Napoli’s National Museum of Archaeology MANN is the Best
With its frescoed ceilings, monumental staircase, luminous rooms and unbeatable collection, the Museo Nazionale Archeologico Napoli (MANN) is the mecca for archeo-lovers, Roman history buffs and wannabe Indiana Jones. Ever since its 1777 founding, MANN has been the final destination for all things ancient in the Greco-Roman world, and without a doubt MANN is the greatest (Roman) archaeological museum there is.
I’ve been to MANN several times, usually the Plus One to Darius Arya, my husband and favorite archaeologist. And each time, I am convinced that MANN is more than just a museum, it’s the best deep dive into Ancient Rome.
Exploring Artifacts and Antiquities
“See Naples and Die”, wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but I’d rewrite that epic phrase to “see Naples’ MANN and Keep Coming Back”. MANN is a world of worlds. Built on the site of calvary barracks, the 18th century palace was renovated to showcase the extensive finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum for the ruling Bourbon family. Over the following two centuries, excavations revealed more than just Pompeii, the collection expanded and the palace was transformed into Italy’s premiere museum for classical antiquity.
Here is where you’ll find colossal statues of emperors, patricians and athletes, monumental statues, gorgeous amphorae and marvelous mosaic floors from Magna Graecia, and the fabulous Farnese collection. For Egyptophiles, there is also an awesome Egyptian collection. You can snicker while meandering naughty gabinetto segreto (a collection of 250 sex-themed paintings and objects), and size yourself up to the statues populating the newly opened Campania Romana wing. Or just get your Pompeii on with the limitless artefacts from the cities lost in Vesuvius’s 79 AD eruption.
Have you ever wondered where a museum stores its left overs? There are warehouses and then there are warehouses and for one amazing afternoon in May, I had the privilege of creeping through through MANN’s storage deposits. And it definitely wasn’t what or where I expected.
In Mann’s off-limits rooftop hide more-than 400,000 artefacts from the excavations of Pompeii, Herculaneum and other Campania region sites. The attic, fondly known as Sing Sing by the museum team for its cell-like vibe, is a hoarder’s haven of finds from the Vesuvius cities – Pompeii and Herculean.
Room after tiny room is lined with shelves stacked with ancient pottery, metal objects and glass. (There is also a larger room entirely devoted to humongous kraters).Conservators spend all day in Sing Sing documenting, archiving and even digitalising the artefacts. Peering into each room and seeing the seeming limitless amount of everyday objects organised like IKEA’s Market Place is a great way of understanding that the average every day Pompeii person was just like us.
What I love most about the man, aside from the gorgeous architecture and amazing pieces is that every few months MANN curators like to give viewers something to think about. These temporary exhibitions give a new long on antiquity.
“For the world, the museum represents one of the most important museums of classical archaeology,” MANN Director Paolo Giulierini explains, “not only a classical museum, but a square where the people arrive, can speak, can reflect not only about the past, but about the present by comparing the past with the present.”
In this year alone, I’ve traveled to Byzantium, spied some contemporary street art inspired by mythological goddesses, celebrated Picasso’s birthday and caught up with Alexander the Great in this year’s Alexander the Great and the East: Discoveries and Wonders (now through August 28).
While the smaller exhibitions are smattered through the halls, overlapping with the permanent collections while the Salone della Meridiana, a grand hall of 55 meters in length and 20 meters in height. The Salone (with its gorgeous frescoed ceiling gets the blockbusters like this year’s Alexander the Great and the East: Discoveries and Wonders (now through August 28) an exhibition which flips the perspective by bringing us along with Alexander and his army to the travels from Macedonia to India. The only thing missing from the show is the MANN’s famed Alexander Mosaic which is currently under wraps for a massive restoration.
Naples in a day?
If you’re not quite ready to commit to staying overnight in one of Italy’s greatest and craziest cities, consider a day trip to Naples. From Rome, it’s more than just possible it is easy and efficient. All you need is a round-trip train ticket, a plan and spot for pizza.
From underground exploration and antiquities to Caravaggio and contemporary, I’ve concocted the Perfect Day Trip To Naples.
A version of the article appeared in Forbes 2023.