by Roderick Conway Morris

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Palazzo Altemps, Rome
The Twelve Caesars in the loggia of Palazzo Altemps

A Haven for Sculpture

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 13 December 1997


When the National Roman Museum acquired the 15th-century Palazzo Altemps from the Vatican 15 years ago the building was in poor shape: its stately Renaissance rooms divided up by partitions and lowered by false ceilings, its frescoes and decorative features obscured by thick layers of flaking plaster and whitewash, the monumental marble chimneypiece ripped out leaving a gaping hole and much of its fabric in a terminal state of neglect.

But a decade and a half later, a dazzling transformation is at last complete, and Dec. 17 will see the opening to the public of Palazzo Altemps, the third of the trio of sites that are to make up the reorganized and expanded National Roman Museum. The palazzo was bought by Marco Sittico Altemps (after he became a cardinal in 1561). A reluctant churchman and one of the leading connoisseurs of the age, Altemps restructured the palazzo as both a residence and a gallery to accommodate his superb collection of ancient sculpture. The sculptures were eventually dispersed by his heirs, some of the key pieces now forming part of national collections in Paris, Copenhagen and Russia.

In 1901, however, the Italian state purchased the contents of the last great, privately owned gallery of Greek and Roman sculpture left in Rome, the famous Ludovisi Collection. Once displayed in the buildings and gardens of Villa Ludovisi, the sculptures were deprived of their traditional setting when the grounds were sold and Villa demolished to make way for a royal palace, now the U.S. Embassy. The Ludovisi Collection has for much of the time since been in storage for want of a place to show it - a problem finally solved by the bringing together of a onetime museum that has lost its collection, and a collection that has lost its museum.

Matilde De Angelis, the new museum's director, said, 'Fortunately, we know a great deal from Palazzo Altemps's archives about where the cardinal's pieces were positioned, so it has often been possible to place equivalent figures and subjects from the Ludovisi Collection in the same locations, almost recreating the layout in the palazzo's rooms as it once was.'

A nice example of this process can be found in the lovely loggia, vaulted with trompe-l'oeil trellises and vegetation, overlooking the internal courtyard. No Renaissance marbles collection was complete without a set of busts of the Twelve Caesars, but Altemps's own set was long ago scattered. However, while the derelict loggia was being cleared, two original pedestals were found, which have been copied to support the Ludovisi Twelve Caesars now lining the terrace.

In many rooms delightful frescoes have been uncovered - the earliest dating from the 12th century in a building incorporated into the 15th-century palazzo. Even the monumental chimneypiece bearing an inscription recording its commissioning by the cardinal, which had been sold off, has been recovered and reinstalled.

One of the most attractive features of Palazzo Altemps is that it aims not to be an archaeological museum but to re-create the ambience and atmosphere of the private gallery of the 16th and 17th century - and indeed many of the pieces retain restorations and adaptations carried out by major sculptors, such as Algardi and Bernini, in accordance with the tastes of the times.

Thinly disguised contemporary appreciation of voluptuous female forms is represented by Venuses and nymphs, and more risqué still is a group such as 'Pan and Daphnis,' with its obvious homoerotic overtones. One of the most curious pairs of all, the so-called 'Eros and Psyche,' provides a sculptural parallel to the Baroque era's fascination with castrato singers and their casting in sexually ambiguous roles.

The frescoed palazzo chapel, too, is of great interest. It is dedicated to the second-century pope St. Anicetus. The selection of this otherwise exceedingly obscure martyr appears to be a veiled rebuke to Pope Sixtus V, who had Cardinal Altemps's son executed after the newly elected pontiff introduced a 'zero tolerance' policy, to bring to heel Rome's riotous, brattish and often murderous aristocratic young bloods.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023