It is the greatest private collection of Classical antiquities in the world – described by some as rivalling even that of the Vatican. But for decades its treasures have remained hidden from public view, known only from old photographs and a catalogue published in the 19th century. Now a protracted legal battle between a Roman prince and the Italian state has at last been resolved – and, after many years of negotiations and false starts, 90 masterpieces from the extraordinary collection of the noble princes of Torlonia will finally go on display this spring at the Palazzo Caffarelli, a major new extension to the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
Entitled The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces, the exhibition – to be opened on 4 April 2020 – will run for nine months as a prelude to a grand international tour (the details of which have yet to be announced) before returning permanently to Rome. The show – designed by the Milan office of David Chipperfield Architects, the firm behind Margate’s Turner Contemporary gallery – will be the first to be held at a new exhibition space within the Palazzo Caffarelli, which flanks the main body of the Musei Capitolini. The imposing palazzo, which once housed the Prussian embassy, was built in the 16th century for the Caffarelli family on land given to it by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (1500-1558). Its large terrace, complete with cafeteria and restaurant, allows visitors to enjoy a stunning view from the Capitoline Hill over the palaces, churches, and rooftops of Rome, spreading out below the cliffs on which it is perched – a fitting setting for an exceptional new cultural attraction.
The choice of location is testament to the curators’ intention to place the exhibition firmly in the context of the history of collecting antiquities in Rome: the Capitoline Museums are themselves the result of generous papal and aristocratic patronage over the centuries. The museums’ history can be traced back to 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484) donated a collection of important ancient bronzes to the people of Rome. They included the Capitoline Wolf (long believed to date from the 5th century BC, but now considered more likely to have been cast in the 11th-12th centuries AD), the famous sculpture depicting a she-wolf suckling the mythical twins Romulus and Remus, which became the symbol of Rome. The works were moved from Sixtus’ seat at the Lateran Palace to the Capitoline Hill, where they were and still are displayed. The original collection grew and, following the acquisition by Pope Clement XII (1652-1740) of an outstanding collection of ancient statues and inscriptions from Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692-1779), the Capitoline Museums were opened to the public in 1734 – making it the first museum in the world where art could be enjoyed for free by all, and not just by its owners.
In their new setting, the Torlonia sculptures themselves – long revered as the ‘collection of collections’ – are presented as the result of one of the most successful and sustained efforts by any Roman family to collect the art of the ancient past. Acquired between the 15th and 19th centuries, the statuary on display reflects not only the remarkable range and artistry of ancient sculpture, but also a cultural process: it tells the story of the beginnings of the collecting of antiquities and of the crucially important transition from personal collections to public museums – both areas in which Rome and Italy have led the way. Thus, the exhibition traces the formation of the Torlonia Collection, and its growth through acquisitions and extensive archaeological excavations, while the last of its five sections effectively relates the collection to the works housed in the adjacent exedra of the Musei Capitolini themselves – including the magnificent and justly famous 2nd-century AD equestrian bronze statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180). In doing so, the show underlines an ongoing process – from haphazard private collecting through to generous papal patronage and on to what we today recognise as a contemporary museum environment.
Much of the Torlonia Collection was assembled by the family in the late 18th and 19th centuries as the result of archaeological excavations carried out at its various and vast estates near Rome and in central Italy, as well as through purchases from noble Roman families in financial difficulty: the Torlonia often accepted individual pieces as security against loans to others, who in many cases had accumulated their own collections via the same process over centuries. The family’s major acquisitions were scattered around to decorate their many palaces in Rome, putting the Torlonia on a par with other, older aristocratic families who had already embellished their palaces in the same way.
Against this backdrop, the Torlonia Museum, founded in 1875 by Prince Alessandro Torlonia (1800-1886) at his palace in Rome’s central Via della Lungara, is of paramount importance. Here, 620 catalogued works of ancient art were put on display for the appreciation of small groups of privileged visitors. It was here, also, that a new, more democratic Torlonia Museum was planned in the 1970s – but, alas, that is where matters started to unravel. Instead, a convenient loophole in the planning law was exploited to turn the 77-room palace on the banks of the Tiber into a 93-unit apartment complex, while the priceless antiquities it contained were stored and hidden away from view. They would not be seen again by the general public for more than 50 years as legal storms swept over the princely family.
For decades, attempts were made to persuade the family to return the works to public display, either by selling them or putting them on show – but to no avail. One rumoured bidder was the controversial billionaire and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, while the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles sent a large delegation of experts to Rome in 2016 to evaluate the collection. Following the death of the head of the family, Prince Alessandro Torlonia (1925-2017), his eldest son, Prince Carlo Torlonia (b. 1951), was reported by one Italian newspaper to be waging a ‘war of succession’ with his three siblings over the estate’s future, with some family members wanting to auction off parts of the collection. Eventually, following an appeal from Prince Carlo, a court in Rome issued a precautionary seizure of the family’s artistic treasures, preventing the collection, valued at between €4 billion and €8 billion, from ending up overseas.
