Torlonia Marbles

What is the greatest sculpture in the world? 

Michelangelo’s David, The Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Mo’ai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) perhaps? 

If you’d asked this question to the art lovers and connoisseurs of 18th century Europe they may have answered quite differently naming the statue of a goat.

The goat rests on its four legs. Its fur sways as if heavy with sweat. Nostrils fully open as it catches its breath after strenuous exercise. It gazes out at his visitors with a look of benign worldliness- sated and still hungry – a knowing portrait of raw animal sexuality.

One of the finest for the Style I ever saw; and one of the most Famous things in Rome

Richardson

It is carved with the energy and precise detail of a virtuoso. In fact Gian Lorenzo Bernini ‘restored’ the piece which originally dated from the Imperial period. 

The white marble creates a counterpoint to the shades created by the stark carves. It is a beautiful statue.

Yet Statue of a Resting Goat has rarely been exhibited of late. 

It is held by the Fondazione Torlonia in Rome, a family collection which is rarely public. The long awaited exhibition of 92 objects in 2020 in the Villa Caffarelli promised to be the cultural highlight of the decade, if not the century, but of course the pandemic delayed the show and lowered the number of visitors.

The Exhibition catalogue is a richly illustrated book which tells the fascinating history of the Torlonia family and their collection.

The collection numbering 620 items was amassed from earlier collections formed between the fifteenth and nineteenth century. The Torlonio family were rich bankers of French extraction who had moved to Rome in the mid-Eighteenth century and slowly rose up the ranks, amassing more and more money.

The collection was a family hobby passed down from father to son, but it was only following Napoleon’s interventions in Rome that they were able to make their main purchases, largely from impoverished noble families like the Giustiani.

Alessandro Torionia was head of the family at the height of its economic power. He became a patron of the arts, funding the restoration of two theatres in Rome and the family Palace. He was particularly interested in the collection and understood its soft power both in Rome and the new state of Italy which was formed in 1861.

Alessandro opened the villa to the people of Rome in 1842, with a party offering 16,000 donuts but only 384 tankyards of wine.

Hopefully it will be easier to travel to see the sculptures before long. 

One of the benefits of seeing sculpture in real life is that the materials used (the colours, the way the light plays on it, the sense of weight or volume) and the very physicality are crucial to understanding something of their beauty.

Many people also talk about the idea of interacting with genuine art from the ancient period. The sense that older eyes have seen this work or that ancient hands carved the stone creates an immediacy with the past that photos can not replicate.

One of the most interesting aspects of ancient art is that a lot of it is not ‘original’ but copies. Many pieces of ‘Greek’ sculpture are in fact ancient Roman copies made for wealthy collectors. Some copies are of better quality than others. In ancient Rome, copies of the same statue were often displayed next to each other. The idea of an ‘original’ piece of art was understood by the Romans, but this did not negate the value of the copy.

Another fact that the sculpture of the goat rises is that many pieces of Roman art, was ‘restored’ in the Fifteenth – Nineteenth centuries. Rome became the centre for an international antiquities market. Wealthy international visitors hoped to take home classical art to decorate their stately homes (sometimes bought from money earned from exploitation or slavery). Sculpture studios helped met these demand with less than ethical approaches.

This restoration varied from the addition of new appendages or combining different statues to the recarving of heads to more famous figures or just new statues.

It is important to foreground this. As we seek to appreciate Greek and Roman art we must understand the complicated history of many items.

The collection contains absolute treasures of ancient Greek and Roman art. It is hard to pick out the standout pieces even from the 15% on display here as there are so many. 

If I can confess a personal favourite it might be for the Barberini-Albani Nile. Carved in dark stone (bigio morato marble), the god lies down holding a lotus brand and a cornucopia. His hair is shaggy and wet, draped over his hunky upper body. Next to him a sphinx eagerly holds a jar. It is dated to the Flavian period, possibly from the Temple of Peace in Rome. The statue symbolises the heavy and fecund silty river water of the Nile, which made Egypt an important agricultural supplier to the Empire. It is less stately than the more famous Vatican Nile (a bronze copy of which is shared above). Poussin used it as a model in his paintings set in Egypt.

It also reveals something of the complicated relationship between ancient Rome and Egypt in the statue’s strange juxtaposition of sex and arcane wisdom.

So much could be written about this one piece and there are 92 published here, all of which deserve the same high praise. It is a gorgeous book and well worth purchasing.

The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces by Salvatore Settis is published by Mondadori Electa

Cover photo reference (Statue of Resting Goat. ©FondazioneTorlonia PH Lorenzo De Masi. Permission has been given to use this photo.)