Light in the Palazzo

From The New York Review of Books:

In 1968 the Roman aristocrat Alessandro Torlonia, Prince of Fucino, applied for a permit to repair the roof of his family’s private museum, a nineteenth-century industrial building just outside the ancient Porta Settimiana in Trastevere that had been transformed by his great-grandfather, another Alessandro, into a sprawling seventy-seven-room venue for the family’s vast collection of ancient sculpture. Decked out in neoclassical splendor, the Torlonia Museum opened in 1876, but only to visitors inscribed in the Golden Book of Italian Nobility, a manuscript in the Central State Archive in Rome that provided the definitive list of Italian peerage. In 1947 Rome’s superintendent of antiquities, Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, made his way into the sanctum by dressing as a janitor. The disguise played a superbly Tuscan practical joke on his unwitting hosts. Bianchi Bandinelli was a Sienese count who could trace his lineage back to a twelfth-century pope. He could have entered the Torlonia Museum as a nobleman, but the Italian Constitution of 1948 had stripped aristocratic titles of any legal significance and rendered the Golden Book of Italian Nobility a relic of the past.

As superintendent, moreover, Bianchi Bandinelli, a fervent Communist, represented this new, egalitarian Republic of Italy. And the republic, in turn, had its eye on the Torlonia collection: 620 statues, 619 of marble and one of bronze, an assemblage second only to the Vatican Museums in size and quality, and jealously hidden from public view. The humble disguise, by making the superintendent invisible to class-conscious eyes, allowed him to take inventory as he never could have done in his official capacity.

Twenty-one years later, armed with his permit to repair the roof, Prince Alessandro threw an opaque construction fence around the Torlonia Museum and turned its galleries into ninety-three mini-apartments (some of them adapted in recent years to provide classrooms for John Cabot University). He crammed the displaced antiquities into three storerooms; in an anguished open letter to UNESCO in 1979, the journalist Antonio Cederna described them as “stacked on top of each other like junk.” By February 1977, with the backing of a new young superintendent of antiquities, Adriano La Regina, the Roman magistrate Alberto Albamonte had charged Prince Alessandro with illegal construction and damaging cultural heritage (the transport from galleries to storage had been anything but careful), charges that gave the Italian state leverage to sequester first the building and then the collection.

In timeless Roman fashion, the statute of limitations for the charge of illegal construction expired, and an amnesty restored the palazzo and collection to its princely owner, but the charge of damage to Italy’s cultural heritage went all the way to the country’s Supreme Court, which ruled in 1979 that “the transfer [to storage] inflicted material and immaterial damage to the collection,” and that the statues were kept “in cramped, inadequate, dangerous quarters…unbelievably crowded together side by side without any historical relationship or principle of consistency,” “condemned from a cultural standpoint to certain death.” Prince Alessandro responded by letting the Torlonia Marbles continue to languish under a growing layer of filthy Roman dust, shrouded in plastic and malign neglect.

In 2015 the decades-long standoff finally began to show signs of shifting, accelerating after Prince Alessandro’s death in 2017 at the age of ninety-two. In October 2020, after years of negotiation, ninety-one Torlonia Marbles (and the bronze), newly restored and carefully analyzed, emerged from their decades of captivity to inaugurate a newly refurbished wing of Rome’s Capitoline Museums, the Palazzo Caffarelli, built over the site of the colossal ancient temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. “The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces,” an exhibition curated by two eminent classicists, Salvatore Settis and Carlo Gasparri, and designed by the English architect David Chipperfield, opened several months late because of the coronavirus pandemic. Before it closed because of Covid-19 restrictions, a limited number of visitors were admitted into the galleries, but once admitted, they could linger as long as they liked. Wandering among the intimately scaled displays, in that storied setting, with a comfortable number of people rather than a horde, provided as close to a perfect experience as anyone could want. The catalog, in keeping with the momentous occasion, is stylish, dense, and complete in every respect but one: Prince Alessandro has been given the benefit of the ancient Roman rule de mortuis nihil nisi bonum. But at least two of the contributors to the catalog have provided a fuller account of his treatment of the collection to the press.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

The following are from the collection:

Artgate Fondazione Cariplo, CC BY-SA 3.0
Steven Zucker CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Sailko, CC BY 3.0

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