ROME – For much of the last century, the Torlonia Collection, the largest collection of classical sculpture still in private hands, remained hidden from the world.
A private museum founded in 1875 to showcase the ancient marbles that Prince Alessandro Torlonia and his father had amassed in the tradition of noble families – such as the Borghese, Barberini or Doria Pamphilj – was originally only accessible to a select audience and after a few decades, not at all. Most scholars were familiar with the 620 works – a selection of Greek and Roman statues, busts, vases, sarcophagi and reliefs from the 5th century BC. Until 4th century AD – from photographs in a catalog published in 1884 only.
In the course of time – also to protect the pieces during World War II – the collection was gradually moved to three large storage rooms in Rome. Over the years, the old treasures accumulated layer by layer – and the mystique of the secret collection grew.
Italian officials sought an agreement with the Torlonia family to exhibit or sell the works. But those efforts, which began in the 1960s, stalled for decades.
A breakthrough came in 2016 when the Italian government, the heirs of the Princes of Torlonia and the foundation that manages the family’s artistic heritage signed an agreement to exhibit the works. This exhibition – “The Torlonia Marbles, Collecting Masterpieces” – opened on Wednesday in a renovated wing of the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
The exhibition features 92 works restored for the occasion in the Torlonia Laboratory, a workshop set up on the site of the original museum in the Trastevere district. The restoration was sponsored by the luxury brand Bulgari.
“It is an exhibition that will write a new chapter in the prestigious history of the collection,” said Alessandro Poma Murialdo, President of the Torlonia Foundation, during a virtual press conference on Monday.
The foundation was founded in 2013 by Prince Alessandro Torlonia, the grandfather of Mr Poma Murialdo who died in 2017. Mr Poma Murialdo said in an interview that his grandfather was “very happy” to see the marbles in the Capitoline Museum. “He was very attached to the sculptures and always wanted to solve the question,” he said.
The agreement with the Italian government stipulates that the collection will go abroad after the end of her stay in Rome in June 2021. However, talks with institutions in Europe and the United States have been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, said executive director Carlotta Loverini Chigi, director of the Torlonia Foundation. “We have to see how the situation develops to start discussions again,” she said.
“The international tour has been an integral part of the deal for us from the start,” said Poma Murialdo, adding that in the 21st century it made little sense to limit the collection to Rome or Italy. “It is important that the collection is shared internationally,” he said.
The exhibition at the Capitoline begins with a stunning bust of busts, as well as the only bronze in the collection – a statue of Roman General Germanicus from the first century AD – against a backdrop of Pompeian red, reminiscent of the walls of the original museum.
It tells the story of the collection, known as the “Collection of Collections”, put together by Prince Giovanni Torlonia and his son Alessandro “for themselves and for the glory of the family,” said archaeologist Salvatore Settis, one of the exhibition’s curators.
The collection includes works discovered in the many Torlonia properties in and around Rome during excavations in the 19th century, as well as pieces bought individually and in bulk from the antiquarian market.
The collection swelled with three major acquisitions: a collection from the foremost sculpture restorer of late 18th century Rome; the works of a 17th-century banker considered one of the most sophisticated art patrons of his time; and the 18th century Villa Albani with an extensive collection curated by the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who lived on the site.
These purchases resulted in notable pieces including a famous late first century goat statue, the modern head of which is attributed to Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and a first century BC vase depicting the work of Hercules.
The collection also has a lot to reveal about how taste and restoration practices have changed over the past five centuries, said Carlo Gasparri, an archaeologist who has worked on the collection since 1976 and curated the exhibition with Mr. Settis.
The show ends with a statue of Hercules stripped of its patina to reveal what Mr. Gasparri called “a puzzle” made up of “125 different pieces from at least two different ancient statues” brought together in different eras were. It was coated and finished to convey the idea of a unitary sculpture, a typical process in the past.
“It’s not an old statue; It’s a modern creation of its time, ”said Gasparri.
“We put this in the end to help people understand the issues,” he added, that archaeologists and restorers face. “If you don’t clean a sculpture, it is very difficult to know what you are seeing,” he said.
The Torlonia Laboratory’s workshop has its work to do as the restorers continue their work to bring to light all of the 528 remaining works. And that would certainly provide scholars and restorers with a wealth of information, he said.
“There’s still a lot to discover,” said Gasparri. “This is just a little taste.”