Rome’s Torlonia Marbles Go on View After Seven Decades

The Torlonia Marbles

Christopher Siwicki
The Torlonia Marbles
One of the world's best-known and least-seen collections of marble statuary is making its twenty-first-century debut.

One of the world's best-known and least-seen collections of marble statuary is making its twenty-first-century debut.

CHRISTOPHER SIWICKI

Statue of Hercules, reassembled from 112 pieces

The history of collecting is much more than the history of the objects within it—it is a human story, not just of aesthetic taste but also of diplomacy, education, ambition, power. 
—Dr. Clare Hornsby

After seven decades hidden from view in the basement of a closed museum, the most important private collection of ancient sculpture in the world is back on display. An exhibition currently on at Rome’s Capitoline Museums brings out of storage ninety-one pieces of Greek and Roman marble sculpture belonging to the famed and rarely seen Torlonia collection.

The excitement that has accompanied this event is understandable, not only because of the exceptional quality of the works of art on show, but because the public has not had access to these statues since the mid-twentieth century. The private Museo Torlonia, housed in an old wool factory on the right bank of the River Tiber, was opened in 1876 but had been largely closed by the 1960s.

The collection acquired an almost fabled status, a story of treasures boxed up in a basement and known only through old black and white photographs. The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces, curated by Salvatore Settis and Carlo Gasparri, marks the first step in making the collection (which actually comprises an impressive 620 pieces) accessible to the public on a permanent basis.

Commenting on why the exhibition has caused such a stir, art historian Dr. Clare Hornsby explains that, “this is no doubt due to the length of time leading up to the exhibition and the complexity of the arrangements needed to make it happen—a family feud, the illegal sequestration of the objects, court cases only recently resolved; and of course what is known to be a collection with so many masterpieces, unseen for many years.”

It is the last of the great collections of ancient art assembled by the Roman aristocracy between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries which is still in private hands. From the Renaissance onward, the powerful families of Rome sought out and acquired artifacts, particularly marble sculpture, of the ancient past. These statues, busts, sarcophagi, and reliefs were used to ornament the rooms and gardens of the extravagant palaces and villas that they built across the city. Through the collecting of antiquities, owners sought to show their education, erudition, and taste. Yet as the various Roman families fell on hard times, the collections were sold and often dispersed, eventually ending up in museums or abroad, except for that of the Torlonia family.

The Torlonia collection is itself made up of several earlier assemblages bought by Duke Giovanni Torlonia (1754–1829) and his son Prince Alessandro (1800–1886). These included the already renowned collections of the sculptor Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, Vincenzo Giustiniani, and Cardinal Alessandro Albani, whose villa in the suburbs of Rome (now also owned by the Torlonia family) was where Johann Joachim Winkelmann formulated his ideas on art history.

Indeed, the focus of the exhibition is on the history of collecting, rather than just ancient sculpture in itself. The significance of this subject is described by Dr. Hornsby: “The history of collecting is much more than the history of the objects within it—it is a human story, not just of aesthetic taste but also of diplomacy, education, ambition, power. Through the patterns of buying and selling objects and collections, we can learn much about the deeper connections, motivations, and networks that functioned throughout history.”

The idea that the exhibition is about collecting is apparent in the opening room, which displays nineteen busts of Roman emperors and their families. Collectors didn’t just want portraits of individuals, but entire sets of ancient groups and the imperial family were particularly sought after. The familiar faces of the emperors Vespasian, Hadrian, and Caracalla are all present, but perhaps the most captivating pieces are the exquisite female portraits identified (somewhat tentatively) as the empresses Plautilla, Julia Domna, Aquilia Severa, and Helena Fausta.

