The great Etruscan civilization (which gave its name to Tuscany) was one of Italy’s most advanced, although it remains relatively mysterious, in part because of its centuries-long rivalry with Rome. Once Rome had absorbed the Etruscans in the 3rd century b.c., it set about eradicating all evidence of their achievements, as it did with most of the peoples it conquered.
Today this museum, housed in the handsome Renaissance Villa Giulia, built by Pope Julius III between 1550 and 1555, is the best place in Italy to familiarize with the Etruscans, thanks to a cache of precious artifacts, sculptures, vases, monuments, tools, weapons, and jewels. Fans of ancient history could spend several hours here, but for those with less time, here’s a quick list of the unmissable sights. The most striking attraction is the stunning Sarcofago degli Sposi (Sarcophagus of the Spouses) ★★, a late-6th-century b.c. terra-cotta funerary monument featuring a life-size bride and groom, supposedly lounging at a banquet in the afterlife—there’s a similar monument in the Louvre, Paris. Equally fascinating are the Pyrgi Tablets, gold-leaf inscriptions in both Etruscan and Phoenician from the 5th century b.c., and the Apollo of Veii, a huge painted terra-cotta statue of Apollo dating to the 6th century b.c. The Euphronios Krater is also conserved here, a renowned and perfectly maintained red-figured Greek vase from the 6th century b.c. which returned to Italy from the New York Met after a long legal battle won in 2006.