By using this website you agree to our Cookie policy

January 2021

Vol. 163 / No. 1414

The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces

Reviewed by Clare Hornsby

Villa Caffarelli, Musei Capitolini, Rome

14th October 2020–29th June 2021

This small but highly important exhibition of the Torlonia Marbles is hosted in a newly renovated space on the ground floor of the Villa Caffarelli, Rome. It is adjacent to the Palazzo dei Conservatori, the site of the world’s first public museum created in 1734, when Pope Clement XII founded the Museo Capitolino, now a wider institution that also includes the Villa. The show is significant not only for Rome – where it is part of the 150th anniversary of Rome becoming the capital of Italy – but also for the wider international community of scholars of the Classical arts, their collections and restoration. This ‘collection of collections’, as it is called in the press material, was formed by Prince Alessandro I Torlonia (1800–86) and includes around 620 marble sculptures. Together with objects found in nineteenth-century excavations, it incorporates at least two earlier collections: that formed by the nobleman Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564–1637) and his elder brother, Cardinal Benedetto, and that of Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692–1779), who built the Villa Albani in Rome to display his marble sculptures, which were studied by his librarian Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Since Alessandro Torlonia’s time, the collection has been continuously owned by the family and, together with the house and gardens at Villa Albani, it is now under the umbrella of the Fondazione Torlonia, created in 2014.

The particular thrill of seeing ninety-two objects from this collection on display is due to the fact that for at least the past forty-five years it was effectively inaccessible and could be studied only from photographs and drawings. The exhibition is the result of an agreement signed on 15th March 2016 between Prince Alessandro II Torlonia (1925–2017), the Fondazione, under the directorship of his grandson Alessandro Poma Murialdo and the Italian state, after decades of delay due to a series of tragic and scandalous events, which for some years threatened the safety and even the existence of the collection.(1) A central part of the 2016 agreement was that the exhibition should be a foretaste of a future museum for the Torlonia collection in Rome, an idea that goes back to Alessandro I, who in 1875 founded a museum for the collection in a former warehouse in Trastevere, which was closed in the 1960s.

The exhibition is curated by Salvatore Settis and Carlo Gasparri, who are preeminent names in archaeology and Classical art history in Italy.(2) Gasparri has made the study of the Torlonia marbles his life’s work. He spoke to the present reviewer of the drama of entering the storehouse where the marbles were placed forty-five years ago, piled together and covered in dust, the first scholar to see them for decades. Settis and Gasparri have been assisted by many able collaborators – restorers, academic researchers and museum staff – as well as David Chipperfield Architects, Milan, who are responsible for the interior design and construction of the exhibition spaces. The curators’ continuous commitment reflects the importance of the collection and the urgency of safeguarding its future. 

Every effort has been made by the component teams to explain the complex historical background of the enterprise, not only in the accompanying catalogue and handbook but also in a free mini-guide to the exhibition given to every visitor as they enter.(3) This material is welcome, especially since the small exhibition spaces – some no wider than corridors – are filled to their absolute limit with objects, creating an Aladdin’s Cave of gorgeous marbles, while the didactic material that one might normally expect to find in an important show, such as extensive wall texts and video presentations, is absent.

The visitor enters from the newly restored gardens of the Villa Caffarelli, originally a late sixteenthcentury family property, which in the 1920s housed the Museo Mussolini and became incorporated into the adjacent Capitoline museum complex in the later twentieth century. The journey through the rooms of the exhibition has been made to follow a reverse chronological path from the nineteenth century back to the fifteenth and each of the sections is colour coded to indicate this passage in time. The choice of a reverse chronology works very well to explain the history of the collection.

The first section, ‘Evocation of the Museo Torlonia’, focuses on Alessandro I’s 1875 museum and is coded Pompeian red, in reference to the colour of the walls in the museum in the 1880s. On one side are the white marble busts that have been chosen as the cover images for the catalogues. Portrait of a girl ( dates from about 50–40 BC and a male portrait on a modern bust known as the Old man of Otricoli (no.3; Fig.2) from c.50 BC. According to Pietro Ercole Visconti (1802–80), who compiled the first catalogue of the collection in 1876, the former was found in 1834 in excavations at Vulci and the latter supposedly at Otricoli. These exquisite pieces, alongside a statue of Germanicus (first century; no.4), the only bronze in the collection, displayed in the centre, and two ranks of shelves along the back wall with marvellous marble portrait busts and heads, immediately set the tone for the show. Although not consisting entirely of ‘masterpieces’, contrary to what the exhibition title suggests, the display contains sculptures of such high aesthetic quality that the visual impression is almost overwhelming.

The following sections concentrate attention on the formation of the Torlonia Collection through the purchasing of the earlier Giustiniani and Albani collections (which themselves had absorbed earlier ones) in addition to objects found in nineteenth-century excavations. In this way, the exhibition reveals more about the history of and motivation behind collecting antiquities than about the objects, their origins and their place in the art of the ancient world. That story is told to a certain extent in the lengthy and scholarly catalogue entries; however, for the visitors it is the material beauty of the objects per se that remains as the abiding impression.

