A Long-Hidden Collection of Ancient Sculpture Is Making Its Grand Debut

The statues are “surprising, rewarding and promising beyond belief,” says one expert of the private Torlonia Collection

Torlonia Collection
Ninety-six sculptures from the Torlonia Collection will go on view in Rome later this year. Collezione Torlonia © Fondazione Torlonia PH Lorenzo de Masi

In the early 19th century, an aristocratic Italian family began amassing a vast collection of Greek and Roman sculptures. The Torlonias acquired ancient marbles and bronzes, models and casts, depictions of gods, and portraits of emperors, building an astonishing private trove that eventually came to number 620 statues. For years, these relics remained largely hidden from both scholars and the public. But now, the Torlonia Collection is set to make its grand debut.

As Naomi Rea reports for artnet News, 96 sculptures from the family’s cache will go on display at the Palazzo Caffarelli, part of Rome’s Capitoline Museums, in March. From there, the statues will be sent on a world tour; the American and European venues have yet to be announced.

“The 96 objects have been chosen for their quality but also for their history,” says Carlotta Loverini Botta of the Torlonia Foundation, which was founded in 2014 to manage the collection, to the Telegraph’s Nick Squires. “There are statues of Apollo and Aphrodite, satyrs and a wonderful collection of busts of Roman emperors, including Hadrian, Commodus, Vespasian and Scipio Africanus.”

This elusive horde of ancient treasures traces its origins to the Torlonia family’s acquisition of works owned by 18th-century sculptor and famed restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi. From there, the Torlonias acquired additional collections, their holdings growing even larger as excavations unearthed works on the family’s properties around Rome, according to Elisabetta Povoledo of the New York Times.

Statue under stage light
The collection boasts some 620 classical statues. Collezione Torlonia © Fondazione Torlonia PH Lorenzo de Masi

Per the foundation’s website, some of these statues were used to decorate the Torlonias’ villas, but the number of items in the collection eventually grew “far greater [than] what might be deemed necessary for the furnishing needs of the numerous residences.”

In 1875, Prince Alessandro Torlonia decided to display the statues in a former granary in Rome, which he then opened to small groups of visitors. The Torlonia Collection has been held in this venue, largely kept out of sight, for more than 140 years. Most scholars know the sculptures only through a late 19th-century catalog.

Italian officials had long tried to persuade the family to put the collection on display, but difficulties securing a venue arose. Finally, in 2016, the then-head of the family, another Alessandro Torlonia, signed an agreement with the Culture Ministry to exhibit a selection of the family’s sculptures.

Salvatore Settis, former director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, is co-curating the exhibition with archaeologist Carlo Gasparri, who has been working with the collection for years. Settis, on the other hand, had not seen a single sculpture in person before taking on the job. He tells artnet News that his first tour of the collection was “surprising, rewarding and promising beyond belief.”

Though the statues were in relatively good condition, they were “very dirty,” says Settis to the Times.

Extensive cleaning and restoration revealed traces of paint on this relief. Collezione Torlonia © Fondazione Torlonia PH Lorenzo de Masi

For the past three years, experts have been working diligently to clean and restore the relics, supported by funding from the Bulgari jewelry company. As layers of dust were washed away, a number of important revelations emerged—like the discovery of paint traces on a Roman relief depicting a bustling port scene on the Tyrrhenian coast. Greek and Roman sculptures were often painted in vivid colors, but this paint rarely survives to the present day.

“[I]t either fades or has been scrubbed off during earlier restorations,” Anna Maria Carruba, the conservator who is overseeing the project, tells the Telegraph.

Among other highlights are the Hestia Giustiniani, which depicts the ancient goddess of the hearth and is likely a Roman copy of a Greek original, and an expressive statue of a goat. The animal’s body dates to the Roman era, but its head is believed to have been created by famed 17th-century sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

The statues’ foray into public view may not be just a temporary treat. According to the Telegraph, “there are hopes of establishing a permanent museum in Rome” for the collection.

Displaying the works “has always been in the intent of the family,” Alessandro Poma Murialdo, a member of the Torlonia family who now runs the foundation, told the New York Times back in 2016. “The collection is the patrimony of humanity, as well as of the family.”

The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces” will be on view at the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome from March 25 to January 10, 2021.

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