In 1968 the Roman aristocrat Alessandro Torlonia, Prince of Fucino, applied for a permit to repair the roof of his family’s private museum, a nineteenth-century industrial building just outside the ancient Porta Settimiana in Trastevere that had been transformed by his great-grandfather, another Alessandro, into a sprawling seventy-seven-room venue for the family’s vast collection of ancient sculpture. Decked out in neoclassical splendor, the Torlonia Museum opened in 1876, but only to visitors inscribed in the Golden Book of Italian Nobility, a manuscript in the Central State Archive in Rome that provided the definitive list of Italian peerage. In 1947 Rome’s superintendent of antiquities, Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, made his way into the sanctum by dressing as a janitor. The disguise played a superbly Tuscan practical joke on his unwitting hosts. Bianchi Bandinelli was a Sienese count who could trace his lineage back to a twelfth-century pope. He could have entered the Torlonia Museum as a nobleman, but the Italian Constitution of 1948 had stripped aristocratic titles of any legal significance and rendered the Golden Book of Italian Nobility a relic of the past.

As superintendent, moreover, Bianchi Bandinelli, a fervent Communist, represented this new, egalitarian Republic of Italy. And the republic, in turn, had its eye on the Torlonia collection: 620 statues, 619 of marble and one of bronze, an assemblage second only to the Vatican Museums in size and quality, and jealously hidden from public view. The humble disguise, by making the superintendent invisible to class-conscious eyes, allowed him to take inventory as he never could have done in his official capacity.

Twenty-one years later, armed with his permit to repair the roof, Prince Alessandro threw an opaque construction fence around the Torlonia Museum and turned its galleries into ninety-three mini-apartments (some of them adapted in recent years to provide classrooms for John Cabot University). He crammed the displaced antiquities into three storerooms; in an anguished open letter to UNESCO in 1979, the journalist Antonio Cederna described them as “stacked on top of each other like junk.” By February 1977, with the backing of a new young superintendent of antiquities, Adriano La Regina, the Roman magistrate Alberto Albamonte had charged Prince Alessandro with illegal construction and damaging cultural heritage (the transport from galleries to storage had been anything but careful), charges that gave the Italian state leverage to sequester first the building and then the collection.

In timeless Roman fashion, the statute of limitations for the charge of illegal construction expired, and an amnesty restored the palazzo and collection to its princely owner, but the charge of damage to Italy’s cultural heritage went all the way 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…unbelievably crowded together side by side without any historical relationship or principle of consistency,” “condemned from a cultural standpoint to certain death.” Prince Alessandro responded by letting the Torlonia Marbles continue to languish under a growing layer of filthy Roman dust, shrouded in grime and malign neglect.

In 2015 the decades-long standoff finally began to show signs of shifting, accelerating after Prince Alessandro’s death in 2017 at the age of ninety-two. In October 2020, after years of negotiation, ninety-one Torlonia Marbles (and the bronze), newly restored and carefully analyzed, emerged from their decades of captivity to inaugurate a newly refurbished wing of Rome’s Capitoline Museums, the Palazzo Caffarelli, built over the site of the colossal ancient temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. “The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces,” an exhibition curated by two eminent classicists, Salvatore Settis and Carlo Gasparri, and designed by the English architect David Chipperfield, opened several months late because of the coronavirus pandemic. Before it closed because of Covid-19 restrictions, a limited number of visitors were admitted into the galleries, but once admitted, they could linger as long as they liked. Wandering among the intimately scaled displays, in that storied setting, with a comfortable number of people rather than a horde, provided as close to a perfect experience as anyone could want. The catalog, in keeping with the momentous occasion, is stylish, dense, and complete in every respect but one: Prince Alessandro has been given the benefit of the ancient Roman rule de mortuis nihil nisi bonum. But at least two of the contributors to the catalog have provided a fuller account of his treatment of the collection to the press.*

Within the hermetic world of Roman aristocracy, the Torlonia clan has always stood apart. Its noble titles go back only two hundred years, virtually yesterday by Roman standards: the Massimo family’s claim to descend from Hannibal’s opponent Fabius Maximus Cunctator (third century BCE) may be implausible, but they have been making it at least since the Renaissance and perhaps since the Middle Ages. The Farnese family appears on the civic registers of Orvieto shortly after the time of Charlemagne. In the Golden Book of Italian Nobility, the Torlonia family tree is still a sapling.

