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Unmasked: The Torlonia Marbles

At Villa Cafarelli, Rome

In the time of lockdown an exhibition of the Torlonia Collection, the largest and most important private collection of Greek and Roman sculpture, has opened at the Villa Caffarelli on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Hidden from public view for decades, it is seeking a new permanent home.

Visiting the real-life Torlonia marbles gave me a sense of peace and tranquillity, much needed in these turbulent times. Walking slowly around the museum is like pressing the pause button on a frenzied party, everything crowding around you, everyone talking at once. With this magic button you could just stop time and examine the features and expressions of those around you and try to make sense of the moment. You can! Just buy a ticket to the Villa Caffarelli.

The Torlonia Collection is legendary among art historians. The family has kept it private for so long that experts, until now, have known it principally from a 19th century catalogue. The collection is often described as a collection of collections as it came about, in addition to excavations made on the Family’s estates, through the acquisition of important existing collections. Many of the works were collected in the 18th century by Cardinal Alessandro Albani, the nephew of Pope Clement X1, and a prominent collector of antiquities. His collection was a role model for the Grand Tour who came to Rome from around Europe in the 18th Century to ape the manners and art of the ancients. The ‘High Priest’ of art history of the time, indeed arguably the first great art historian, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, assisted in putting the collection together. The Cardinal had other advisors too such as the artist and archaeologist, Giovanni Battista Piranesi and the architect, Giovanni Battista Nolli.

The show includes 92 works: portrait busts; sarcophagi; bas reliefs; richly decorated vases; a first century statue of a goat whose later head is attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini; a sculpture of Ulysses holding onto the underside of a ram and one bronze, a statue of the Roman general Germanicus. These were restored for the occasion of the exhibition, through the sponsorship of the brand Bulgari, at the Torlonia Laboratory in Trastevere. The exhibition, curated by Salvatore Settis and Carlo Gasparri and designed by the architect David Chipperfield, starts by recreating the Torlonia Museum. This had been founded in a former granary in 1875 by Prince Alessandro Torlonia. Accessible by appointment only, it closed soon after the Second World War. In 2013, a Foundation for the collection was set up by Prince Alessandro Torlonia and with his death in 2017, the late Prince’s grandson, Alessandro Poma Murialdo, has taken over the task of finding a way to show the collection to the public again. ‘We want it to be experienced today as it was conceived, as a ‘dream of classicism,’ he declared. The current exhibition is the first step to an eventual plan to bring the entire collection of 620 works to a new museum in Rome.

The ‘Girl from Vulci’ is just one of many magnificent portrait heads that made me stop in my tracks. Even though she is not young anymore, she has kept the ‘the secret of her youth’, but her days of running are long gone. The youth of flesh and blood was immortalised and frozen in the first century BC. Her pert nose is chipped, it looks as if her earrings have been ripped off, but nothing has robbed her of her innocence or staggering beauty. Seated not on a plinth, but like all the busts on display in the exhibition, on a grey brick platform against a background of Pompeian red, she remains totally indifferent to our gaze.

Grand Provenance does not always encourage one to look at works as if the sitters were once breathing individuals like us, but the ‘Girl from Vulci’ is not the only character I’d like to talk to at my imagined, paused drinks party. The classical sculpted face, often described as being idealised and glorified, was, as we can see in many of the Torlonia portraits, intensely complex and often highly realistic. I would be fascinated to know what gives the deeply lined face of the ‘Vecchio da Otricoli’ his uneasy expression. I might however want to give a wide berth to ‘Euthydemus of Bactriana’, for the curve of his mouth is too symmetrical, his brow is deeply furrowed, and he looks downright grumpy and used to getting his own way. 

I apologise to those who think I am making light of these precious marbles, which even if not always actually sacred, are invariably divine objects of desire. I take the frivolous tone as for so many years we have placed these works on pedestals, and sometimes it stops us from getting close to them, engaging with them, as the artists did in their creation. Without a relationship these artworks are just lumps of stone, and so are we. Sigmund Freud, who was an avid collector, could be commenting on Platonic and Neoplatonic thought when he said: ‘The finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it.’ Two-way conversations are usually richer than monologues. Every time someone approaches one of these sculptures, they bring something new to the conversation. Enjoy the party on the Capitoline Hill.