The Torlonia Marbles-Collecting Masterpieces

A review by Charlie Fegan, Sainsbury Scholar in Painting & Sculpture (September 2020- September 2021)

“This exhibition-event reveals to Italy and the world the mystery of the Collezione Torlonia, the last Roman princely collection of antique art and the largest to remain in private ownership, which I am delighted and proud to open in the exhibition space of the Capitoline Museums on the ground floor of the Villa Caffarelli re-opened to the public after over fifty years of closure.” Virginia Raggi – Mayor of Rome

Having never heard of this collection previously, my initial reaction was excitement. The last time these ancient art works were accessible to the “public” was in the Villa Torlonia which closed in 1976. Even then, these were only seen by a restricted list of specialists and political dignitaries. The fact that this collection has been hidden for so long (and is stated on all the show’s press information) immediately raises questions about the ethicality of private collections of important antiquities/art objects – collections that we tend to assume belong in public museums. Indeed, the Torlonia collection is a “collection of collections” amassed over centuries by the powerful Torlonia family. The first noteworthy member of the family, who came from France to Italy in the eighteenth century, was Giovanni, a rag and bone merchant who became one of Europe’s greatest financiers for the Vatican. A popular poem at the height of their power and quoted in Ignacio Silone’s Fontamara reads:

“At the head of it all is God, lord of heaven.
Then comes Prince Torlonia, lord of earth.
Then comes the armed guard of Prince Torlonia.
Then comes the hounds of the armed guard of Prince Torlonia.
Then nobody else. And still nobody else.
And still again nobody else.
Then come the farmers . . .”

So with that background, let’s now turn to the collection: upon entering, we are confronted by the gaze of multiple busts. The display is an obvious nod to the famous Hall of Emperors in the same museum. Here, instead of ornate marble, we have a slick continuation of the floor bricks. This first room successfully exhibits how Roman portraiture was something entirely new. The subtle expressions, hair and personality traits expressed in the Roman busts are a stark contrast to the idealised Greek inspired heads with their expressionless solidity.

“The exhibition design was inspired by the printed catalogue of the opening of the original Torlonia Museum in 1884 in which the works were presented on a black background. It consists of brick floors and plinths made by hand from grey clay creating a dark background from which the sculptures emerge. The plinths are conceived as architectural structures extruding seamlessly from the flooring. Each room also features a distinctive coloured background, visually dividing the exhibition into five chapters that illustrate the chronological evolution of the collection.” – David Chipperfield, The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting MasterpiecesCatalogue.

I initially liked the exhibition design, it felt like a simple and rational mode of display. There is very little information in the actual show or leaflet, but from the catalogue I gleaned that the bricks are a “link to ancient Roman architecture, more specifically to the Ancient Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus: the largest monument of the Capitoline Hill with foundations that are tectonically and traditionally in blocks of cappellaccio.” This display has more in common with the utilitarianism of Roman architecture than with the ornate rooms upstairs. After a while, however, it began to feel like swimming pool changing rooms, especially given the dazzling bleached look of all the marbles. It also brought to mind the volcanic tiles of Forma Fantasma who did the exhibition design for the recent Caravaggio/Bernini show at the Rijksmuseum. The Torlonia show’s “handmade” bricks lack their tonal variation and surface sensitivity.

Greek athletes drying off after an overly chlorinated dip, their eyes stinging:

Having had all dust and discolouration banished by the jewellers Bvlgari, the works are extremely clean. In some cases, the restorers have exposed the joints and fills from previous “restorations” (most of which occurred during the renaissance). This makes the additions immediately noticeable in a successful and edifying way. A downside to these recent restorations is that they are SO clean that it is hard to believe that they are as old as we are told they are. They have the feeling more of plaster casts. Personally, i find that a lot of the emotive power of classical statuary is generated less by their forms and more the sense of them being vessels and witnesses to an incommensurable length of time and history. In this environment, which still smells of pleasant fresh paint, that wasn’t an experience I had.

Many of the restorations and additions are so old that they have become antiques of note in themselves. This is especially evident in the Statue of Goat (Caprone) whose first-century AD body is overshadowed by its head attributed to Bernini. When restorations make the object “whole”, it usually gains physical mass through additions that interpret what the rest would have potentially looked like. What is lost in this process is the aura of the object’s battle for survival through its vast stretch of existence. The restored nose erases the tape, the finger smashed off as the barbarians stormed the extravagant villa is returned to serenity. The chips and breaks are an important testament to the object as a witness of history and time passing. I find it hard to imagine these objects with a speck of dust on them let alone lying in the dirt for centuries. The exhibition’s conscious reference to the 1884 catalogue was more successful than they perhaps intended. Moving through this show one does get the sense of a catalogue, the objects flattened and all imperfect depth removed. The rooms are fairly small, the objects cramped, one cannot quite get more than a straight on view, similar to a printed image on a page.

A welcome break from this is the Bas Relief with a view of the Portus Augusti. It is a strange relief which oscillates between scales and imagery like a Dada collage. The polychromatic residue still visible on the lighthouse’s flame gives a small but powerful sense of how vivid classical statuary would have originally been. Two works which also really stand out are the Statuette restored as Apollo with the Skin of Marsyas (first century AD, left) and Ancient statuette torso restored as the flayed Marsyas (first-second century AD, right) with additions from the late sixteenth century. The gruesome duo tell the Greek myth of Apollo and Marsyas, the humble shepherd who, emboldened by drink, dared to boastfully challenge the god Apollo at a musical contest. His punishment was having his skin removed whilst alive and hung from a pine tree. This alien sculpture has the characteristics of a science fiction baddie. His head is so shining white and the obvious join in his cracked neck made me initially think this was a twenty-first-century interpretation or “restoration”. In the BSR Library, I found Thomas Ashby’s sixteenth-century book of engravings of the Gustiniani Collection (to which this statue belonged before joining the Torlonia family’s collection). I was surprised to see the additional limbs and head were present in the sixteenth century. As you can see from the diagram only the torso is antique.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Marsyas cries out: “Why do you tear me from myself?” This statuette brings to mind the flayed skin carrying a self-portrait face of Michelangelo held by Saint Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel’s The Last Judgment. This also deals with similar interpretations about the separation and liberation of the spirit from the body, death and rebirth. The story of Marsyas was seen as a warning against the inevitable disaster when one wields arrogant presumption towards higher powers. Walking past more busts of powerful Romans, I thought about how unlikely it was, with their arrogant stares and death-defying sarcophagi, that they would have imagined that their dominance could come crashing down around their ears, that their way of life could possibly stop. With the lazy boastfulness of Marsyas, we in our own contemporary situation arrogantly proclaim dominance over nature, never truly believing that there might be consequences.

The Torlonia Marbles show is going to go on a Coronavirus-delayed world tour (the Louvre is next). It will be interesting to see whether this was a triumphal display to increase a possible later sale and whether any public institutions will be able to afford them.