This post is based on the article, “Light in the Palazzo” by Ingrid D. Rowland in the New York Review of Books. It is the second of three installments on the Torlonia marbles.
In the Golden Book of Italian Nobility, the Torlonia name is a late entrant. Its noble titles date back only two hundred years, yesterday by Roman standards. The story begins with Marin Tourlonias, a French merchant who changed his name to Marino Torlonia when he came to Rome in the mid-eighteenth century to sell fine fabrics at the foot of the Spanish Steps. His son, Giovanni Raimondo went into the family business and also into banking, extending loans to aristocratic customers who bought his dry goods—loans often guaranteed by tracts of land, some of which were feudal properties with titles attached.
Napoleon’s arrival in 1798 caused an upheaval in the economy, which, in turn, caused many of Giovanni Raimondo’s clients to default and for the businessman / banker to acquire a string of fiefdoms. He became so rich that he was recognized as a Roman patrician and his name was entered into the Golden Book. While most aristocratic titles originated as military titles, Torlonia bought his way into nobility—though he was not the first to do so. Then in 1814 in gratitude for years of financial support, the pope gave him a title of his own, First Prince of Civitella Cesi. Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia was now lord and master of real estate in and around Rome, in Tuscany, in Umbria, and in the mountains of Abruzzi. In Rome he purchased and renovated several neoclassical palazzi and decorated them all with ancient statues and modern art.
It was Giovanni Raimondo’s second son, Prince Alessandro, who increased their vast holdings of sculpture by buying up entire collections. Prince Alessandro also bought a factory building on the Via della Lungara and transformed it into a museum. The new seventy-seven-room Torlonia Museum stood across the street from a landmark of Renaissance Rome: the suburban villa of the merchant banker Agostino Chigi, a palace also filled with ancient art. The museum opened in 1876 but only to visitors inscribed in the Golden Book. Prince Alessandro’s vast collection remained hidden, for the most part, until the 2021 exhibition of 92 masterpieces were unveiled at the Palazzo Caffarelli in Rome’s Capitoline Museums.
Even the catalog to the exhibition of “Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces” does not reveal a sad 20th-century story about the entire collection of 620 statues, sarcophagi, busts, vases and reliefs. In 1968, the great-grandson of the original collector, another Prince Alessandro Torlonia, received a permit to repair the roof of the family’s sprawling private museum. Prince Alessandro had a construction fence erected around the Torlonia Museum and turned its galleries into 93 mini-apartments. He crammed the displaced antiquities into three storerooms in Rome, which one journalist described as “stacked on top of each other like junk.” In 1977 a Roman magistrate charged Prince Alessandro with illegal construction and damaging cultural heritage, charges that gave the government the ability to sequester the building and also the collection. But, as is too often the case, the statute of limitations expired and all was restored to the owner. However, the charge of damage to Italy’s cultural heritage went to the country’s Supreme Court, which ruled in 1979 that “the transfer [to storage] inflicted material and immaterial damage to the collection,” and that the statues were kept “in cramped, inadequate, dangerous quarters…condemned from a cultural standpoint to certain death.” Prince Alessandro responded by letting the Torlonia marbles continue to languish under a growing layer of dust, shrouded in plastic and malign neglect.
For decades the Italian government tried to reach an agreement with the Torlonia family to either display or sell the works. Negotiations failed until a breakthrough came in 2016 with an accord to display the works that resulted in the 2021 exhibition. Prince Alessandro died in 2017 but he did establish a Foundation run by his grandson to manage the family’s artistic patrimony. According to Ingrid Rowland in the New York Review of Books, the catalog for the exhibition is befitting the momentous occasion – it is stylish, informative, and complete in every respect except one: Prince Alessandro has been given the benefit of the ancient Roman rule de mortuis nihil nisi bonum, of the dead, say nothing but good, that is, it is socially inappropriate to speak ill of the dead as they are unable to justify themselves.