Il Museo Nazionale Romano. Palazzo Altemps
The National Roman Museum, another institute of the Italian Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali (Direzione generale per le antichità), is structured on four sites: the Baths of Diocletian, the Crypta Baldi, the Palazzo Massimo and the Palazzo Altemps.
Of the four sites, Palazzo Altemps may be the best known to museum goers because of the grand (and controversial) sculptures it hosts. The palace was built in 1477 over old roman and mediaeval structures and owned, from 1568, by Cardinal Altemps. Its recent modernization allowed the hosting of four collections of sculptures in a large portion of the two main floors.
The museum collections have become so well known to now stand for pre-modern “collecting”; some of the works have so become ‘icons’ of roman art. Of the five collections, four were assembled by privates in the 16th-17th centuries; the last is a more recent gathering of archeological findings.
The Altemps Collection – Four large statues in the northern portico and other sculptures decorating the staircase are all it remain here of the collection of Cardinal Markus Sitticus.
The Ludovisi Boncompagni Collection – The Italian State purchased in 1900 this collection of 104 sculptures. Amongst them are the Ludovisi Acrolith, the Ludovisi Throne, the Gaul Killing Himself and His Wife and the Grande Ludovisi Sarcophagus.
The Mattei Collection – In a room of the first floor are exhibited some ancient sculptures that originally adorned the villa and gardens of Ciriaco Mattei on the Caelian Hill.
The Drago Collection – Four reliefs from the former Del Drago family collection, known and drawn since the 15th century, are exhibited in the southern loggia.
The Egyptian Collection – The sculptures were found in the area of the Campus Martius where the great Sanctuary dedicated to Isis stood in Roman times. Some of them originated from Egypt and other are Roman production after the Egyptian originals.
The museum source collections were all formed between the 16th and the 17th centuries, when it was fashionable for princes to adorn their palaces and gardens with beautiful ‘old’ things. The “antiquarian” market of the time was the primary source of excavated artifacts and stores would have looked like interesting places with mounds of marble fragments of various sizes from which to pick and choose items. Since large pieces were desirable to fulfill decorating functions but were difficult to find, a peculiar condition began to emerge, the traditional process of “restoration” (applied to clean items and restore minor missing elements) soon was replaced by the complete “refurbishment” of sculptures, a process involving the ‘creation’ of a work made of many unrelated old pieces composed in a new form and molded to appear an ‘original’ old work.
The Altemps gallery of sculptures offers an amazing set of roman artifacts, many of them did undergo minor degrees of restoration (carried out in the past), but a group of them should really be re-attributed to the 16th/17th century sculptor that re-molded large and small archeological fragments in what we see today. It is important to know that these ‘creative’ restorers were not some artisan skilled in stonework, they were important artist of the time, like Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Alessandro Algardi e Ippolito Buzio. Although today such practice would be considered a desecration of antiquities, it appears that at the time not only it was condoned but it was an appreciated artistic expression.
There is no doubt that a grand palace can be a suitable display case for ancient large marbles and the Altemps is well suited for this task having many well lit large rooms on two floors, a splendid ‘cortile’ and two beautiful frescoed terraces.
Many of the works find an ideal location (and lighting) in the large rooms but some of them suffer from being installed without some sort of ‘isolating criteria’ that would detach the artwork from the room’s wall decorations and other architectural features. However, the distribution of the collection components throughout the palace successfully avoids visual crowding.
It seems obvious that the characteristic of the works exposed posed some challenges to the museum curators. Here, the need to carefully inform the viewer of what it is displayed is necessary to avoid misunderstandings. The history and context of the works becomes very relevant not only for their appreciation but for the understanding of the collecting practices of the time.
The use of a standard label that includes a succinct description, a ‘technical’ text and an unqualified drawing (framed notes that appear to have been prepared in the 19th century) may not address the need for adequate information. These particularly important works should not have been left to hold their own, unassisted.
The large marble block has been carved to have three sides and a bottom (hence the “throne” listing). Its period, mid Vth century BCE, and origin, from Magna Graecia, are still debated.
The “The Galatian Suicide” is a Roman marble group of the Ind century AD, copy of a Hellenistic bronze original (ca 230-20 BCE).
The “Resting Mars” statue still has interpretation issues (possibly a 2nd-century copy of a late 4th-century BCE Greek original), but its stunning beauty is indisputed. The marble was recovered almost complete and the the (interpretative) repair was conducted by Bernini.
The sculpture of the “torch bearer” is a 17th century A. Algardi’s creation, made by adding to an ancient bust and upper legs marble (likely a copy of a IIId c. BCE satyr) the arms, torch, legs and stand.
This stunning piece is a sarcophagus depicting Erennio Etrusco, son of Decio emperor, death in battle in 251 against the Goth. The three rows of high reliefs show the victorious Roman soldiers (top), the battle between Roman and barbarian (middle) and wounded or death enemies (bottom register).
I choose to investigate this piece because of its amazing character. From the museum label we read:
“This pair could be considered an original creation by the 17th century restorer Ippolito Buzio, who worked on the restorations of the Ludovisi Collection from 1621 to 1624. Inspired by the famous Hellenistic sculptural group of Cupid and Psyche, the sculptor fashioned his own version by assembling together various fragments of ancient marble statues.
The bow in the hand of the male figure and the quiver resting on the base both derive from classical iconography. For the figure of Psyche is reused an ancient head, perhaps from an Apollo, while her bust once belonged to a male figure but was transformed by the addition of a breast. The lower part of the figure was made in the 17th century.
For the figure of Cupid, the sculptor inserted in the ancient male torso a female head, of the so-called Sappho-type, her hair drawn into a chignon braided together with ribbons in the form of a cap.
Buzio’s work is a highly representative example of Baroque taste, intended to inspire the admiration of the spectacle through ambiguity and the reversal of masculine and feminine roles.”
This (rather unclear) label however is accompanied by a drawing showing (see attached) an outlay of the sculpture with gray areas which do not match the areas described as modified by the restorer.
A further investigation brings to light, from the “History of Restoration of Ancient Stone Sculptures” book [ref. 1], p. 228, one Fig 2A-B very similar to that of the museum label and that reads:
“Statue group of Salmacis and Hermaphroditos(?). Restored by Ippolito Buzzi(?). Marble H132 cm. Sketch: Peggy Sanders; modern portions shaded dark grey, ancient but unrelated areas light grey.”
Without suggesting a discrepancy in attribution between museum label and the M. Marvin’s text, I quote here a passage that is perhaps a more subtle (and less equivocal) description “…The ancient pieces were four, two male torsos and two unrelated heads, one female and one uncertain. Buzzi added a head, breasts, and a draped female lower half to one male torso, making it Salmacis; and lower legs, arms and a head to the other, making it Hermaphroditos. He then composed the figures as a group and attached them to a single base. …”
This note on Cupid and Psyche tries to qualify the previous indication that clear information on the history and context of the work is very relevant for its appreciation and understanding.
A visit to this world class museum is a most fascinating experience, an insight in classical, western aesthetics.
(1) History of Restoration of Ancient Stone Sculptures edited by Janet Burnett Grossman, Jerry Podany, Marion True; Getty Publications, 2003
B.PALMA, Museo Nazionale Romano. Le Sculture. I Marmi Ludovisi: Storia della Collezione Ludovisi, I,4, Roma 1983