This is the ultimate guide to visiting Naples’ National Archaeological Museum, or Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (“MANN”).
It’s one of the world’s most renowned archaeological museums. In this guide, I give you an overview of the museum and describe its must see masterpieces.
MANN boasts an absolutely spectacular collection of antiquities that is sure to delight all ages. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported back to Ancient Rome.
The museum houses an extensive collection of artifacts from ancient Greece, Rome, and other ancient civilizations. It’s particularly famous for its rare collection of artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum.
They are the two cities that were destroyed and buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Because they were so well preserved, the cities provide an extraordinary snapshot of what daily life and society was like in an ancient Roman city.
King Charles VII of Naples founded MANN in the late 18th century. He was a passionate collector of ancient art and artifacts.
Over the years, the museum’s collection has grown significantly, thanks to the efforts of archaeologists, scholars, and collectors who have contributed to its holdings.
Today, the museum attracts visitors from around the world who come to admire its treasures and learn about the ancient civilizations that produced them.
Whether you are a Romanologist, history buff, art lover, or simply someone who is curious about the past, the Naples Archaeological Museum is a must visit destination in Naples.
Overview Of The Naples Archaeological Museum
The museum’s holdings are divided into the several collections. They are well organized and there is plenty of signage. The collections are divided by floors as follows:
- Basement: Egyptian Collection
- Ground floor: Farnese collection of Roman statuary and artifacts
- 1st floor: mosaics of Pompeii and Herculaneum
- 2nd floor: frescos and artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum
The Pompeii and Herculaneum Galleries are the heart of the museum’s collection and one of the greatest treasures of Italy. They include colorful mosaics, playful frescoes, and everyday objects.
It’s so unique. I mean, how many other ancient cities have been frozen in time? You’ll definitely want to explore this collection before embarking on a day trip to Pompeii.
According to my guide, most people visit the museum for the Pompeii goodies. But I fell in love with the Farnese Collection. The influential Farnese family were patrons of the arts during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
The family’s collection includes a diverse range of sculptures, reliefs, and other archaeological finds.
It includes some of the world’s most famous classical sculptures, such as the Farnese Bull. You can see busts of the Roman emperors in the Gallery of the Roman Emperors.
For those interested in the more taboo aspects of ancient Rome, the Secret Cabinet is a unique collection of erotic art.
It was once considered scandalous, though the Romans themselves had no qualms about it. The collection includes frescoes, sculptures, and objects that provide insight into the sexual practices of ancient Rome.
The museum’s Egyptian Collection features artifacts from ancient Egypt, especially the late Ptolemaic period. It includes mummies, sarcophagi, and objects related to daily life in ancient Egypt. I confess that I skipped this section because I had already been at the museum for 3+ hours.
If you have limited time, you may want to focus your efforts on one or two of the collections.
Tickets & Tours
In high season (May to September), I advise booking a skip the line ticket. This is an extremely popular museum.
Guide To The Naples National Archaeological Museum: What To See
Here are the must see highlights of MANN.
1. Gallery Of The Roman Emperors
Like all Renaissance collections of ancient sculpture, the Farnese collection contained a cycle of portrait busts. It’s a veritable who’s who of the Roman Empire.
The busts were designed to represent the history of Rome though images of its main characters.
Within the hall, you can say hello to Augustus, Claudius, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Vespasian, and other notable figures like Brutus and Pompey the Great.
But it wasn’t just busts of the good guys that were popular. No, thematically, the Farnese wanted the bad guys like Caracalla represented in their collection.
Indeed, the image of Caracalla shown above was one of the family’s most coveted works. It’s a likeness of indisputable value that shows the curly haired emperor looking proud yet troubled.
2. Farnese Bull
The massive Farnese Bull is the largest ancient sculpture ever discovered. It was found in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.
The Farnese Bull, also known as the Farnese Flayed Bull or the Toro Farnese, is a captivating marble sculpture that portrays a dramatic scene from Greek mythology. The sculpture depicts the brothers Amphion and Zethus seeking revenge on Dirce, who had mistreated their mother Antiope.
In the sculpture, the bull is depicted in a dynamic pose, with its body twisting. The figures of the brothers are intertwined and visibly distressed. The artwork is adorned with depictions of eagles, sheep, and dogs, adding to its artistic richness.
Notable features of the sculpture include the incredible realism of the bull’s musculature and the emotional expressiveness of the figures. The level of detail and technical skill displayed in the artwork is considered a testament to the artist’s virtuosity.
3. Farnese Hercules
The Farnese Hercules is one of the most famous versions of Hercules at rest. Like the Farnese Bull, it was discovered in the Bath of Caracalla. Our hero appears almost exhausted as he completes his 11th labor.
He holds golden apples in his right hand behind his back. This suggests he obtained them from the Garden of the Hesperides.
Hercules has put down his knobby club and Nemean lion skin. His legs are in a dynamic contrapposto pose. But his head and shoulders appear to sag with fatigue.
When the Farnese Hercules was discovered, it was missing a few pieces.
To complete the sculpture, Guglielmo della Porta, a student of Michelangelo, crafted two replacement calves.
