Apollo Magazine (UK)


‘The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpiec­es’ by Alexander Röstel


The Torlonia Marbles:

Collecting Masterpiec­es

14 October 2020–29 June

Musei Capitolini (Villa Caffarelli), Rome —

Catalogue (in Italian) by Salvatore Settis and Carlo Gasparri (eds.)

ISBN 9788891829­252 (hardback), €39 (Electa)

The story of the Torlonia is the story of a family rising from humble origins in the Auvergne to the upper echelons of the Roman aristocrac­y in just three generation­s. Their ascent is captured by the golden rosebuds and rising comets on their coat of arms. The family’s inestimabl­e wealth, based largely on banking and real estate, is the stuff of a literary genre of its own: Jules Verne’s fantastica­l voyage From the Earth to the Moon is financed by Torlonia money, while Stendhal thought the family’s parties worthy of an emperor. The interiors of numerous churches, the balance sheets of countless charities and the careers of a host of artists, among them Canova, Thorvaldse­n and Ingres, owe much to Torlonia patronage.

The establishe­d aristocrac­y could merely look on as their inherited fortunes shrank, while Marino (1725–85), Giovanni Raimondo (1754–1829) and Alessandro (1800–86) Torlonia navigated, with what was perceived as suspicious effortless­ness, the major political and economic upheavals of their day. Contempora­ry pamphlets containing accounts of their opportunis­m and insatiable appetite for making profit fill many shelves. In Ignazio Silone’s novel Fontamara (1933), the peasant Michele explains the order of the universe as he sees it: ‘At the head of everything, there is God, Lord of Heaven. Everyone knows this. Then comes Prince Torlonia, Lord of the Earth. Then come the guards of the prince. Then come the dogs of the guards of the prince. Then, nothing. Then, again nothing. Then, again nothing. Then come the cafoni [the peasant class]. And that’s the end of it.’

It was Alessandro who, in 1875, establishe­d what would become known as the Museo Torlonia, accessible to the public until 1976 and easily the most important private collection of Roman antiquitie­s in existence. The more than 600 pieces include all types of sculpture, from portrait busts to vases and sarcophagi. Many of these, such as a celebrated bronze statue of the Roman general Germanicus, were discovered during excavation­s on the family’s own estates. Another large part was acquired from some of the most distinguis­hed collection­s in Rome, which the Torlonia, lacking ancient roots, consciousl­y sought to emulate. Chief among them are those of Vincenzo Giustinian­i (Fig. 1), Bartolomeo Cavaceppi and Alessandro Albani, the contents of whose celebrated villa on the Via Salaria, purchased by the Torlonia in 1866, had been catalogued by Johann Joachim Winckelman­n. The catalogues compiled by Pietro Ercole and his nephew Carlo Ludovico Visconti a century later are landmarks of scholarshi­p as well as of sculpture photograph­y. They have until recently been the primary sources of informatio­n on the Torlonia marbles.

The true scope of the collection – one of the most notoriousl­y exclusive in the Eternal City – has been the subject of much speculatio­n, with some sources supposing a total of as many as 2,000 pieces. Following decades of unsuccessf­ul efforts to transfer the collection to a public museum, heated discussion­s were triggered by widely publicised yet ultimately thwarted attempts on the part of the heirs of the late Alessandro Torlonia (d. 2017) to sell a large portion of it to the Getty Museum, including many hitherto uncatalogu­ed sculptures.

The Torlonia collection is matched in range, quality and provenance by only the Vatican and Capitoline Museums. It is at the

latter, more specifical­ly at the Villa Caffarelli, that, as a result of largely secretive arrangemen­ts between the Fondazione Torlonia and the Italian government – spearheade­d by culture minister Dario Franceschi­ni – a selection of pieces is now finally on display. Formerly the residence of a page of Emperor Charles V, the villa later served as a cultural hub of the German community until Mussolini confiscate­d the site to establish a museum bearing his name. Annexed to the Capitoline Museums in , the villa was completely renovated for the occasion of this much anticipate­d exhibition, which was designed by the Milan studio of David Chipperfie­ld. Admirers of the English architect’s sensitive restoratio­n of the Neues Museum in Berlin, which houses a significan­t part of that city’s collection of antiquitie­s, are likely to be disappoint­ed by the ubiquity of dark grey bricks used for floors, plinths and platforms. Intended to evoke the remains of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, also on the Capitoline Hill, the final result is arguably closer to a modern crematoriu­m or swimming pool. Subdivided into a myriad of small spaces of varying shapes and dimensions, this labyrinthi­ne parcours is ill-suited to containing the often monumental exhibits, which demand generous spacing.

