A Surreal Trip to Rome’s Wax Museum

Head sections of historical figure models in Rome museum

Imagine a world where the Mona Lisa is placed next to Stalin and Oscar Wilde jostles for space alongside Pope John XXIII. Nearby, poor old Christopher Columbus is lumped beneath Adolf Hitler. This weird state of affairs is the norm inside Rome’s Museo delle Cere, or Wax Museum.

My sister, who’s been to both Madame Tussaud’s and the lesser known (but much more laughable) Louis Tussaud’s, knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into when she suggested we step inside and hand over €9 each. However, I wasn’t quite so prepared for the comedy value ahead.

Museo delle Cere figures of celebrities and historical personalities
Interpretations of Michael Jackson, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Pavarotti and some unknown guitarist.

Firstly it sometimes took a while to identify the exhibits, either because they were part of Italian history and not known globally, they weren’t properly labelled, or – more often than not – they didn’t entirely resemble the person they were modelled on, and we wondered if the labelling was entirely wrong. Artistic licence also didn’t help matters, with Romeo and Juliet looking like they’d had a few too many spray tans in preparation for their starring role. One TripAdvisor reviewer, USA-rama, neatly summed up the appeal of this place as: ‘Tacky, kitschy, cheesy – a hilarious palette cleanser in a city of masterpieces’, and you can see why it was a refreshing break from Rome’s reputation for high art.

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet made of wax, in period costume
Star-crossed lovers with spray tan for added dramatic tension. Possibly.

Other figures looked suspiciously like first attempts of other famous faces; a Vatican guard resembled a second Wax Museum version of Michael Jackson, whilst Napoleon appeared to be David Cameron in disguise. But by far the strangest attribute was the creepy posture of most exhibits, leaning forward at an odd angle. I couldn’t help wondering why the museum owners hadn’t noticed this was an unnatural way for a model to stand, when even shop window mannequins are posed more realistically.

Men in togas made of wax on display in Rome museum
Ancient Romans who appear to be doing the robot dance. Note the broom and bucket in the background, which don’t really add to the mood.

Perhaps the most unusual part of the visit was seeing the disembodied heads of various famous people, stored on shelves down a cold corridor at the back end of the building. These were, thankfully, labelled, and the date of the modelling was displayed underneath. We could see there was a huge improvement in technique between 1950s pieces and those made in the last decade, with better materials and more suitable paints helping to deliver a sharper, though not altogether accurate, result.

First stage of sculpting a human figure for a museum
The initial process of building a modern, anatomically correct wax model.

There was also an area devoted to showing the processes behind creating a waxwork, though this did feel like an afterthought thanks to the bundles of detritus surrounding clusters of half-formed heads and arms, along with loose cables dangling perilously in the background. I got the impression Italian health and safety regulations aren’t as strict as British ones…

Choosing parts to build a lifelike model of a celebrity or historical figure
Pick a hand. Any hand.

I’m not going to say the museum is universally bad, because it can’t be easy making any of these statues. The much more professional Madame Tussaud’s establishes relationships with many of its celebrities in the design stages, taking detailed measurements and getting a much fuller picture of each icon to help them craft a credible likeness.

Realistic impression of US President carved in wax in Italy
Hanging out with President Obama, who is unusually quiet.

I can’t imagine the Museo delle Cere had access to any of its stars (especially considering most of them are long dead) and there was much less evidence to base their model on, besides photos, paintings and descriptions in the media or historical documents. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend this attraction for anyone with a sense of humour bypass, people who don’t take themselves too seriously will have a ball here.

Artistic models of two of the Vatican's Popes
Two very credible Popes on display.

If you don’t fancy hot-footing it to Rome, here are some other waxy destinations you might like to try:

  • The largest wax museum in the southern hemisphere is based in Queensland, Australia. Its website contains some very dubious spelling (both ‘villians’ [sic] and ‘Kylie Minougue’ [sic] feature) so I’m not sure the exhibits will be up to much either, but I’m willing to be proved wrong…
  • The Hollywood Wax Museum has several branches in the US, including Tennessee, Missouri and South Carolina, all with the motto ‘Come play with the stars!’
  • Madrid’s Museo de Cera genuinely looks quite impressive – its statue of Tom Cruise could easily be mistaken for the man himself. With adult tickets priced at a whopping €17, not including an audio guide, you’d hope you got some value for money at this attraction

Want a culture fix with more substance? Check out my review of contrasting communist museums in Prague and Havana, or my visit to the National Museum of Resistance in Belgium.

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