However, the original missing pieces were later found and reattached to the statue in the late 18th century.
As a tribute to della Porta’s contribution, the two calves are displayed on a wall behind Hercules, serving as a grateful acknowledgment of his work.
4. Farnese Cup
The Farnese Cup is a libations cup that was never used for drinking. It was a luxury decorative item. The priceless cup is made of agate and was carved from a single piece around 35 B.C. in Alexandria Egypt.
On the front is a complex allegorical scene, the meaning of which is still unknown. The characters may refer to members of the ruling Egyptian dynasty — Cleopatra, her husband-brother Ptolemy VII, and her son Ptolemy X.
In the center is the goddess Isis (Demeter in Roman terminology) seated on a sphinx. She’s surrounded by the gods Hades holding a horn of plenty and Horus with a plough yoke. On the right are two females representing wind.
On the back of the cup is the image of the Gorgon or Medusa. She represents the omnipresent threat to the state.
My guide said the Farnese Cup is not on display in the museum terribly often. It’s a coveted get for traveling exhibitions. I felt lucky to see such a rare piece.
5. Roman Mosaics
The mezzanine level is home to the museum’s extensive collection of Roman mosaics excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1830-32. They are mostly from the House of the Faun.
It’s the greatest collection of its type in the world. The mosaics boast intricate details and rich color palettes, which illustrate the mastery of ancient Roman mosaic craftsmen.
Many of the detached panels show scenes from everyday life. Other are dramatic set pieces that depict battle scenes or mythological events. Still others have geometric and floral designs.
You’ll see portraits, tragic masks, momento mori, and scenes with doves. Momento mori, or allegories of death, were considered important and served as a reminder of the inevitability of death.
You should also inspect the mosaic carpet depicting Medusa. It’s an illusionistic piece with a white background and a black “wolf teeth” decorative motif. Medusa wears a Phrygian cap and has her usual petrifying gaze.
The mosaic was found in the Casa del Citarista, one of the most prestigious domuses in Pompeii.
6. The Great Alexander Mosaic
The Alexander mosaic from the House of the Faun is the museum’s most famous mosaic.
It’s a remarkable piece of ancient artwork that depicts the battle between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia. It’s considered one of the most important and impressive mosaics from the ancient world.
The mosaic dates from the 1st century BC. It was discovered during excavations at Pompeii in the early 19th century.
The mosaic measures approximately 19 x 10 feet. It’s composed of over one million tesserae (small tiles) made of colored stones and glass. The mosaic depicts the Battle of Issus, fought in 333 BC.
The mosaic captures the intense action of the battle. Alexander is on his horse charging towards Darius, who is shown fleeing in a chariot.
The details in the mosaic are exquisite. It portrays the soldiers, horses, and various elements of the battlefield with precision and artistry.
At the moment, it’s still being restored, a process that began in 2021. So, you see a copy in its place. There’s also a short film explaining the mosaic’s significance.
7. Secret Cabinet
The Secret Cabinet, or Gabinetto Segreto, is a gallery on the mosaics floor. It’s filled with over 250 erotic mosaics and artifacts from Pompeii.
The discovery of such explicitly sexual pieces stunned archeologists. They had always assumed that Ancient Rome was a morally upright society. For many years, the mosaics were kept under lock and key.
The mosaics could only be viewed by rich men of “high moral character.” Eventually, the cabinet was only opened to the public in 2000. But those under 13 can only visit with a guardian.
I thought the museum’s presentation — in a restricted “secret” room — rather charmingly emphasizes rather than minimizes the naughtiness of the artworks.
Yet, the Romans didn’t view erotic art as naughty.
The Romans relished erotic art and made no moral judgments about sexual conduct. They especially liked erotic art in the bath houses.
Mythological scenes involving Mars, Jupiter, and other gods were hot topics. They were often portrayed in sexual acts or in scenes involving metamorphoses or hermaphrodites.
There are also many images and artifacts of stone phalluses, which were simply ubiquitous in Roman society. They represented virility, but were also considered talismans to ward off the evil eye.
Phallic symbols were inscribed on walls, pavements, shop signs, amulet pendants, or hung on tablets to protect a house.
Erotic imagery was especially common in gardens. The decorative arts were allowed free reign and focused on mysterious divinities like satyrs and nymphs.
One of the most notorious finds was a marble statue of the wild-eyed god Pan ravishing a goat. As recently as 2013, the open display of this artwork at the British Museum, without any curtain or barrier, caused quite a commotion.
8. Frescos From Pompeii & Herculaneum
There is a whole series of salons devoted to wall paintings from Pompeii. They show off the ancient city’s love of art and the good life.
The famous frescos are the main reason people visit MANN. They give you insight into the domestic life, and are the perfect preview to visiting the ruins of Pompeii.
The frescos depict a wide range of subject — mythology, landscapes, portraits, still lifes, and architectural elements. They demonstrate a high level of artistic skill with beautiful vibrant colors and intricate designs.
Yet, the craftsmen were not renowned. They worked anonymously in teams. They would create sketchbooks and present them to the master or domina of the house for selection.
