Crowds at St Peter's Square, crowds at the Piazza Navona, crowds at the Forum, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps. When Rome's glories seem impossibly jammed with other tourists, where can one turn?
Plenty of places, as it happens. The Eternal City has many attractions that would be top draws in most other cities but are off the main tourist circuit. Yet they are feasts for the eyes and, lacking those crowds, a pleasure to visit.
Consider the Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, less than a 10-minute walk from the Ponte Sisto. This building, plain-as-rain on the outside compared with its interior, boasts some of the most gorgeous frescoes in all Rome, executed by the likes of Raphael, Sodoma and Sebastiano del Piombo.
The Farnesina was built in the early years of the 16th century for Agostino(Il Magnifico) Chigi, a banker from Siena who grew incredibly rich by lending money to popes and rulers and controlling the alum trade around Rome that was crucial to the textile industry. Ever the power broker, Chigi entertained lavishly.
For that, he needed an impressive venue. He chose a spot on the Tiber and commissioned his proteges, who included most of the leading artists of his times, to make one.
Visitors to the villa today can view five rooms, though this being Italy, one (the Room of the Frieze) is being restored and is temporarily off limits .
No matter. The others are stunning enough - just be prepared to crane your neck staring at the frescoed ceilings and walls. The joy is in the details.
Next door, the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche is even more visually seductive. Raphael drew the designs but left much of the painting to his workshop. The vault's two exuberant panels show the council of the gods. Separating the panels - creating a kind of trellis effect, fittingly, as this loggia originally was open to the garden - are laurels of pickable flowers, fruit and vegetables painted by Giovanni da Udine. Even the arched windows are festooned with the luscious designs.
Upstairs is the Room of Perspectives, a marvellous trompe l'oeil of Roman scenes, and the Room of Alessandro, which was actually Agostino's bedroom. It is lined with Sodoma's paintings of scenes from the life of Alexander the Great.
Almost directly across the Tiber from the Farnesina, less than 20 minutes away on foot, is the Galleria Spada. It's a relic of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
This time, though, be sure to relish the exterior of the palazzo, built in the mid-16th century by Cardinal Girolamo Capodiferro, and later purchased by Cardinal Bernardino Spada, who proceeded to make its stucco facade even more baroque. It's a medley of flowers, garlands, laurels and other flourishes. In the courtyard are 12 niches holding statues of the Olympian gods present at the wedding of Cupid and Psyche.
While best known for the Borromini Perspective (see panel below), the Galleria Spada houses what many experts say is the most important collection of 17th-century paintings in Rome. It has nearly 200 in all. Four galleries, restored to their appearance at the time of Spada (1594-1661) and his grand-nephew, Cardinal Fabrizio Spada (1643-1717), who succeeded him as acquirer-in-chief, contain paintings, furniture, sculptures and other furnishings that beautifully illustrate the collecting tastes of the time.
They fill the walls to the rafters. Fortunately, each room contains a guide that names and dates the works, which are numbered. Among the highlights are Guercino's "Death of Dido", Brueghel's "Landscape with Windmills" and contrasting paintings of Bernardino Spada, a full-portrait by Guido Reni and a half-portrait by Reni's rival, Il Guercino.
But, with so much on view, you can pick your own things for lingering. In Room Two, for example, there are wonderfully precise portraits of a botanist, an astrologist and a nobleman by Bartolomeo Passarotti. Room Four lets you weigh in on the debate over who's the better artist - Orazio Gentileschi, whose portrait of David, having just slayed Goliath, hangs near two works by his daughter Artemisia Gentileschi, one of St Cecilia and one of "Virgin Nursing the Christ Child."
Room Three offers a vivid ceiling by Michelangelo Ricciolini in three parts - the Four Seasons, the Four Parts of the World, and the Four Elements. And in Room One, there's a marvellous 16th-century example of the French etching technique called verre eglomise, a work originally called "Susannah and the Elders" but renamed, appropriately, "Susannah Harassed by Old Men". The Spada provides a magnifying glass to study that story in detail.
Palazzo Spada, by the way, is also home to renowned state apartments but they are still in use and are open only on the first Sunday of each month and only by appointment.
Across Rome, and moving into the 19th century, the Museo Napoleonico has a completely different feel. Considering that Napoleon attacked and looted Italy - taking the title king - a museum in his honour may seem unusual. It is. As well as telling the story of Napoleon's conquests, the museum also preserves his personal effects and reminds visitors of the Bonaparte family's Italian connections.
Among the sentimental items are the books Napoleon had with him in exile on St Helena, examples of the iron jewellery that women wore after selling their more precious jewels in support of his wars, and miniature portraits of various Napoleonic relatives.
The collection is the work of Guiseppe Primoli, the son of Carlotta Bonaparte, Napoleon's niece. It's displayed in 11 rooms on the ground floor of what was Primoli's palace, which is not far from the Piazza Navona.
Except for Bonaparte experts, the main reasons to visit lie in the first three rooms, two in deep blue decor and one in lush red. The latter contains the emperor's ornate furniture and portraits of Napoleon III and his wife Empress Eugenie by famed court painter Franz Xavier Winterhalter.
The museum has a big drawback: there are few labels and these are in Italian only (there is a guide in English, costing Euros 7). On the other hand, perhaps that's one reason why it's a place you can avoid the crowds.
WHEN IN ROME
*Villa Farnesina, Via della Lungara 230. Open Monday to Saturday, 9am-1pm. Tel: +39 06-68027268; www.lincei.it
*Galleria Spada, Piazza Capodiferro 13. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 8.30am-7.30pm. Tel: +39 06-32810; www.galleriaborghese.it
*Museo Napoleonico, Piazza di Ponte Umberto 1. Open Tuesday toSunday, 9am-7pm.Tel: +39 06-6880 6286; www2.comune.roma.it/museonapoleonico
Trick of the eye provides a treat.
Aside from its wealth of art, the Galleria Spada has a curiosity that remains a draw today, even as it did in the far less sophisticated 16th century: Borromini's "perspective".
When Cardinal Bernardino Spada bought the palazzo in 1632, he hired Francesco Borromini, a prominent architect with many Roman churches to his credit, to enlarge and modify it. Along with adding more rooms and more festoons, Borromini constructed a famous architectural trompe l'oeil, a long colonnaded corridor with a life-size statue at its end, about 120ft away. At least, that's what it looks like. In fact, the statue, less than 3ft tall, is just over 26ft away.
Borromini created the illusion by narrowing the corridor, shrinking the columns, lowering the ceiling, and raising the floor - a nifty optical trick in its day that reputedly fascinated Spada.
Visitors may see the perspective from the Galleria Spada's inner courtyard, which is open for 15 minutes every hour on the half-hour from 10.30am until 1.30pm and, again, continuously, from 2.30pm until the gallery closes at 7.30pm.
Judging from two visits, most people go right up to the perspective - but that's not the best, well, perspective. To get the full effect, the trick is best viewed from further back, from the wall that faces it.
Admission to the courtyard is included in the Galleria's ticket price.