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Furthermore, Italian aristocratic titles first originated as military titles: the Latin imperator, “general,” became “emperor”; centurions were called princeps, “first citizen,” eventually “prince”; dux, “leader,” led to “duke”; comes, “companion,” to “count”; late Latin baro, “soldier,” evolved into “baron.” The Torlonia, however, earned their peerage for skills other than martial valor. Marin Tourlonias was a French merchant who changed his name to Marino Torlonia and settled in Rome in the mid-eighteenth century to sell fine fabrics at the foot of the brand-new Spanish Steps. His son, Giovanni Raimondo (1754–1829), branched out from textiles to banking, extending generous loans to the aristocratic customers who bought his dry goods—loans as often as not guaranteed by tracts of land, many of them feudal properties with titles attached.

Napoleon’s arrival in 1798 threw this old economy into chaos, enabling Giovanni Raimondo to snap up a string of fiefdoms when his clients were suddenly compelled to default. He grew so rich in money and property that in 1809 he was recognized as a Roman patrician, his name entered at last into the pages of the aristocrats’ Golden Book. Torlonia was hardly the first lord in Rome to have bought his way into nobility—that was already common practice in Etruscan times, twenty-four centuries earlier—but for the gentry forced to hand over the duchy of Bracciano, the marquisate of Roma Vecchia, or the duchy of Poli and Guadagnolo, history provided little salve for their resentment. They were suddenly short of money, and just as suddenly Giovanni Raimondo, their plebeian friend, had become spectacularly rich. In 1814 the pope finally gave him a title of his own, First Prince of Civitella Cesi, in gratitude for years of financial support. Civitella Cesi was a tiny settlement of subsistence farmers and sheep herders, but it had (and has) a castle and centuries of history.

Giovanni Raimondo was now the lord and master of real estate in the center of Rome, on its breezy northern outskirts, to the south along the Appian Way, in Tuscany, in Umbria, in the mountains of the Abruzzi. In Rome he sumptuously renovated a neoclassical palazzo in Piazza Venezia and a neoclassical villa off the Via Nomentana, purchased the magnificent neoclassical villa of Cardinal Alessandro Albani, and stocked all his properties with ancient statues and modern art. His parties were famous for their opulence. He married his children into families of ancient pedigree: the Sforza Cesarini, Colonna, and Orsini families all claim to descend from Julius Caesar. His second son, Alessandro (who married into the Colonna), became the dominant figure among the four siblings, lavishing pious donations on prominent Roman churches for repairs and remodelings, always in strict neoclassical style.

Yet all the gifts could never really dispel the memory of how cleverly (some might say rapaciously) Giovanni Raimondo had built the family fortune, and how Prince Alessandro increased their vast hoard of sculpture by buying up entire collections. It was Prince Alessandro who bought the factory building on the Via della Lungara and transformed it into a museum. The choice of location could hardly have been accidental. The new Torlonia Museum stood almost directly across the street from a landmark of Renaissance Rome: the suburban villa of the great merchant banker Agostino Chigi, a pleasure palace filled with ancient statues and frescoes by Raphael. In his lifetime, Chigi had been snubbed as a parvenu, but time soon vindicated his exquisite taste, and his descendants had long since entered the inner circles of Roman nobility (and had recently entered the Torlonia family by marriage). The nineteenth-century Prince Alessandro Torlonia chose his role model well, and it is his taste that dominates the current exhibition.