The second room, changing to a brown backdrop, focuses on the excavations undertaken by the Torlonia; the star piece here is a relief showing the Portus Augusti (no.26; Fig.1), an extraordinary object from the early third century, probably once part of a shrine to Bacchus and perhaps both narrative and votive in intention. The god, standing naked in the top right corner, dominates the fantasy port scene, with Neptune in the centre, busy with ships, men and elephants. The relief was found at the site of Portus Traiani near Rome by Visconti in 1863, and retains some original polychromy; in terms of its remarkable preservation and iconographic complexity it is an outstanding survival.

The series of rooms that forms the following two sections is devoted to the Albani and Giustiniani collections and contains the bulk of the objects in the exhibition. By c.1802 Alessandro’s father Giovanni had bought the studio contents of 1600 objects collected by Albani’s principal restorer, Bartolomeo Cavaceppi (c.1716–99); some 260 pieces from the large seventeenth-century Giustiniani collection were acquired by Alessandro around 1825 and in 1866 Alessandro purchased Albani’s villa and contents. At this point the journey through the collections becomes more complex, as overlapping provenances blur the categories imposed by the display criteria. For example, the Caryatid (c.AD 40–50; no.44) restored in Cavaceppi’s workshop was rerestored under Torlonia ownership to mimic the pose of four others that Cavaceppi had sold to Cardinal Albani for his villa. The fascinating Relief with shop interior (mid-2nd century; no.80) came from the Giustiniani collection and was purchased by Albani before being bought by Torlonia; the superlative Torlonia vase (late 2nd–early 1st century BC; no.81) which fascinated artists over the centuries, was first in the collection of Cardinal Federico Cesi (1500–65), in his sculpture garden near the Vatican and then in the Albani collection. The dense network of provenance association is matched by the multiplicity of interventions performed on each of these sculptures: the fragmentation, restoration, stripping back and building up; and the variety of motivations for doing so: imitation, adaptation, replication or even faking, creating a dizzying historical palimpsest daunting for even the most expert scholar. As a result, although it is not specifically aimed at scholars, this show will be most fully enjoyed by them rather than a more general gallery-going public.

The largest room in the exhibition is devoted to works from the Giustiniani collection (Fig.3). Among the extraordinary pieces is the statue of a large resting goat (no.78); its vivacious head, itself a masterpiece, is an addition by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Moving onwards, the sequence of restructured spaces is at times claustrophobic and viewing the sculptural detail of such large pieces as a vase showing the labours of Hercules (Tazza Ercole; 50–25 BC; no.37), formerly in Villa Albani, is almost impossible as it is located in a room with barely a metre of circulating space around it. The coloured screen walls, which almost completely block the arched windows of the building, add to the boxed-in feeling, and with the dark grey bricks that form the bases and plinths of the display create a modernistic interior that is more clunky than minimal.

Matters of display aside, one point clearly emerges from considering all the individuals involved in the collecting and restoration of these works of art across the centuries: the sheer brilliance of Cardinal Alessandro Albani’s taste and knowledge of ancient art. The majority of the ‘five-star’ pieces in the show came from or via his own collection, making the potential for a wider public access to the Villa Albani-Torlonia itself a key desideratum for the next stage of the Torlonia museum project. Cavaceppi is now more fully revealed as an outstanding sculptor, perhaps enough to rescue him from the status of mere restorer and place him even on a level with Canova.

The show concludes with some objects originally in Renaissance collections, notably two second- and third-century sarcophagi (nos.83 and 84), which were still in the Palazzo Savelli (later called Orsini) when Torlonia bought them in the 1820s, and then terminates with a short walk into a gallery created in the twentieth century below the main body of themuseum. Here, the equestrian bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius is joined, for the duration of the show, by the other ancient bronzes that were transferred from the Lateran palace courtyard to the civic centre of Rome by Pope Sixtus IV in 1471, thereby underlining the connection between the Torlonia ‘collection of collections’ and the formation of Europe’s first-ever public museum.

Despite the restricted spaces, the sometimes overly zealous cleaning and lighting of the sculptures, this is nevertheless a deeply impressive exhibition, its importance enhanced by the challenges and difficulties that had to be overcome to make it possible. Together with its catalogue, it creates a new base of knowledge of these sculptures from which future scholars can work. The ‘promise’ of a new Museo Torlonia for Rome has now been made public. The international scholarly and heritage community must be vigilant to see that this promise is not broken.

1. T. Montanari: ‘Torlonia, lo scandalo rimosso. Seicento opere sotto chiave’, Fatto Quotidiano (19th October 2020), available at, accessed 7th December 2020.

2. See S. Settis: The Future of the ‘Classical’, transl. A. Cameron, Cambridge and Malden MA 2006; and idem, If Venice Dies, transl. A. Naffis-Sahely, New York 2016. Gasparri created numerous museum displays of Classical art including the Farnese gem collection and sculpture collection for the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, and those in the Museo Nazionale in Palazzo Massimo and Museo Palatino, both in Rome.

3. Catalogue: I marmi Torlonia: Collezionare capolavori. Edited by Salvatore Settis and Carlo Gasparri. 336 pp. incl. numerous col. and b. & w. ills. (Electa, Milan, and Soprintendenza archeologica di Roma, 2020), €39. ISBN 978–88–918–2925–2. English edition: The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces. ISBN 978–88–918–9012–2. For the handbook, see S. Tuccinardi: I marmi Torlonia: Collezionare capolavori / The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces, Milan 2020.