Today, it seems obvious that ancient statues should be preserved, but it was not always so. For almost a thousand years, from the mid 5th century AD through to the 15th century, the sculptures populating the ruins of Rome were valued as a raw material rather than for their aesthetic qualities. While the ease with which bronze figures could be melted down to turn a tidy profit left them particularly vulnerable, many stone statues were also condemned to the furnaces as a source of lime. Others were dismembered for reuse as building stone. Contemplating such brutal treatment of ancient masterpieces may cause shudders now, but it also raises a crucial question. Given the perfectly profitable and practical purposes that Roman sculpture had been put to for centuries, where did the sudden interest in collecting and preserving them come from?
An opportunity to explore the answer is occasioned by an exhibition in Rome showcasing 92 highlights from one of the great collections of Roman sculpture: the Torlonia marbles. These extraordinary works of art have been out of the public eye for more than half a century, making their appearance a cause for celebration among aficionados of the Roman world. Although the Torlonia collection itself only dates back to the early 19th century, when this princely family began to amass antiquities, its origins stretch back far earlier. Because the nucleus of the Torlonia marbles was created by buying up various existing sets of sculpture, the result is essentially a collection of collections. This means that its contents can shed light not only on the Classical era, but also on why and how these sculptures became prized possessions once again in the more recent past.
Valuing the past
‘In order to understand the process of collecting, and the very meaning of collecting, we need to look at the very long period when the ruins of Rome were filled with bronze and marble statues, and no one cared about them,’ says Salvatore Settis, professor of Classical archaeology and curator of the exhibition. ‘Back then, it would have been easy for anyone to go and pick up ten or 20 statues and bring them home to start a collection, but nobody did. Instead, the process of preserving, restoring, and collecting was a novelty when it started happening in the early 15th century. This more or less coincided with the popes returning to Rome permanently after almost a century in Avignon, France. While the popes were physically absent from Rome, they had still theoretically been in control of the city, but in practice its government and citizens were freer than they previously had been to govern themselves. This changed drastically when the popes came back.’
‘The citizens of Rome wanted the popes to return, not just for religious reasons, but also because of the very significant economic benefits that came from enormous numbers of pilgrims. Even so, the citizens of Rome – who only numbered something like 10,000-20,000 people in the early 15th century – wanted a political way to reaffirm their presence and status now that they had less control over how they were governed. As part of doing this, they proclaimed themselves Romani naturali, or “natural-born Romans”. In order to demonstrate that they were indeed natural-born Romans, some families collected statues from the ruins and brought them home. Then they would pretend that these figures were their ancestors, making them the true inheritors of the Roman past. So it was really a self-ennobling strategy. This marks the true beginning of collecting such sculpture.’
‘Pope Sixtus IV responded to this private collecting by the citizens of Rome in 1471. He made a generous political gesture, which was to donate to the people of Rome the small but very important collection of bronze statues that had survived the Middle Ages and was preserved in front of the Lateran basilica. Pope Sixtus IV had them moved to the Capitoline Hill, which was the symbol of the city’s communal government, where they were accompanied with an inscription explaining his actions: “Sixtus IV Pontiff Maximus, in his immense benevolence, determined to return and assign in perpetuity these outstanding bronze statues… to the Roman people, from whose midst they arose…”. In so doing, Pope Sixtus IV not only explicitly recognised the current Romans as the descendants of the ancient ones, but he also identified the contemporary citizens of Rome as appropriate heirs of this ancient artistry. The precedent Pope Sixtus IV set helped to pave the way for the world’s first public museum, on the Capitoline, in 1734. It could not be more fitting, then, that the Torlonia exhibition is also being held on the Capitoline.’
Compared with the early 15th-century pioneers, the Torlonia family were latecomers when they began assembling a collection. ‘Its size and the number of earlier collections it includes are both explained by its date,’ says Salvatore, ‘which is basically 19th century. The Torlonia family were relatively recent aristocracy, and they wanted to be on the same level as the older families. To achieve this, they needed palaces and various other status symbols, including a collection of antiquities. So they acquired existing collections and, by the end of the 19th century, had a few thousand ancient sculptures to deal with. The product of this abundance of Classical sculpture was the Museo Torlonia, which was founded by Prince Alessandro Torlonia in 1875 and remained open into the early 20th century.’
The inclusion of these earlier collections provides an opportunity to see the different steps that could be taken to complete sculptures with missing pieces. ‘The exhibition helps understanding of the methodologies adopted for restoration over time,’ Salvatore says, ‘especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. Among the Torlonia marbles, the most important collection was that amassed by Vincenzo Giustiniani, who was the most refined collector of antiquities in 17th-century Rome, and perhaps Europe. His pieces show a particular taste for not only completing fragmentary statues, but also for achieving this using first-rate sculptors. So, there is a crouching Venus, whose head was made by Pietro Bernini, and a goat whose head was created by his son, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. In this case, what is of particular interest is not just the work of significant artists, but the idea behind this restoration. In the 17th century there was a real sense, especially in Italy and France, of a dialogue – competition, really – between moderns and ancients. When Bernini made a new head for the goat, he wanted to show that he was a much better sculptor than the Roman one who made the body. In this, Bernini certainly succeeded!’