Despite outcry over the decades in the Italian and international media, the Torlonia Collection remained out of bounds during all this time, and was known to most scholars only through a catalogue, first published in the late 19th century, by the archaeologist and antiquarian Pietro Ercole Visconti (1802-1880). He had described the collection as ‘an immense treasure of erudition and art, amassed in silence over the course of many, many years with artefacts dating from the 5th century BC to the 4th century AD’. The 1884 edition is illustrated with photographs of all the artefacts – the first time photography was ever used to record a collection of sculptures. With the collection under wraps, such was the need to assess its condition that rumours had it the distinguished Italian archaeologist Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli (1900-1975) unsuccessfully disguised himself as a refuse collector in order to get in and check it out.
Finally, in 2014, a Torlonia family foundation was established to promote the collection, and an agreement with the Italian Ministry of Culture was signed in 2016 whereby the more than 600 Torlonia marble, bronze, and alabaster statues and reliefs would be shown to the general public. The agreement allowed Salvatore Settis, the distinguished art historian and former head of the Getty Center, who is co-curator of the present exhibition with archaeologist Carlo Gasparri, finally to study the many famous ancient masterpieces in the collection: ‘When I first entered the warehouse, I recognised dozens of pieces that I’d read about but had never seen…’, Settis told reporters at a recent press conference.
The Torlonia are relative newcomers compared to some members of the Roman aristocracy, but they still had great influence at the court of the popes from the 18th century onwards when, primarily as bankers to the Vatican, the family rapidly became one of the richest and most important in Rome. Marin de Tourlonias (1725-1785) is considered the founder. He arrived in the Italian capital in around 1750 from the Auvergne, in central France, where his ancestors had lived since the 16th century. A century later, the family had already amassed a vast fortune, allowing Marin’s grandson Alessandro Raffaele Torlonia (1800-1886) to finance the draining of the Fucine Lake in the Abruzzo region of central Italy: at 150km2, it was the third largest lake in the entire Italian peninsula, and its removal in 1862-1873 helped prevent the spread of malaria while also allowing for the lake bed’s richly fertile soils to be farmed under Torlonia administration. For this action, Victor Emmanuel II (1820-1878), first king of the recently united country of Italy, offered Alessandro a special one-off gold medal and the grand title Prince of Fucino.
But the Fucine area also afforded unexpected archaeological treasures for the newly enobled Alessandro. An exhibition entitled Il Tesoro del Lago (‘The Treasure of the Lake’), held in 2001 at Villa Torlonia in the Abruzzese city of Avezzano, presented for the first time 500 artefacts found here. This local Torlonia collection had been acquired in 1994 by the Italian state, and is now permanently on view in the imposing Piccolomini Castle overlooking the Fucine valley. Among the precious finds were the important 2nd-century AD works known as the ‘Torlonia bas- reliefs’, bearing representations of Roman towns along the lake, temples and houses, their everyday activities and, very interestingly, the hydraulic machines used to drain an outlet for the lake in a project begun in the 1st century AD by the Emperor Claudius (10 BC- AD 54). Other excavations undertaken by Alessandro at family properties in and around Rome – including at Etruscan Caere, at the great artificial Roman harbour of Portus, near Ostia, and at the vast 2nd-century AD Villa dei Quintili on the Appian Way – produced further important artefacts.
But the Torlonia were also acquiring art in other ways. The first group of valuable antiquities to be bought at auction by the family was that which belonged to the famous antiquarian, restorer, and sculptor Bartolomeo Cavaceppi (c.1716-1799). Cavaceppi’s reputation extended well beyond Italy, and he was in great demand among the major collectors and agents from central Europe and England. A skilled sculptor in his own right, he reassembled a great many ancient sculptures and created many more ‘after-the-antique’ ones. In this, he was not alone: it was a common practice among restorers to ‘complete’ broken statuary before and during the 18th century, especially in order to meet the increasing demand for antiquities from the many avid Italian collectors and their foreign counterparts on the Grand Tour. When visitors see Greek and Roman statues on display in museums today, it is taken for granted that these artworks are ancient, but in many cases sculptures were altered and restored after they were excavated some centuries ago. The practice was already popular when the great Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) tampered with the head of a Greek statue depicting a resting goat: the resulting artwork, also to be seen in the new exhibition, shows Bernini ‘competing with antiquity’, according to Settis.
