This is a story of many stories. First and foremost, it is about the Torlonia marbles themselves. In April 2021, 92 masterpieces were unveiled at the Palazzo Caffarelli in Rome’s Capitoline Museums. Called the “Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces,” this exhibition represents the largest and most important private collection of ancient art in the world. It rivals those in the world’s great museums and is second only to the Vatican Museums in the size and quality of the art. The entire collection of 620 pieces includes statues, sarcophagi, busts, vases and reliefs dating from the 5th century BC to the 4th century AD.
The exhibition opens with a panoply of busts, as well as the collection’s only bronze, a first century AD statue of the Roman general Germanicus—set against walls of Pompeian red. The next rooms feature a satyr and nymph in dance, the embrace of Eirene and Ploutos, and a fantastic bas-relief with a view of the time of peace by Portus Augusti. These works represent those brought to light during the 19th c. excavations of the Torlonia’s lands near Rome, in Sabina and in the Viterbo area. But the bulk of the entire collection was assembled by acquiring collections—in whole or in part—from aristocratic Italian families in financial straits. Those collections, in turn, had within them a significant number of works from collections dating back to 16th century Rome. Hence the entire display is described as “a collection of collections,” which represents a cross-section of the history of collecting antiquities.
This project also revealed new insights into classical sculpture. Before going on display, the sculptures had been researched and cleaned. Supported by the Italian luxury brand Bulgari, conservation of one marble relief depicting a harbor still had traces of its original painted surface. Even though classical sculptures were often brightly painted, it is rare today to find evidence of the original pigments—either because they faded over time or because collectors preferred pristine surfaces. According to the conservator of the Torlonia collection, Anna Maria Carruba, recording historic interventions was her most challenging task. In the exhibition is a large resting goat statue from the end of the 1st century BC; however, the head is from a later period and is attributed to the Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The exhibition concludes with a statue of Hercules stripped clean of its patina to reveal “a puzzle” composed of 125 pieces belonging to at least two different ancient statues that were brought together in different eras. It had been coated to give the sense of one sculpture, which was not an unusual process in the past. The statue represents not only practices of the past but also the challenges facing today’s conservators, restorers and archaeologists.
The origins of this collection date back to the Torlonia family that amassed a fortune during the 18th and 19th centuries through administration of the Vatican’s finances. The family kept its collection private; in 1875, Prince Alessandro Torlonia set up a private museum to showcase the ancient marbles, but the collection was visible only to other noble families by special appointment. The world glimpsed the statues only through photographs in a catalogue that was published in 1884.
The mystique grew. The collection ended up in storerooms in Rome after World War II. (This story will be told in next week’s post). The Italian government tried to reach an agreement with the Torlonia family to either display or sell the works, but the negotiations stalled for decades. In 2013 the most recent Prince Alessandro Torlonia (who died in 2017) set up a Foundation to manage the family’s artistic patrimony. The Foundation is run by the prince’s grandson, Alessandro Poma Murialdo. Then came a breakthrough in 2016: the Italian government, the family heirs, and the foundation signed an accord to display the works. The deal also stipulates that the collection will tour abroad, but the pandemic has delayed the decisions on which countries and institutions. “The international tour was for us an essential part of the accord from the start…It’s important that the collection be shared internationally,” said Poma Murialdo.