Following lunch we continued our tourist route to an even larger, more spectacular museum and the afternoon was mainly spent being overwhelmed by the endless exhibits of this enormous, incredible museum which had been comissioned around 1738, but which had actually stood there for much longer. King Charles III of Bourbon having become King of Naples in 1734 had inherited from his mother Elizabeth Farnese, artefacts from both Rome and Pampa. After also inheriting her enthusiasm for archaeology, he promoted the extensive exploration of the Vesuvian towns that had been buried following the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The ruins of Herculaneum were excavated in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748. Charles’ son Ferdinand IV donated the present building which had been constructed in the 16th century as a riding stable. The building was extended and renovated over the next 45 years and with the Bourbons return to Naples in 1816 it was named The “Reale Museo Ercolanense”. The Farnese collection and the Vesuvian collection were installed in the museum and when Naples became an integral part of the reunification of Italy in 1861, the museum was renamed “The National Archaeological Museum”.
Although the museum is one of the most impressive I have ever visited I intend to refrain from waxing too lyrical but will try to convey an idea of the diversity of its contents in the hope that any of my future readers might find this helpful. Much of the museum is given over to finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum many of which were provided by the Farnese collection. The Herculaneum papyrus was found in a villa in 1752 and only survived because it had been carbonised during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The Farnese Bull is the world’s largest single sculpture ever discovered, there are also multiple Busts of Roman emperors and the Farnese Atlas – a Roman copy of the original Greek one. There are many Roman copies of classical Greek sculptures including the Farnese marbles and the Farnese cup made of Sardonyx Agate. Mosaics that were recovered from Pompeii have an important presence as do those from Herculaneum. One of the largest collections of Egyptian artifacts in Italy is in this museum, many items dating back to about 2500 BC. There are many other items or displays in the Museum but I will content myself to mention two which are related and then one more in isolation. Pietro Barbo who was the Cardinal of San Marco was a passionate collector of precious gem stones which he kept in the Roman Palace of San Marco until he became made Pope Paul II in 1464, he favoured especially Onyx Agate and sardonyx gemstones and collected more than 800 carvings and cameos before he died in 1471. After his death his collection passed to the Papal collections but the collection was later gifted to Lorenzo di Medici. Another gemstone specialist, Fulvio Orsini was the librarian, but also the antique dealer who served the Farnese family and collected over 400 gemstones during his lifetime. When he died in 1600 the bulk of his collection along with other coins, medals and busts was passed to Odoardo Farnese and these were passed firstly to the antiquities museum and then to The National Archaeological Museum. Most of these gemstones from both collections were Onyx Agate, Sardonyx Agate, Chalcedony or Amethyst, and despite the excellence of their carving and the incredible detail, many of them were no larger than a 50p piece! with its countless exhibits of marble statues and busts, many dating back almost 2000 years. Even more impressive if that were possible were a cluster of what I took to be a group of inward facing Neanderthals all of whom were realistically covered with hair. We had virtually spent an entire day looking around two museums and could easily have returned another day but our timetable would unfortunately not allow for that on this visit. I have picked here a small selection of mainly Greek marble pieces to be seen in the museum, they are only a small taster; hopefully I will make a video sometime later.
In the course of our trek back to the hotel, we encountered moped madness at its Italian best! Outnumbering cars by probably at least two to one, they raced, mostly pillion passengered up, down, and often even across every street and every alleyway, playing chicken with every pedestrian who dared to venture across a street- even when on pedestrian crossings. Buses, perhaps twice the length of those in England, swerved around corners at breathtaking speeds, often appearing to be intent upon swatting the scooterists like manic flies. At last, educated and enlightened on an epic scale, we returned foot-weary but enthused, to the sanctity and calm of our tranquil hotel. Tomorrow’s another day.