“The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces” is organized in five sections: it begins with the Torlonia Museum’s famous collection of portrait busts, most acquired by Prince Alessandro, proceeds to works discovered by archaeological excavations on Prince Alessandro’s properties, and thence to some of the older collections he incorporated into his burgeoning hoard. Marbles from the villa of Cardinal Albani and the studio of the sculptor and restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, both properties and their contents purchased in their entirety, represent the tastes of the eighteenth century. The former collection of Vincenzo Giustiniani was amassed in the seventeenth century (to keep company with Caravaggio’s saucy Victorious Cupid), and the exhibition’s smaller final rooms gather sculptures first known from several Renaissance collections.

Few statues manage to survive for millennia in perfect condition. Collectors, and museums, face the eternal problem of whether or not, and how, to repair the damage. The famous Belvedere Torso in the Vatican, the inspiration for Michelangelo’s muscular figures, has been left since the sixteenth century as a majestic wreck, but the Laocoön, discovered in 1506, received a new, dramatically outstretched replacement for his missing arm after several decades of debate about what form that arm should take. In 1905, the original arm, flexed rather than extended, showed up in a Roman stonemason’s shop, but the Vatican did not install it until 1957; a persistent local legend held that the replacement arm had been installed by none other than Michelangelo. The rules about reconstruction have never been hard and fast, yesterday or today.

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The Torlonia Marbles uniformly reflect the conviction that broken pieces should be repaired and made whole again, sometimes by incorporating elements from other fragmentary ancient sculptures, sometimes by early modern or modern additions in marble or plaster (the process is painstakingly described in individual catalog entries and in a separate essay). A figure of a lithe, nude Hercules at the very end of the exhibition is a pastiche of 125 separate pieces; a stately Minerva incorporates a repurposed column as part of her dress. The sculptors of early modern and modern Rome, including Michelangelo, Pietro and Gianlorenzo Bernini, Antonio Canova, and the Danish expatriate Bertel Thorwaldsen, saw the task of restoring the work of their ancient predecessors as an opportunity to learn, hands on, the secrets of ancient technique, and an excellent way to refine their own practice. Like us, they could see the marks of rasps, chisels, and drills; examine ancient experiments with differing degrees of surface polish and applied color; and judge the varying textures of stone with their hands as well as their eyes.

Where these great artists have left their own marks, moderns are left with the dilemma of whether to give Laocoön back his original arm or leave him with the marble arm he got in the Renaissance, perhaps from Michelangelo himself, or the eighteenth-century plaster arm that let viewers know where antiquity left off and restoration began. There are no easy solutions to the problems posed by objects with a long history. When hundreds of pairs of hands, ancient, modern, and contemporary, have left their touches on these venerable stones, how do we judge which touches have been more or less loving, more or less skillful, more or less valid?

The marble itself shows a dazzling variety, and one of the exhibition’s pleasures is that viewers can study the stone at close range, undisturbed by alarms constantly going off. The shades of white—the predominant color—range from golden, granular Pentelic marble from Athens to the cool bluish tone and fine texture of Luni marble from Carrara, and nothing glitters as brightly as the hard, large-grained stone from the Greek island of Thasos. Differences in hardness and texture required different kinds of carving; a nymph of Thasian marble has a replacement hand and foot made of marble from Luni. Her surviving hand displays the soft edges, smooth modeling, and simple lines dictated by its hard material, but her other hand and her sandaled foot feature deep carving and bravura touches like a sharp-edged sandal strap that require a softer, fine-grained marble.

Marble statues were painted in antiquity, the colors fixed with wax to create luminous, subtle shading of lips, eyes, and hair. Only a few faint traces of such painted decoration survive on the long-suffering pieces of the Torlonia collection, but many of them exploit the color of the stone itself. A lively statue of a striding Isis in deep gray marble from the Giustiniani collection, recognizable to us as the Egyptian goddess by the mantle knotted at her chest, has been given seventeenth-century arms, feet, and head in contrasting fine-grained white stone (the catalog is scrupulous in its identifications of the marble, or more often, marbles, in each piece). By putting a sheaf of wheat in her left hand and a scepter in her right, a seventeenth-century restorer turned her into Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain. In Giustiniani’s day, the figure’s dress, with its “Isis knot,” had not yet been identified with the Egyptian cult. Its wearer could have been any female divinity.