Mythological scenes were especially prevalent. You can see themes involving Narcissus, Icarus, Theseus, Ariadne, Bacchus, etc.
The excavation and discovery of the frescos began in 1748, when archaeologists began to uncover the buried city of Pompeii. The volcanic ash helped protect the paintings, leaving them in an impressive state of preservation for their age.
You will find frescos from the House of the Faun, House of the Vettii, House of the Dioscouri, House of the Tragic Poet, House of Meleager, House of the Centenary, the House of the Surgeon, and the Villa dei Papiri.
You will see examples of all four Pompeiian styles:
- 1st: masonry, imitating marble
- 2nd: architectural details
- 3rd: ornate decorative details and mythology
- 4th: intricate compositions with complex narratives and tromp l’oeil effects
One fan favorite in the collection is a remarkable portrait called Sappho. It’s hailed as a masterpiece of early portraiture.
It’s named after the enigmatic Greek lyric poet of the 6th century B.C. But it probably depicts a member of high society.
The delicate composition reflects the influence of Greek sensitivity on Roman art. The girl’s face radiates a contemplative expression as if she is seeking inspiration.
Another famous fresco is The Three Graces, discovered in the House of the Three Graces. It depicts the three mythical figures known as the Graces or Charites, who symbolize charm, beauty, and artistic inspiration.
The painting showcases the exquisite artistry and skill of ancient Pompeiian painters, with intricate details, and delicate brushwork. The graces are depicted standing together in a dance-like pose, embodying elegance and grace.
9. Blue Vase
The Blue Vase is an ancient ceramic vessel that was discovered — completely intact — in the ruins of Pompeii in the Villa of the Mosaic Columns.
It’s considered one of the top treasures of the museum. Today, there are only 15 extant vases made of cameo glass like this one.
The vase features a distinctive blue glaze and intricate decorative patterns, reflecting the artistic style of the time. It depicts scenes with the theme of Dionysus, including a grape harvest. At the very bottom, a series of animals nibble on grass.
It’s believed to date back to the first century A.D. and is an excellent example of the pottery produced during that period.
10. Golden Bracelet
The Golden Bracelet is a famous archaeological find from the House of the Faun in Pompeii. It’s a stunning piece of ancient jewelry, made of gold in the shape of a snake.
The bracelet was discovered in the 18th century during excavations of the villa, along with many other treasures, including sculptures, frescoes, and papyrus scrolls.
It’s considered one of the most important and beautiful examples of ancient Roman jewelry. Women believed that wearing the bracelet would guarantee fertility.
Practical Guide & Tips For The Naples National Archaeological Museum
Here are some must know tips for visiting MANN.
Piazza Museo, 19, 80135 Napoli.
How To Get To The Museum:
MANN is located in the historic center. So, depending on where you’re staying, you may be able walk to the museum.
For public transport, you can take Metro Line 1 and get off at the Museo stop. Or take Metro Line 2 and disembark at the Cavour stop. Both metro lines provide easy access to the museum.
Naples also has a well-connected bus network. Routes 147, 182, and 201 are among the options that can take you there. Check the local bus schedules and stops to plan your route accordingly.
You can also hop in a taxi. You may be able to flag one on the street. There are also designated taxi stands at hotels and major landmarks and piazzas.
The museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 7:30 pm. It’s closed on Tuesdays. I arrived just after 9:00 am and there was already thongs of people waiting to get inside.
Tickets are € 22.00. Due to the immense popularity of the museum, I advise I advise booking a skip the line ticket on Get Your Guide. If these are sold out, you can also purchase a ticket on Tiqets or Viator.
If you’re visiting on your own, be sure to pick up an audio guide.
Is the Naples National Archaeological Museum Worth Visiting?
100% yes. Archaeological museums are not always my first choice when picking a museum, even though I’m a history buff. They can sometimes be very dry.
But the MANN was an absolute delight, containing some of Italy’s most precious treasures.
Perhaps because of its principal focus on Roman antiquities, I found MANN less overwhelming and more enjoyable than the British Museum.
I recommend visiting Naples National Archaeological Museum before visiting Pompeii. Seeing these artifacts before visiting the archaeological sites can give you a better understanding and appreciation of the ruins of Pompeii.
Be sure to pace yourself because the museum is vast. If you need a break, head to the lovely courtyard or cafe to decompress for a bit.
The museum also hosts special exhibitions. When I was there, it was hosting a fascinating exhibition on how Picasso’s Minotaur artworks were influenced by the Roman sculptures in the Farnese collection.
I recommend spending 2-3 hours at the museum, more if you’re a real history buff. It’s a large collection and there’s so much to see and absorb. In high season, you can expect a line to view the Secret Cabinet.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the Naples National Archaeological Museum. You may enjoy these other Italy travel guides and resources:
- 3 day itinerary for Rome
- 5 day itinerary for Rome
- 1 day itinerary for Vatican City
- 3 day itinerary for Florence
- 2 day itinerary for Venice
- 1 day itinerary for Milan
- 1 day itinerary for Siena
- One week in Umbria
- 10 days in Italy itinerary
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- 12 ways to spend 1 week in Italy
- 2 weeks in Sicily itinerary
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