La Galleria Nazionale was established in Rome in 1883 to represent the national art of the newly unified state. Initially it had neither a collection, which was initially formed by acquiring artworks at national exhibitions, nor a permanent location. Indeed, it was temporarily situated at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, which had been recently inaugurated. Meanwhile, the Board of Fine Arts looked at historic buildings, former convents and other state-owned property, but the choices were discarded for lack of space or inadequate facilities. Soon it became problematic for the Galleria, whose collection was growing, to share the space at Palazzo delle Esposizioni with the temporary exhibitions organised there. Finally, Padiglione delle Belle Arti, built by Cesare Bazzani in Valle Giulia for the International Exhibition, was acquired for the new gallery in 1911.
At first, the choice of the place was criticised because it was out of the way and badly connected to the city centre. However, the proximity to Villa Borghese, which had just opened to the public, the position between the Etruscan Museum and the Borghese Gallery and the presence of foreign academies nearby, made it a particularly attractive solution, which seemed to realise Bazzani’s dream of the “ideal city of art”. The building was designed to evoke a “temple of art”, with its monumental staircase leading to the pronao of the main building, flanked by two long wings punctuated by pilaster strips. It has a clear and simple architectural design, with three friezes in high relief located in the upper band: Il corteo della Bellezza e della Forza (the parade of Strength and Beauty) by Ermenegildo Luppi on the left; Il corteo della Vita e del Lavoro (the parade of Life and Work) by Adolfo Laurenti on the right; L’artista e le battaglie artistiche (the Artist and his Battles) by Giovanni Prini in the centre, inside the pronao. The four sculptures placed above the building represent Architecture and Painting on the left, Sculpture and Decoration on the right. Inside, the rooms are functionally distributed around the Hall of Ceremonies. The halls are spacious and bright, being lit from above by natural light through skylights; on each side the building, large windows open onto the gardens and courtyards, creating an ongoing relationship between inside and outside. On 30 June 1913 the Padiglione di Belle Arti was handed over to the Ministry and by July 1915 the Gallery had completely moved out of Palazzo delle Esposizioni.
It was immediately obvious that the space was insufficient for a growing collection, therefore, in 1933, Bazzani himself was called upon to extend the building from its back. The new building, which doubled the exhibition space, however, was not immediately available because in 1934, just as it was completed, it had to host the Exhibition of Sacred Art in tribute to Patti Lateranensi and the Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution, after it was closed at Palazzo delle Esposizioni. Due to the small size of the space left, the Director Roberto Papini had to give up the idea of presenting the collection from a 21st century perspective and decided to rotate the artworks of the museum collection between temporary exhibitions and private rooms, where the ones not displayed could be seen on permission.
Moreover, he used partition walls to gain more space for displays, removed boiseries and door frames and repainted the walls in white. He created a poor layout driven by necessity, but one which had almost a modernist taste.
After being temporarily closed during the Second World War, it was necessary to restore most of the building and in particular the extension of 1933. After the reopening, the Superintendent Palma Bucarelli was aware of the need to update the gallery in accordance with modern criteria, after twenty years of Fascist autocracy. In the new system the 19th century section (1966) and the 20th century section (1968) were shown following a twisting path going clockwise from left to right that was arranged on two levels. In the left wing a new staircase connected the lower floor realised in 1911 with the upper floor of 1933; taking up the ideas of the Director Papini, the boiseries and travertine door frames of the extension were eliminated and their height was lowered. Moreover, the walls were painted in light colours, panels placed everywhere increased the space available for the artworks and the large halls of the building were covered by canopies, shielding the light that now came from fluorescent tubes on steel suspensions. The canopies and the panels would be removed in the 1970s by the Superintendent Giorgio De Marchis. The Medardo Rosso Hall’s layout was designed by the architect Luciano Rubino, while works by Vincenzo Gemito were placed in niches along the corridor-veranda of the building. Kinetic Art was valorised by being exhibited in a deliberately dark environment. For the first time, a permanent display of statues in the front garden and a room devoted to graphic art were presented to the public.
In anticipation of future developments of the collection, in 1956 a further extension of the back built in 1933 started being planned; in 1960 Palma Bucarelli and Giulio Carlo Argan contacted Walter Gropius for the project. He carried out a first inspection and produced drawings and photographs, but was unable to proceed because of lack of funding. In 1967 the task was entrusted to the architect Luigi Cosenza, but the consent decree was only approved in 1973.
Bucarelli sought to use the Cosenza expansion to show contemporary art; indeed, both the architect and the Superintendent wished to create a museum with educational purposes, a place that could be a propulsive centre for cultural initiatives. Therefore, some spaces in the new extension were left for the auditorium and the gardens.
When Cosenza died in 1984, the building had not been finished yet. Four years later, when Augusta Monferini was Superintendant, the completed part only would open to the public, displaying a commemorative exhibition of Cosenza’s work. In the meanwhile, since 1983, the museum had been temporarily closed for important works of adaptation to standards. The works mainly concerned the right wing of the building, in which the then curator, Bruno Mantura, used to exhibit key artists and movements of the 20th century, giving ample space to sculpture. The new internal layout was designed by Costantino Dardi: the great central hall was marked by modular panels that created just as many rooms for the display. At the top of each panel lightweight structures with triangular sails were placed, screening the artificial light sources and creating a visual connection between the panels and the vertical space of the hall.
In 1999 a new arrangement, wanted by Superintendent Sandra Pinto, was inaugurated. The architectural history of the building determined the sequence of the collections: the Bazzani building of 1911, where the boiseries and the wall paint were restored, housed paintings of the 19th century, while the extension of 1933 contained the ones from the 20th century. The Cosenza wing was used to house contemporary art from 1968 to 2000, taking into account the birth of the museum MAXXI, which was founded to exhibit 21st century art.