Today we know that both the goddess and her male priests, with their shaved heads, wore these distinctive robes knotted at the chest, and we can identify them instantly. The subject of the original statue, its exotic gray marble, and the elaborately worked surfaces all suggest that it was created during the reign of the African-born emperor Septimius Severus in the early third century CE, when Rome hosted three major sanctuaries of the kind-hearted Egyptian goddess.

The most haunting images are the portraits of real people, meant to convey character as well as appearance. These ancient faces seem utterly immediate and straightforward, but we bring our own preconceptions to decoding them: thus the weather-beaten face of an elderly man in a broad-brimmed hat convinced the Torlonia, ever sensitive to status, that he was a peasant (people whom the younger Prince Alessandro treated with notorious severity). For more recent scholars, the same hat proves that the bust portrays a Hellenistic king, Euthydemos of Bactria, whose coin images show a similar headgear. The catalog opts instead for a third alternative: a general of the Roman Republic, from the late third or early second century BCE. In that case, the uncompromising presentation of the man’s asymmetrical, wrinkled face and his bull neck reflect Etruscan influence as well as Greek. The same face beneath its conspicuous hat has prompted different viewers to see a humble Greek farmer, a king from Afghanistan, or a soldier from the heart of Italy, who may have battled Hannibal of Carthage on the shores of Lake Trasimeno.

An impressive series of Roman emperors and empresses shows rulers from three continents and four centuries, dressed and carved in the latest fashion, their dents and deficiencies smoothed away by modern repairs. The men appear as soldiers or statesmen, the women with overwrought hairdos as relentlessly unflattering as they must have been difficult to create. Simulating provided endless entertainment for sculptors as they tried to depict the frizzled haloes of women from the first-century Flavian dynasty or the luxuriant curls of the Antonine emperors: Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, and Lucius Verus. The last of the Antonines, Commodus, was crazy, and sculptors reveled in flattering him while suggesting, ever so delicately, that something about him was off-kilter. His portrait in the Torlonia collection hints at his derangement through a slight asymmetry to his face and eyes that are a touch off-axis, easily done by carving the pupils beneath his languid eyelids.

The most poignant pairing is a rugged portrait of Caracalla, the murderous son of Septimius Severus, turning toward an ethereal bust of his adolescent wife, Plautilla, her solemn, beautiful face set off by her simple hairstyle, parted at the center and gathered at the neck, and a slender diadem. He had her banished and then killed at the age of seventeen. The surface of his portrait, with its tight-curled hair and beard, is rough and stippled, carved in the granular Athenian marble from Mount Pentele, but Plautilla’s youth is enshrined in luminous fine-grained Luna marble, polished to a sheen. The bust is virtually intact.

No one ever handled marble quite like Gianlorenzo Bernini, whose restoration of a colossal goat for Vincenzo Giustiniani allowed him, as the catalog notes, to atone for the clumsy passages of his first surviving sculpture: the goat Amalthea nursing the infant Jupiter and a faun, now in the Borghese collection. The fact that he may have been eleven years old when he carved it allows us to excuse its imperfections, but Bernini was his own most relentless critic, and figures like a vivacious bust of a laughing satyr, also from the Giustiniani collection, show that some of his utterly distinctive technique, with its sharp angles and restless motion, derived from studying the ancients.

The Giustiniani goat arrived in Bernini’s studio headless, so the great sculptor endowed her with a magnificent replacement on an elongated neck, complete with daringly curved horns, a luxuriant topknot, and a knowing expression helped along by the almost human shape of her eyes. It is hard to imagine that her first head could have had so much character. Bernini used the human eyes again in 1667, for the obelisk-bearing elephant in Rome’s Piazza Santa Maria sopra Minerva, as well as the knowing smirk. The elephant proclaims the joys of sustaining the burden of ancient wisdom, but contemporaries almost immediately cottoned to the way the cheerful pachyderm is showing its hindquarters to the Dominican convent that had commissioned it.