In addition to purchasing existing collections, the Torlonia family also carried out excavations on their own land around Rome in the nineteenth century. One of the most exceptional finds from the ruins of ancient Rome’s harbor at Portus is a large marble relief. Thought to have originally been placed in a shrine to the god Bacchus, it depicts a fantastical and compositionally busy port scene. At one end a docked ship is being unloaded, while another ship shown in full sail in front of a four-story lighthouse, in the background is a monumental arch topped by a statue of four elephants pulling a chariot, all of which is overseen over by colossal images of the gods Bacchus and Poseidon. Carved from white marble, the recent restoration found traces of colored paint, which would have originally highlighted different aspects of the scene.

Bust of Empress Aquilia Severa
CHRISTOPHER SIWICKI

Bust of Empress Aquilia Severa

Athletes
CHRISTOPHER SIWICKI

Statuary of Athletes

Caryatid
CHRISTOPHER SIWICKI

Caryatid

Head-of-a-youth,-identified-as-King-Ptolemy
CHRISTOPHER SIWICKI

Head of a youth, identified as King Ptolemy

Julia-Domna
CHRISTOPHER SIWICKI

Bust of Empress Julia Domna

Restored-statues-of-Apollo-and-Marsyas
Capitoline Museums

Restored statues of Apollo and Marsyas

The-Emperor-Caracalla
CHRISTOPHER SIWICKI

Bust of Emperor Caracalla

The-Portus-Relief
CHRISTOPHER SIWICKI

The Portus Relief

Tazza with scenes of the labors of Hercules
CHRISTOPHER SIWICKI

Tazza with scenes of the labors of Hercules

For Dr. Hornsby, the standout pieces are “the two enormous tazze—carved Roman marble basins, one with a frieze of the labors of Hercules and one, the Tazza Cesi, with imagery of a bacchic symposium. The latter was drawn by many artists including Giuliano di San Gallo in the early 1500s and those drawings were hugely influential in the repertoire of figurations used in later art. It has an almost mythical status as an excavated piece from nearby to a church in Rome’s Trastevere region, which was later placed in the sculpture garden of Cardinal Cesi in the sixteenth century, before entering the collection and villa of Cardinal Albani in the eighteenth century, and then being swallowed up into the Torlonia collection and unseen for so many decades.”

Given their age, it is inevitable that all of the objects have suffered damage over the years and have subsequently been restored. Practices of restoration in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when much of the sculpture on display was excavated, went far beyond what are considered appropriate levels of cleaning and repair today.

In some instances, new body parts were added to fragments of ancient statues, often changing the original subject of the piece and creating an entirely new work. Modern legs, arms, and heads were made for ancient torsos, transforming unidentifiable sculptures into desirable statues of the god Apollo, the satyr Marsyas, and a kneeling warrior. It was more desirable to have a complete rather than a damaged statue, regardless of whether it was all ‘original’.

Joins in the marble were filled with plaster and a patina wash applied to give the statues a uniform appearance. The recent cleaning of the sculptures has removed this yellowish, off-white coloring and the resulting brightness of the marble—regardless of whether the statues were actually this white in antiquity—is visually stunning.

A different attitude towards how to treat ancient statues exists today. Not only do museums favor conservation and minimal restoration, but the additions of previous centuries are often removed (the Carlsberg Glyptotek museum in Copenhagen has a wall of noses which were added to the statues in its collections in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but have now been taken off again). The idea is to present only what is ‘authentically’ ancient.

Yet we should be cautious in assuming that this modern approach is always the most appropriate way to treat sculpture. The later additions are part of the history of these statues and the way in which they were restored at different times tells us about changing attitudes to art. Moreover, certain restorations are superb and the skill of the sculptors who carried them out is extraordinary. This is exemplified by a statue of Hercules which has been expertly assembled using 112 pieces of marble (in the exhibition, the joins between fragments have been deliberately left exposed to show this). Leaving the restorations in place, as in the Torlonia collection, encourages viewers to appreciate the statues not only as historic objects, but as works of art.

The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces, curated by Salvatore Settis and Carol Gasparri is at the Capitoline Museums in Rome until June 2021, after which it will travel to the Louvre, Paris.

About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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