The Bernini sculpture was among 270 works of art belonging to the 17th-century banker and art collector Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564-1637) that were acquired by the Torlonia in 1825. Others included the celebrated and supremely elegant Hestia Giustiniani, probably a 2nd-century AD Roman copy of a Greek bronze of about 470 BC. The antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657) made a drawing of the Hestia in the early 1630s. It was then illustrated in the engraved catalogue of the Galleria Giustiniani, produced under the direction of Joachim von Sandrart (1606-1688) in two deluxe volumes (1635-1636 and 1638), where it was described as a ‘vergine vestale vestita, di marmo greco tutta antica alta palmi 9’ (‘a clothed Vestal Virgin, of Greek marble wholly antique, height 9 palmi’). The poised Hestia, named after the Greek goddess of the hearth, is the only known Early Classical Greek bronze to be reproduced at full size in marble for a Roman patron.
Another remarkable piece in the Giustiniani group is the beautifully fashioned Diana of Ephesus, a small statue of the deity with her face and hands made of black marble (pictured below). The Giustiniani collection also included a great many marble portraits of Roman emperors and of their relatives. To these, the Torlonia added others of different provenance to amass a group of 180 marble busts, making it one of the largest and most impactful collections of male and female Roman portraiture in the world. Some are of great, if not unique, quality. Among the finest is a remarkable hyperrealistic portrait of an unnamed old man – probably a provincial patrician – toothless and with sagging jaws, found in Otricoli (Roman Otriculum) in Umbria (pictured above). It is a superb example of Late Roman Republic portraiture of the mid-1st century BC. Equally striking is the portrait of a fierce old man wearing a hat, identified as a portrait of Euthydemus I of Bactria (c.260-200/195 BC). It is more likely, however, that the bust represents a Roman general and should be dated to the 1st century AD. Both portraits convey the seriousness of mind (gravitas) and the virtue (virtus) of men devoted to distinguished public careers in the service of the administration and the army of Rome. Another masterpiece, found at Vulci, 80km north-west of Rome, is the lovely and smooth portrait of a young Etruscan girl (third image), whose delicate features still look curiously modern more than two millennia later.
In 1866, the Torlonia family bought the elegant Villa Albani, just outside Rome’s city walls; its beautiful gardens are still now open to the public only by special appointment. The Villa was the famous property of Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692-1779), a compulsive and discerning collector of works of art of all kinds. Its acquisition further increased substantially the family’s already astonishingly rich collections. Among the Torlonia’s new acquisitions was the spectacular large marble basin that had formerly been part of the renowned Cesi Collection, before being acquired by Cardinal Albani. Now taking pride of place in the exhibition, its rim is beautifully decorated with scenes from the Labours of Hercules (image below).
After years of neglect, restoration of the sculptures in the Torlonia Collection finally began three years ago. A restoration laboratory and a photographic studio to record the artworks were set up in some of the many rooms where the collection had been stored (image below). The delicate task of preparing the statues for the exhibition was undertaken by the chief restorer, Anna Maria Carruba, and her team of skilled assistants. ‘The works were not in critical condition,’ she said, ‘but they were very dirty, mostly layers of dust that had settled over the years…’. As they worked, her team documented each individual intervention on the statues over the centuries. ‘Different eras used different materials to restore and integrate Classical works, and these often left visible traces,’ explained Carruba. ‘We’ll do the same, only our materials are more appropriate.’
In the case of the superbly detailed bas-relief showing a ship tied to a mooring block in a harbour (fourth image), the restoration brought to light some of the traces of colour that originally covered its surface. Sculptures were often brightly painted in antiquity, but the ravages of time and the taste of later collectors (who preferred bare white marble) have left most stripped of colour. This particular bas-relief was found at Portus – which, along with the rich agricultural lands around it, had become the property of Prince Alessandro Torlonia in 1856. He carried out yet more ‘excavations’ here between 1863 and 1869 – though, unfortunately, the buildings that were excavated were immediately filled with earth again – and built yet another Villa Torlonia to the north-east of the harbour, where some of the archaeological finds were housed.
The product of a richly funded passion for collecting that stretched over centuries, the Torlonia Collection remains a unique treasure trove of ancient art. The fact that it has languished for so long in obscurity only adds to its fascination. One of the most eagerly awaited cultural events in years, the new show at the Palazzo Caffarelli should – finally – be the first step towards the creation in the next few years of the long-awaited Torlonia Museum. After decades of uncertainty, ‘this is a story with a happy ending’, declared Settis during the press conference to mark the exhibition’s launch. Let’s hope he is right.
The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces runs at the Musei Capitolini in the Palazzo Caffarelli-Clementino, Rome, from 4 April 2020 to 10 January 2021.
The sculptures on display were restored by the Torlonia Foundation with the support of Bulgari. The design for the exhibition is by David Chipperfield Architects, Milan.
A catalogue, edited by the curators S. Settis and C. Gasparri, has been published by Electa in both Italian and English.
ALL IMAGES: Lorenzo de Masi/Fondazione Torlonia.