The museum, founded by Pope Gregory XVI and inaugurated on 2 February 1837, was one of the first expressly dedicated to Etruscan antiques, and it predominantly conserves the artefacts unearthed in the excavations carried out during the preceding years in the sites of some of the most important cities of ancient Etruria, then part of the territory of the Papal State. Works already held in the Vatican and with a long history in other collections also entered the new museums.
With the end of the Papal State in 1870, the museum experienced only sporadic periods of growth, although these were of notable importance: it acquired the collections of Falcioni (1898), Benedetto Guglielmi (1935), Mario Astarita (1967) and Giacinto Guglielmi (1987).
Through the works on display, which document flourishing craftsmanship and a particular form of artistic civilisation, it is possible to reconstruct the ancient history of the Etruscan people, from the Iron Age (ninth century B.C.) until its progressive and definitive convergence with the Roman state in the first century B.C.
The section dedicated to Roman antiquities (Antiquarium Romanum) reaches the end of the Western Empire (fifth century A.D.) and includes works in bronze, glass, ivory, terracotta and ceramics from Rome and Latium, including former Etruscan cities such as Vulci.
A prestigious collection of Greek figurative vases (found principally in Etruria), Etruscan in the literal sense and also from Magna Graecia (produced in the Hellenised cities of southern Italy) allows the observer to retrace the history of ancient painting.
The museum occupies the Palazzetto del Belvedere of Innocent VIII Cibo (1484-1492), designed by Pollaiolo, and the apartment of Tor dei Venti of Pius IV Medici (1559-1565), initiated by Michelangelo and Girolamo da Carpi and finished by Pirro Ligorio. From the interior of the museum it is possible to see Bramante’s monumental double-helix staircase, begun in 1512.
In the halls it is possible to admire the original sixteenth-century pictorial cycles, including frescoes by Federico Barocci and Federico Zuccari (1563) and by Santi di Tito and Niccolò Circignani delle Pomarance (1564), as well as mural works in tempera of great interest dating from the end of the eighteenth century.