Lovers of ancient art will be overjoyed to learn that pieces from the private Torlonia collection of marble statues, busts, reliefs, and sarcophagi are going on display in Rome. Although this important private collection began in the 19th century by Prince Alessandro Torlonia (member of the Torlonia dynasty, the Vatican’s bankers) and consists of ancient Greek and Roman works, parts of it were amassed by art collectors and patrons in the 17th and 18th centuries. Let us briefly highlight who three of these contributors were and their significance for early modern art history, making it possible for art-lovers–concerned that the Torlonia collection would never be displayed in public–to breathe a sigh of relief; as long, of course, as the exhibit doesn’t go bust.
First, Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564-1637) was the son of a Genoese nobleman who ruled the island of Chios. Chios led to chaos for the Giustiniani family after the invasion of the Ottomans. The family roamed to Rome, and the two sons, Vincenzo and his brother Benedetto, became distinguished art collectors in Rome. After Benedetto became a cardinal in 1586, the family acquired two palazzi, one of which was designed by Vincenzo. The two collectors crammed the palazzi especially with statues from the ancient world, some of which ended up in the Torlonia collection. Vincenzo is famous for recognising Caravaggio’s talent, describing the latter as representing a new Renaissance in art. For early modernists, one of the striking acquisitions in the Giustiniani collection within the Torlonia catalogue is ‘Statue of Resting Goat‘: it was acquired for the Palazzo Giustiniani and restored by one of the artists attending the palazzo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Given the importance of both Caravaggio and Bernini for Baroque art, which exalts the divine, we might say that Giustiniani also acquired art for the glory of goat.
Second, the Torlonia foundation in 1866 acquired possession of the Villa Albani (pictured above) and its contents. The villa was built in 1763 by Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692-1779), described as one of the foremost collectors of antique art in his or any other time. Albani acquired three collections of classical paintings and sculpture, the first of which was sold to the Elector of Saxony in Dresden in 1728 and the second to Pope Clement XII in 1738, the basis of the Capitoline Museums in Rome. The third was destined for the Villa Albani, regarded by Albani’s curator and librarian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (often considered the first professional art historian) as a key symbol for promoting neoclassicism. The villa is filled with such pieces as ‘Statue of Ulysses Beneath a Ram‘, depicting the Greek hero’s escape from the cyclops Polyphemus in Homer’s Odyssey. Given the many such classical works there, we might say that Albani rammed them into his villa.
Third, Bartolomeo Cavaceppi (1716-1799) was an Italian sculptor patronised by Albani and closely associated with Winckelmann. His major contribution to the Torlonia collection was his restoration and copies of Roman sculptures. Among his restored pieces is ‘Portrait of Giulia Domna‘, a bust of a Syrian empress who was wife of Septimius Severus and also known as the ‘philosopher empress’ for her patronage of philosophers as well as literary authors and religious scholars. Also striking in the Cavaceppi collection is ‘So-called Ptolemy, Head of Young Man, Known as Ptolemy‘, a massive bust which Cavaceppi identified as the 64-47 BCE king of Egypt. Despite Cavaceppi’s defence of restorations, he fell into relative obscurity after his death until recently. In other words (judging from this latter piece depicting the king of Egypt), despite Cavaceppi’s big head, we can imagine art historians saying, ‘no-one Ptolemy about this guy’.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern Roman Around Studies Program