A goat might seem a strange choice for a sculpture today, but animals were a common feature of Roman art. ‘There are a vast number in the Vatican Museum’, says Salvatore, ‘and there were many in the Museo Torlonia. We have two of them in the exhibition: the goat and also a sheep with Odysseus clinging to its belly while escaping from the cave of the Cyclops. These two pieces also exemplify the main reasons why such sculpture was popular. One is that they were evocative of a pastoral landscape. So you might have a goat or some other representation of a wild or savage land. As the goat’s fleece is worn, it was probably displayed outdoors in a villa garden, to create a very particular sense of landscape. On the other hand, when you have a sheep with Odysseus on the underside, it brings to mind mythical tales or the literary erudition of the owner.’
One of the most celebrated works in the Torlonia collection captures a rather different kind of landscape: the great harbour of Rome at Portus. ‘This is a unique piece’, Salvatore says. ‘It is the only sculptural representation known to us from Classical antiquity of a harbour scene. So, if you want to see how the Romans represent a port, you have to look at this. It is also of great interest because, during preparations for the present exhibition, it was discovered that this relief had originally been extensively coloured, and that traces of the paint survived. You can see that the sea was blue, the lighthouse fire was red, and so forth. As a result, we have been able to reconstruct the original appearance of the relief.’
‘The relief shows two ships: one is entering the harbour, the other is already moored and various people are going about their business on board. Among them are a group of people – comprising a man, a woman, and another man who is probably the owner – undertaking a sacrifice on board the ship. This suggests that the voyage had been in some way hazardous, and the owner was very glad about its safe arrival in the harbour. Indeed, the relief itself was a votive offering, probably dedicated to Neptune – the god of the sea – who is also represented on the sculpture. Of course, we don’t know the name of the ship’s owner, nor the sculptor who made the relief, but we can see how this piece touches on a whole range of issues at the core of Classical civilisation, including belief, trade and commerce, technology, and navigation.’
The harbour relief is of interest, too, for the way it was acquired. This was not a sculpture that had graced an earlier collection purchased by the family: instead, it was discovered during excavations undertaken at the site of Portus. Digging into ruins proved to be another way for the family to increase their collection, and a range of artworks were extracted from Roman sites on land acquired by the family. An important example is provided by the fragments of a bronze statue – the only one in the Torlonia collection – of a heroic nude, which came from the ancient city of Cures in Sabina. This prestigious piece was reconstructed, on somewhat dubious grounds, as a rendering of Germanicus, the adopted son of the emperor Tiberius. While this restoration is rather extreme, it is not the first time that damage to the figure was made good. Numerous ancient repairs testify to how highly it was valued during the Roman period. At another site, digging operations chanced on the residence of a Roman senator who seemingly shared a passion with the Torlonia family.
‘Owning land was the most important source of revenue for families belonging to the same class as the Torlonia,’ Salvatore notes. ‘They accumulated substantial holdings, buying what appeared on the market, and particularly land that was associated with certain titles. So, while searching for antiquities was not their principal motive, they did undertake extensive excavations. And when they bought land along the via Appia, for instance, they’d know it would be a good place to hunt for ancient remains. By chance, one Torlonia landholding on the via Appia coincided with an extensive latifundium – that is, an estate – owned in the 2nd century by one Herodes Atticus. He was a Roman senator, but also a Greek, who was born in Athens. Herodes was a sophisticated philosopher and a great patron of the arts. He donated enormous sums to several Greek cities. One example of this benevolence is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus on the slope of the acropolis in Athens. It is still there, and still used for theatrical performances.’
‘Herodes’ estate in Rome contained a villa, and it is from this area that one original Greek relief from Athens was found. It dates to the last decades of the 5th century BC – so it was already an antique by Herodes’ day – and can probably be traced back to the Athenian acropolis, not far from where the Odeon was built. The sculpture shows a young man with a horse and a dog, flanked by a god and goddess sitting on a rocky slope. It is another votive relief, which seemingly came from the sanctuary of the hero Hippolytus, who was the son of Theseus. Interestingly, holes on the side of the sculpture show that it was fixed to a wall on at least two different occasions in antiquity. Probably Herodes wanted it to be hanging in his residence in Rome, as a work of art. In this case, we have a direct transition from a collection of the 2nd century AD to a collection of the 19th century. This really is an extraordinary and almost unbelievable event.’
It is tempting to wonder if Atticus’ choice of décor can also find parallels in more recent centuries. Just as the Romani naturali found ancient sculpture a convenient way to cement their claim to be heirs of past glories, so too Atticus might have banked on sculpture harking back to the celebrated heritage of his birthplace reflecting favourably on him. Such possibilities are a reminder of the potent meanings that artworks can continue to gather long after they were originally commissioned.
ALL PHOTOS: Fondazione Torlonia, photo Lorenzo
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Torlonia exhibition has been extended to run until October 2021 in the Musei Capitolini, Rome. Booking is essential. For further details, including updates relating to the pandemic, ticket prices, and opening information, see www.torloniamarbles.it.
Another way to enjoy the exhibition is via the sumptuously produced publication accompanying it. This is available in Italian or English, and contains descriptions and beautiful photographs of the individual artefacts, as well as a wealth of essays relating to the collection. The English version is S Settis and C Gasparri (2020) The Torlonia Marbles: collecting masterpieces (Electa, ISBN 978-8891890122, £32).