mosaics in the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples
Some of the best mosaics from Pompeii were found in the House of the Dancing Faun and they are now on display in the Archaeology Museum together with the statue that the house is named after. The Dancing Faun is a rare original Greek bronze to have survived.
The highly-rated Battle of Alexander mosaic is a copy of a Greek painting. Other large frescoes are of a collection of animals and sea life. Smaller frescoes often depicted animals such as dogs and birds but also people and typical still life scenes.
Erotic Art in the Secret Room
The famous Secret Room (Gabinetto Segreto) houses the collection of erotic art from antiquity. The erotica could for long only be seen with the personal permission of the king and has only been open permanently to the public for the last two decades or so – children may still only enter together with adults.
The works displayed here range from party favors and practical jokes to work of exceptional artistic quality.
A particularly high-quality work is a marble of a Pan getting it on with a goat – this scandalous work was shown to the king and then locked away for years.
An erect phallus was seen in Pompeii as a symbol of fertility, good luck, and wealth and not necessarily as sexual. It is often used on the facades of houses to ward off bad luck or the evil eye, while paintings and sculptures of oversized erect males would often welcome visitors to homes.
The brothel in Pompeii famously had erotic paintings on the walls but many normal houses also had similar erotic frescoes. Several high-quality erotic frescoes are on display in the Secret Room. The museum also has the best pygmy paintings from Pompeii, many involving sexual themes. Pygmies were popular themes in art in the decades prior to Pompeii and Herculaneum being destroyed by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius.
Frescoes in the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples
The museum has a large collection of frescoes from mostly Pompeii and Herculaneum. These show the rich variety of wall paintings used in buildings in Roman times.
Recurrent themes include scenes from mythology – Hercules and Venus were particularly popular – and depictions of famous epics and poems such as the Trojan wars. Birds, animals, and flowers are often used to enhance works and were painted in exquisite detail.
People are often painted in an idealized way but some depicted real people with the portrait of the Pompeian baker Terentius Neo and his wife probably the best-known example.
Bronzes from the Villa dei Papiri
The National Museum of Archaeology in Naples has an important collection of Roman bronzes that were discovered in the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum. This house belonged to the father-in-law of Julius Caesar and is named after the around 1,800 papyrus scrolls that were discovered during the excavations – many were carbonized but some could still be unrolled and read.
Many of the bronzes discovered in Herculaneum are displayed with colored eyes. Famous works include an athlete, a seated Hercules, a drunken satyr, numerous busts, and a group of dancers, now also interpreted as less festive Danaids. A 3-D printed copy of Pan copulating with the goat is on display here – the original is in the secrets room.
Metal, Ivory and Glass Objects in the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples
The blandly, if accurately, named Metal, Ivory, and Glass Objects display of the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples is an astonishing collection of decorative items and practical implements from Pompeii and Herculaneum that were used in everyday life in Rome.
The discovery of these items during excavations gave archaeologists a wealth of information about ordinary life and daily activities in Roman times. It includes common items such as cutlery and pots, decorative objects, medical equipment, and utensils found in various workshops. Many items are still immediately identifiable without the need of any description.
The blue vase (anforisco) is the item of the highest artistic quality in this section. This first century AD glass vase is decorated with cameo cupids and harvesting scenes.
Further Collections in the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples
The other collections of the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples are also of high quality but most visitors come to see the Farnese collection and works from Pompeii and Herculaneum.
It is a pleasant stroll around the open courtyard with a camellia garden where several large sculptures and sarcophagi found in the Campania region are on display.
The Egyptian and Epigraphic collections are in the basement of the museum and often overlooked. Although the museum has with 2,500 objects one of the largest Egyptian collections in Italy, these works have a hard time competing with the rest of the museum.
However, the couple of rooms are absolutely worth a stroll through. Visitors with time, and energy, for these rooms are rewarded by some very high-quality items and not only mummies and sarcophagi.
National Archaeology Museum in Naples Visitors Information
Opening Hours of the Archaeology Museum in Naples
The National Archaeology Museum in Naples is open, year-round from Wednesday to Monday from 9:00 to 19:30.
The Archaeology Museum is closed on Tuesdays. If a public holiday falls on Tuesday, the museum is open but consequently closed the following Wednesday.
The National Archaeology Museum in Naples is always closed on 1 January, 1 May, and 25 December.
TOP TIP: The best times to visit the archaeology museum in Naples are late afternoon (after 16:00) or early morning right after opening.
The worst time to visit the archaeology museum is Sundays in summer when large sections of the museum are open only part of the day.
Admission Tickets for the Archaeological Museum
While some exhibitions are closed at the end of 2020, admissions are actually around €2 cheaper than the standard prices listed below:
Standard admission tickets to the National Archaeology Museum in Naples is €12. EU nationals aged 18 to 24 pay €6. Admission is free to all visitors under 18.
Admission is free to all on the first Sunday of the month – the museum can get very crowded so enter very early or late, or better visit on a different day.
Audio guides are €5 – well worth the expense if not carrying a good guide book, as descriptions inside the museum are not always of an equally high standard. Bring own headphone to go hands free.
Online tickets come with a small surcharge but may be worth it if planning to visit at a busy time. Only buy print at home or show on mobile phone tickets that may be scanned directly at the ticket barriers. Collecting tickets at the museum is hardly faster than queuing up for standard tickets.
The highly recommended Campania Arte Card is accepted. This card is a fantastic deal for visitors to Naples and will pay for itself with a visit to the National Museum and Pompeii using public transportation in between.
See Saving with the Campania Arte Card on Sightseeing and Transportation for more details on this savings deal that is accepted at up to 80 cultural sites in and near Naples.
Transportation to the National Archaeology Museum in Naples
The National Archaeology Museum in Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli – MANN), Piazza Museo 19, Napoli, is just to north of the old town center. It may be simpler to walk than wait for the metro from parts of Spaccanaploi and the Via dei Tribunali.
The museum is easiest reached by metro. Museo Station on metro line 1 is basically in the basement of the Archaeological Museum. An alternative is Piazza Cavour station on metro line 2, which is connected by an around 400-m long tunnel to Museo station.
Several buses, including hop-on-hop-off buses, pass in front of the museum but for many travelers, the metro may be the most convenient option.
Getting to the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii from the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples is easy on public transportation. Take any of the two metro lines to Naples Garibaldi station and change to the Circumvesuviana commuter train. The total traveling time is around an hour. The 3-Day Campania Arte Card covers public transportation and admission to two sites.
For More on Pompeii, Herculaneum and Naples:
- Save with the Campania Arte Card on Sightseeing Ticket and Transportation
- Tips on Visiting the Pompeii Excavations near Naples in 2020 — previous Tips and Shortcuts are not useful while social-distancing rules are in place.
- Pompeii: Buying Tickets and Visiting the Excavations on Tours
- Cheap Transportation to Pompeii
- Tips on Buying Tickets to Visit Herculaneum near Pompeii and Naples in 2020 — the previous system is unlikely to return before the end of 2021.
- Transportation to the Herculaneum Archaeological Site
- Visit the National Museum of Archaeology in Naples – home to the Farnese sculptures and the best artworks, mosaics, and frescoes from the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum.