In the spring and summer of 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi swept through Sicily and southern Italy. He overthrew Francesco II, the Bourbon King of the Two Sicilies, and incorporated these territories into a unified Italian kingdom ruled by the Piedmontese king Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoy. The great southern landlords had to choose a side.
These events form the backdrop to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 masterpiece The Leopard. The novel’s protagonist, Prince Fabrizio Salina, chose loyalty and honour over power and wealth, refusing a position as a senator. Unlike the fictional prince, Baron Giovanni Barracco (1829-1914), owner of almost limitless lands in Calabria, joined the Piedmontese cause. Barracco became a member of the new Italian parliament in Turin after he and his family had financed Garibaldi’s bold enterprise. Like his ancestors before him, he made sure that the strict code of conduct implicit in a noblesse oblige attitude – that with his wealth and position came certain responsibilities – would not touch on his own progress and the acquisition of yet more possessions, while the shocking conditions of the Calabrian peasantry remained unchanged.
The baron was a cultured man, however, and he put some of his considerable wealth to use in the pursuit of knowledge. He had first-hand experience of archaeology, having taken interest in the excavations at Cuma, Sorrento, and other sites in Campania that were undertaken by his friend Leopoldo, Count of Syracuse, the liberal and artistic brother of the Bourbon king Ferdinando II. And, during his time as a politician in Piedmont, he studied Egyptology in Turin’s great Museo Egizio, which was at the time the recipient of major collections of pharaonic art acquired in Egypt.
Over the course of half a century, Giovanni Barracco was able to gather in Rome an eclectic and remarkable collection of antiquities with the purpose of creating for himself ‘a museum of comparative antique sculpture’. He bought fragments of ancient sculptures, with a preference for heads, because, as he wrote in 1893 in the collection’s catalogue, ‘a certain number of well-chosen fragments suffice… to compose a concise history of ancient sculpture… fragments are by their very nature clothed in great poetry… [recomposing them requires] a mental effort… that is very dear to people with mobile, cultivated imagination.’
In order to carry out his ambitious project, the baron, although himself a scholar and antiquarian, recruited two of the leading experts in ancient art of the time. One was the Austro-Czech Ludwig Pollak (1868-1943), who – having studied archaeology in Vienna – had moved to Rome and had become prominent in the (sometimes illegal) antiquities trade, as well as a close friend and fine art advisor to Barracco. Later, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he was killed. Pollak was famed for having found and identified in a builder’s yard the missing right arm of Laocoön from the Roman sculptural group of this Trojan priest and his two sons so admired by Michelangelo. The identification of this missing arm corrected the earlier reconstruction of the sculpture in the Vatican Museums, which had Laocoön stretching his right arm upwards, instead of bending it back over his shoulder. Barracco’s other consultant was the German antiquarian Wolfgang Helbig (1839-1915), a former secretary of the German Archaeological Institute who had retired to private life in the beautiful Villa Lante on the Janiculum Hill. There he hosted – together with his talented pianist wife, the Russian princess Nadine – an exclusive and cosmopolitan literary, musical, and scientific salon.
After a few years, Barracco could truly assert that he had achieved his goal: the collection was indeed outstanding for its range and quality. As he outlined in the catalogue:
Taking advantage of favourable circumstances, I have set up a small museum of comparative antique sculpture. So, apart from minor shortcomings, which I hope to overcome, the most important styles are conveniently represented: Egyptian art in all its stages, from the age of the pyramids to the loss of independence, Assyrian art in its two periods: that of Assur-nazir-Habal and that of the Sargonides, and finally the art of Cyprus, which is not less important than the others. Greece is represented from the archaic period, the great schools of the V and IV centuries, to the Hellenistic period. Etruria is equally represented. A small place is reserved to Palmyrene sculpture, one of the last expressions of classical art.
The artefacts were first displayed in Barracco’s apartment at the heart of Renaissance Rome in via del Corso 160, right in front of Palazzo Fiano (in whose basements the marble panels of the Ara Pacis Augustae had been found). Some decades later though, in 1902, he decided to donate to the city of Rome his entire collection of sculptures, comprising nearly 200 objects, and his choice library. In return, he was granted the use of a plot of land along the newly opened central thoroughfare, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. Barracco commissioned a small Neoclassical building from architect Gaetano Koch on this site, with a façade reproducing an Ionic temple, its pediment bearing the inscription ‘MVSEO DI SCVLTVRA ANTICA’.
The new museum opened in 1905. Here the sculptures were arranged in two long exhibition halls, with large windows cut into the top of the walls to ensure proper lighting of the artworks, some of which were placed on specially designed swivel bases to display them in the round. This was also the first museum in Italy to be equipped with a heating system to allow for a more comfortable enjoyment of the museum’s contents during cold months.
Unfortunately, and despite protests from the then-director Pollak, the museum was demolished in 1938, following modifications to the city’s urban areas by the incumbent Fascist regime. The collection was packed inside the Capitoline Museums warehouse until, in 1948, it was moved to the present venue, the so-called Farnesina ai Baullari. Located near Piazza Navona, this elegant 16th-century palace was built for the French prelate Thomas le Roy, who had come to Rome in 1494 in the retinue of King Charles VIII of France. Some scholars attribute the design of the palace to the architect Antonio da Sangallo, based on 16th-century drawings that show its floor plan and façades, but recent research has attributed it instead to Jean de Chenevières, architect of the nearby church of San Luigi dei Francesi.
In the 17th century, the palace belonged to the Silvestri family, who added decorative frescoes still visible today on the ceilings of the staircase and of some of the rooms. Following the 1870 annexation of Rome to the Kingdom of Italy, town planners decided to widen the Strada Papale – an important east–west artery – and create the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. When adjacent buildings on the southern (left) side of the former main street were torn down to make way for the new thoroughfare, a whole side of the palace had to be rebuilt. During this work in the years 1898-1901, important archaeological remains were discovered beneath the building: those of a Roman house of the 3rd-4th century AD decorated with wall paintings, including hunting and fishing scenes. These were eventually detached and now they hang in a room on the ground floor of the present-day Museo di Scultura Antica Giovanni Barracco.
The objects of the original Barracco collection are displayed in chronological order through a sequence of rooms over two floors that retain a pleasant, somewhat old-fashioned fin-de-siècle flavour. The first two rooms present Egyptian artefacts in different materials from the earliest dynasties (3000 BC) to the Ptolemaic age (second half of the 1st century BC), acquired by the baron at Parisian auctions and directly from excavations carried out in Egypt and in Rome. Two black stone heads stand out. One is a superb black diorite portrait of a bearded man of haunting realism. Barracco believed it to be a portrait of Julius Caesar made in Egypt but, because the stern, frowning man wears a diadem decorated at the centre with a radiant star, it is more likely that it represents a priest of the Ptolemaic era.
The second stone head is a portrait of New Kingdom pharaoh Seti I (19th Dynasty, c.1324-1279 BC) that was first believed to represent his son Rameses II. Seti wears the so-called ‘blue crown’, a helmet-shaped crown made of leather and decorated with metal studs rendered with circular incisions. The head was acquired by Barracco in somewhat mysterious circumstances: it was registered by Pollak in the collection’s records in 1908, without indication of its provenance. Seemingly, the details of the acquisition were best left off the record. Barracco himself wrote in a letter to Felice Barnabei, the Director General of Antiquities in Rome, ‘Eureka! I found the Pharaoh I wanted! Come and see it but keep the information for yourself…’.
Recent investigations, however, link the head in the Barracco collection with fragments of a statue of Seti I preserved in the Abbey of St Nilus at Grottaferrata, near Rome. The abbey’s statue has been identified as Seti on the basis of similarity between the fragments and a complete statue of the pharaoh in the Museo Egizio in Turin. These fragments – and presumably also the Museo Barracco’s head – were found reused in the walls of Castello Savelli at Borghetto, near Grottaferrata. In its complete state, the statue would have depicted a seated image of the pharaoh wearing ceremonial dress and named by the cartouche on its dorsal column. It would originally have come to Italy from Heliopolis in Egypt, and was most likely set in the luxurious villa built near Grottaferrata for Lucius Funisulanus Vettonianus, a relative of Funisulana Vettulla, who was married to Gaius Tettius Africanus, the Prefect of Egypt in the AD 80s. The villa’s owner might have brought the statue here and given it a special place in his home, possibly to celebrate his emperor Domitian, a great admirer of pharaonic Egypt.
Barracco’s collecting of Egyptian art in some ways followed in the tradition of these Romans. Egyptian artefacts spread through Roman Italy, as did the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis, with several temples to her built in the peninsula. Artisans even created objects in an Egyptian style that matched those actually imported from Egypt: a proof of just how deeply Egyptian culture had penetrated Roman Italy. One important direct import to Rome among the more noteworthy pharaonic objects in the Museo Barracco is a rare black granite sphinx with a woman’s head. This had been attributed to the New Kingdom pharaoh Hatshepsut (18th Dynasty, c.1508-1458 BC) because of an inscription on the body that mentions her half-brother and husband Thutmose II. It was found in the 1st century BC Iseum Campense. This was the largest temple to Isis in the whole western Mediterranean. It stood in Rome’s Campus Martius near the Serapeum, dedicated to Serapis, the goddess’s husband.
