On the southern side of Piazza Barberini, the grand Palazzo Barberini houses the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, a trove of Italian art covening primarily from the early Renaissance to late baroque periods. Some of the works on display are wonderful, but the building itself is the main attraction, a baroque masterpiece begun by Carlo Maderno in 1627 and completed in 1633 by Bernini, with additional work by Borromini (you’ll recognize his style in a whimsical spiral staircase). The central Salone di Pietro da Cortona is the most captivating space, with a trompe l’oeil ceiling frescoed by Pietro da Cortona, a depiction of “The Triumph of Divine Providence.”
The initial galleries on the lower two floors cover the early Renaissance, including modest crowd-pleasers like Piero di Cosimo’s “St. Mary Magdalene” (Room 10), although most of the devotional work will appeal strictly to aficionados. It’s the core of the museum, covering the High Renaissance and baroque periods, which has the most intriguing pieces, including Raphael’s “La Fornarina,” a baker’s daughter thought to have been the artist’s mistress (look for Raphael’s name on the woman’s bracelet); paintings by Tintoretto and Titian (Room 15); a portrait of English King Henry VIII by Holbein (Room 16); and a couple of typically unsettling El Grecos in Room 17, “The Baptism of Christ” and “Adoration of the Shepherds.” Caravaggio dominates room 20 with the justly celebrated “Judith and Holofernes” and the spectacular “Narcissus” ★★.
The newer galleries on the top floor cover the less striking, late baroque era, featuring works by painters such as Luca Giordano (Room 25) and other Neapolitans, though Bernini’s “Portrait of Urban VIII” certainly stands out in Room 26. If you run out of time, you can skip the final galleries (they cover the even less appealing late 17th and 18th c.), but do slow down to admire the classic Venetian scenes by Canaletto (Room 30) which are always a pleasure.