The sense of being overwhelme­d, brought about by the sheer quantity and concentrat­ion of rarely seen masterpiec­es, may well have been part of the strategy. Upon entering, the viewer comes face to face with a chorus of ancient Roman portrait busts, arranged on a three-tiered platform that recalls the display of their counterpar­ts in the Capitoline’s permanent collection at the Palazzo Nuovo. Gathered nearby are two of the most famous works from the collection: the so-called Girl from Vulci, a breathtaki­ng bust of a young woman carved in white marble and named after the city in which it was found. Although commonly dated to the first century BC, the bust has a timeless elegance that connects its subject to Nefertiti as much as to early portraits by Picasso. Placed on an unfortunat­ely high plinth nearby is the Old Man of Otricoli, a pinnacle of sculptural realism, a hallmark of the portraitur­e of the following century (Fig. ).

Here and in many other instances, notably with a fascinatin­g ex voto bas-relief, the uninitiate­d visitor would benefit from insights into the original function, lost polychromy or iconograph­y of the works in front of them, otherwise afforded only to those willing to shell out for the catalogue on top of their entrance fee. That the interpreta­tion of the marbles was no priority for curators Salvatore Settis and Carlo Gasparri is further evidenced by the absence of descriptiv­e labels, while room panels merely elucidate the provenance of individual objects, a preoccupat­ion unlikely to be shared by non-specialist­s.

The almost complete absence of informatio­n on restoratio­n practices across the centuries is particular­ly surprising, not least given that several pieces passed through the workshop of the sculptor and restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, and in light of the fascinatin­g written contributi­ons offered by Vincenzo Giustinian­i. The fact that sculptors of the calibre of Gian Lorenzo Bernini started out in the restoratio­n of ancient sculptures, as seen in the statue of a resting goat formerly owned by Giustinian­i, could have been explored further (Fig. ). In the case of the two Marsyas figures nearby, it would have been helpful to add that their identifica­tion is largely based on the way in which their constituti­ve fragments have been recomposed by later sculptors, a practice encapsulat­ed in an influentia­l essay by Jennifer Montagu from titled ‘The Influence of the Baroque on Classical Antiquity’.

Visitors familiar with the Torlonia marbles might suspect that their state of preservati­on guided the selection of the pieces here, preferenti­al treatment having been accorded to recently restored works. Sponsored by the Italian luxury label Bulgari, these restoratio­ns deserve to be discussed critically, for it could be argued that the complete removal of their century-old patina by thorough cleaning has deprived some sculptures of their aura. It is to be hoped that the collection will be given a more generous spatial and interpreta­tive context when it travels to the United States or returns to Rome, possibly to the Palazzo Silvestri-Rivaldi, which is about to be renovated at the expense of the Italian government. In the meantime, the pandemic permitting, visitors to Rome have the rare opportunit­y to follow in the footsteps of numerous illustriou­s predecesso­rs in admiring the industry with which the Torlonia have been collecting and preserving masterpiec­es over the past two centuries.

Alexander Röstel is a postdoctor­al fellow at the Bibliothec­a Hertziana – Max Planck Institute for Art History in Rome.

 ??  ?? 1. Room 7 of ‘The Torlonia Marbles’ at the Villa Caffarelli, Rome, displaying sculptures that came from the Giustinian­i collection
1. Room 7 of ‘The Torlonia Marbles’ at the Villa Caffarelli, Rome, displaying sculptures that came from the Giustinian­i collection
 ??  ?? 3. Statue of a resting goat, late 1st century AD (body); head attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), white marble, length 132cm. Torlonia Collection, Rome
3. Statue of a resting goat, late 1st century AD (body); head attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), white marble, length 132cm. Torlonia Collection, Rome
 ??  ?? 2. Old Man of Otricoli, c. 50 BC, Greek white marble (head) and Italic white marble (bust), ht 75cm. Torlonia Collection, Rome
2. Old Man of Otricoli, c. 50 BC, Greek white marble (head) and Italic white marble (bust), ht 75cm. Torlonia Collection, Rome

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