The museum also presents artefacts discovered further afield, in Mesopotamia. These finds range from clay foundation nails and cuneiform tablets of the 3rd millennium BC to the stone reliefs that once decorated the walls of lofty Neo-Assyrian palaces dating from the 9th and 7th centuries BC. One of these, found at Nimrud, reproduces the kneeling figure of a winged genius, a typical motif in Assyrian decoration. It dates to the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC). Another small panel, this time dated to 769-626 BC and from the northern palace of Nineveh, was originally part of a larger scene that showed the King of Nineveh looking on from his chariot as booty is taken from a conquered Babylonian city. Women who have been taken prisoner are depicted on this panel carrying water and food containers against a background of palm trees.
As Barracco said, ‘the art of Cyprus… is not less important than the others’, and his collection offers a chance to see Cypriot artworks in Rome. They reveal significant connections between the ancient Near East and the Greek world on the island, a veritable cross-cultural hub in the eastern Mediterranean. Painted pieces of sculpture form a vivid group. Among them is a small terracotta votive chariot dated to the 5th century BC and found in a tomb at the site of Amathus. A female figure with a small boy ride inside a brightly painted chariot drawn by four horses. They may have been part of a religious ceremony, perhaps a funerary one. From Athienu, another Cypriot site, comes a whimsical 5th-century BC head of a smiling man crowned with laurel leaves. This bright and charming man sports a thin, vintage Hollywood-style moustache and may have been a priest of Aphrodite, the great goddess of fertility who was born in waters off the island.
Returning to the Italian peninsula, there are important finds from central Italy, where the Etruscan civilisation developed from the 8th century BC until the end of the 2nd century BC, after its definitive subjugation by the Romans. The oldest Etruscan objects are dated to the 5th century BC and come from Chiusi (Clusium in Latin), a city that was part of the paramount dodecapolis, a federation of the 12 major city-states in the region. Like some of the material from Cyprus, these too are funerary finds. They are burial markers depicting banquets, funerary games, dancing – all mourning rituals superbly carved on to local stone in very low relief and in a refined style that shows strong Greek and Eastern influences. Continuing with the funerary theme are three tomb reliefs from Palmyra, the great city that flourished in the Syrian desert between the 1st and the 3rd centuries AD. They portray veiled women wearing a great many jewels, clearly members of the rich families that controlled the caravan trade between East and West.
In addition to early artefacts made in Greece and in its colonies in Italy, quite an impressive number for such a small private collection are high-quality Roman copies of celebrated Greek sculptures of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. A beautiful room filled with marble heads features, at its centre, a statue of a young athlete who arranges a victory wreath on his own head. This is a Roman copy of a 5th-century BC Greek original and is known as an ephebe (young man) of Westmacott type. Another Roman copy is a head of Apollo of the Kassel type, found during excavations undertaken in the 19th century for the construction of the Opera House on the Viminal Hill in Rome. The mid-5th-century BC bronze original was attributed to Phidias and stood on the Acropolis of Athens to give thanks to Apollo, the god of healing, plagues, and diseases, after the city had been delivered from a plague of locusts.
Later art – not just the Silvestri palace’s 17th-century frescoes – is represented in the museum, too. The choice medieval objects are few but significant. One glittering example even comes from the original apse of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This 12th- to 13th-century gold-backed polychrome mosaic, acquired from the Barberini collection, was first part of the lower register of the apse, before it was demolished in 1582 during the massive rebuilding of the basilica. It portrays the figure of Ecclesia Romana (the Church of Rome), with a pearl-studded crown on her head; she once stood next to a central image of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. There are other religious ornaments: two beautifully carved stone reliefs from Sorrento’s medieval cathedral that feature ubiquitous motifs derived from textile patterns. These are a later reflection of similar cultural connections seen at Cyprus and Palmyra, Etruscan Chiusi, and Egyptian-influenced Rome. Such imagery was transmitted for centuries along the Silk Roads that linked the Mediterranean to China, and were used internationally by craftspeople working in different materials both in the East and the West.
‘My collection ends here, several thousand years since its beginning, which dates back to the earliest dynasties of Egyptian kings’, concluded Barracco when he made a gift of his collection to the city of Rome. The Museo di Scultura Antica Giovanni Barracco, one of the most charming, yet least visited, museums in Rome, remains a lasting tribute to the baron’s endeavours and the impressive artistry of ancient sculptors.
Museo di Scultura Antica Giovanni Barracco in Rome is open 10am-4pm Tuesday to Sunday (October to May) and 1-7pm Tuesday to Sunday (June to September). See www.museobarracco.it for more information about visiting.