In 1777, King Ferdinando I selected this early 17th-century palazzo as the perfect home for the immense collection of ancient artefacts he inherited from his grandmother, Elisabetta Farnese. Discoveries from Pompeii, Stabiae and Herculaneum were later added, making this one of the finest archaeological museums in the world.
It should be noted, however, that restoration work means there are often gaps in the collection, and pieces may not where they should be. Due to reduced personnel, some rooms are unmanned or even closed, and queues are common. The best day to visit, for this reason, is Sunday.
The museum is distributed over four floors. The basement holds the Egyptian section, with objects imported into Italy during the Roman period and unearthed in excavations in Rome and the Campania region. There's a large collection of obelisks, busts, funerary statues, jewellery and sarcophagi from the Hellenic and Ptolemaic periods, and the obligatory mummy, once part of the Borgia collection.
The meandering ground floor houses the collection assembled by the powerful Farnese family (although the paintings are in the Museo di Capodimonte. Most of the pieces were filched from ancient sites in Rome during the 16th century, when Alessandro Farnese ruled as Pope Paul III (1534-49). In room 1, on the right of the entrance hall, are the Tirannicidi (tyrant-killers Armodios and Aristogitones, who did away with the cruel Athenian rulers Hippia and Hipparchos in 514 BC); it's a Roman copy of the fifth-century BC Greek original. In the same room is a Roman copy of Polycletus' Doriforo. Elsewhere on this floor is a series of busts and statues, some of which are simply enormous. There's the powerful Ercole Farnese (Farnese Hercules) between rooms 11 and 12, and the recently restored Toro Farnese (Farnese Bull) in room 16, a large marble group from the early third century AD. In room 8, the graceful Roman copy of a Greek Venus, Venere Callipige, glances backwards at her reflection in the water as she slips off her clothes.
Room 10 contains the delicate Tazza Farnese, a tiny dish made in Egypt during the Ptolemaic period. Consisting of four layers of sardonyx agate, it is renowned for its transparent beauty. The mezzanine floor houses mosaics, including a large-scale depiction of the battle between Alexander the Great and Darius from the House of the Faun in Pompeii in room 61.
Also here is the Gabinetto segreto, a collection of ancient pornography uncovered at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The explicit paintings and sculptures includes a vast range of phallus talismans - some winged, some jingling with bells, some with hats on. One item approaches the subject in pre-Freudian fashion, depicting a frantic struggle between the member and its owner. The high (or low) point is a sculpted Pan, caught in the act with a nanny-goat. Officially off-limits to under-11s, this collection has attracted controversy over the ages and was only reopened to the public in 2000.
The first floor contains artefacts from Pompeii, Herculaneum and other southern Italian sites. On the walls of the vast, echoing Sala Meridiana hang rare paintings on archaeological themes from the Farnese collection. On its floor, a line marks a zodiacal meridian; around noon, an oval bead of light snakes in through a hole high in the top right-hand corner of the room, striking the meridian in the appropriate zodiacal sign.
To the left as you enter the Sala, rooms 85 to 89 contain glassware, silver and pottery from Pompeii, and rooms 66 to 78 have friezes and frescoes from Herculaneum and Stabiae. To the right as you enter, the first entrance leads to rooms 114 to 117, with artefacts from the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum; note the lovely bronze Hermes in room 117. The second series of right-hand rooms (130 to 140) contains vases, bowls and funerary offerings from Greek and Roman Paestum, and other sites around Magna Graecia (ancient southern Italy).
The pre- and proto-historical sections are reached from the third corridor on the right. The upper mezzanine floor displays Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Early Bronze Age finds from the Campania region (rooms 148 and 149), and the lower mezzanine (rooms 145 and 146) houses finds from the Middle and Late Bronze Ages.
The main section (rooms 124 to 127) is arranged according to place, not time, and includes Palaeolithic bones and flints found on Capri (room 127); the Iron Age is best represented, with eighth- and ninth-century funerary relics from a number of necropolises from Capua to Ischia.