The statues from the Giustiniani collection show the seventeenth-century fascination with colored marble that was geological as well as aesthetic, including experiments with other stones: hard black Egyptian basanite and striated agate. It also reveals the urge to collect multiple ancient copies of the same famous statue: a crouching Venus, a languidly leaning satyr. Reconstruction and restoration lead to experiments in pastiche, decorative collages of ancient pieces and modern additions, like a pair of fanciful compositions involving table legs, Medusa heads, and miniature Ionic columns, matched but not identical.

Some of the most striking pieces are the sculpted reliefs found during excavations on the Torlonia properties. The archaeology was often rudimentary; the digging was basically a treasure hunt. The bottom section of a votive relief in golden-hued Pentelic marble shows the same style, as well as the same material, as the Parthenon; discovered near the tomb of Caecilia Metella on the Appian Way, it is almost certainly an “old master” piece from fifth-century-BCE Athens, imported to Rome by the second-century magnate Herodes Atticus, whose villa was in the same area. It shows a young man in hunting gear, boots, and a broad-brimmed hat, carrying a club called a lagobolos, a “rabbit-striker,” and followed by his needle-nosed dog (a breed that still exists in Greece today). He is making an offering before a small statue. Behind him, we can see the larger-than-life seated images of a man and a woman, plausibly identified in the catalog as the doctor god Asclepius and the goddess Hygeia (Health), whose sanctuary on the south slope of the Acropolis was a favorite haunt of the valetudinarian Herodes Atticus.

Another, much later, relief in Pentelic marble comes from the Torlonia properties at Ostia that included the ancient port of Rome (see illustration at beginning of article). In bold high relief, in close-packed detail, it provides a glimpse of life in the bustling harbor, with a blazing lighthouse (its flames still preserving traces of red paint); statues of gods; ships with their sails, lines, tackles, and gangplanks picked out with meticulous care; a huge eye to ward off evil spirits; and crowds of miniature sailors going about their business.

A meter-high panel in high relief from the Giustiniani collection once decorated a tomb, perhaps along the Via Flaminia, where Vincenzo Giustiniani had his garden. It shows a Roman butcher shop with vivid precision, its wares hanging from hooks as a woman serves a gesticulating female customer—an interesting clue as to who did the shopping in real life. A poignant inscription borrowed from Vergil’s Aeneid (I.607–609) declares that the honor, good name, and praise of the deceased will endure “so long as shadows sweep the mountain slopes, so long as the heavens pasture the stars.” This marble slice of daily life is one of the three pieces that seem most to intrigue youthful visitors to the exhibition; the others are a little statue of Odysseus clinging to the underside of the ram to escape from the cave of Cyclops, and an image of Artemis of Ephesus, her chest covered with what look like breasts (and were understood as such until the twentieth century) but are probably gigantic amber beads.

Because the catalog reflects the unfolding resolution of a long-standing Roman scandal, its prefaces make fascinating reading: they sketch out plans for the future travels of “The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces” to the Louvre and for the creation of a new Torlonia Museum, this time truly open to the public. Jean-Christophe Babin, writing on behalf of Bulgari, the corporate sponsor, notes that when the Torlonia Museum first opened to its aristocratic public, another immigrant to Rome, a Greek from the wilds of Epirus named Sotirios Voulgaris, opened a goldsmith’s shop on the Via Sistina as Sotirio Bulgari, the founder of the famed maison. It is refreshing to read this healthy reminder, amid so many testaments to the Torlonia family’s headlong pursuit of nobility, that we are all sojourners on this earth who owe a particular debt, even in an exhibition dedicated to collectors, to the artisans who created such beauty. Most of them nameless, they are the real stars of this spectacular show.

This Issue

May 13, 2021