The 8 highlights of… the Museo Nazionale Romano (Palazzo Altemps)

Courtyard of the Palazzo Altemps.

The Palazzo Altemps was named after the German cardinal Mark Sittich von Hohenems (1533-1595). The cardinal’s mother Chiara de’ Medici was a sister of Pope Pius IV, who sat on Saint Peter’s throne between 1559 and 1565. Pius IV will chiefly be remembered as the pope who presided over the final session of the Council of Trent, a church council that was held in response to the success of the Protestant Reformation. The cardinal, who was called Marco Altemps in Italian, had a chapel built in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere which he decorated with frescoes about the council in honour of his uncle. Thanks to the cardinal’s natural son the Palazzo Altemps remained in the hands of the family until well into the nineteenth century, when it was acquired by the Vatican. In 1982, the Vatican in its turn sold the magnificent palace to the Italian state, which subjected it to a thorough restoration and in 1997 opened it as one of the locations of the Museo Nazionale Romano.

The Palazzo Altemps has an extensive collection of objects on display, mostly sculptures. Many objects are from the private collection of cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (1595-1632). Like Marco Altemps, the cardinal was the nephew of a pope, in this case Pope Gregorius XV (1621-1623). A fervent collector of antiquities, Ludovico Ludovisi unfortunately died young. Some of the top pieces in the museum have been named after him and the Ludovisi collection. In this post I will discuss eight objects in the Palazzo Altemps, my personal Top 8.

1. The Ludovisi Gaul

The Ludovisi Gaul is a statue of a Gaul or Galatian who commits suicide. With his right hand he stabs himself in the neck with a short sword, and on the marble we see blood gushing out. With his left hand the Gaul is holding his dying wife, whom he has previously stabbed. The most popular theory about the statue is that it is a Roman copy in marble of a Greek original in bronze from the third century BCE. In 279 BCE a group of marauding Celts (‘Gauls’) had invaded Greece. Initially they were successful and even managed to defeat and kill king Ptolemaios Keraunos of Macedonia. Later, however, they suffered severe defeats, after which the survivors crossed the Bosporus and settled in the region that was later named Galatia after them. King Nikomedes I of Bithynia was more than happy to integrate the Galatians into his army as mercenaries, but these ferocious warriors were fiercely independent and their behaviour was often obnoxious. The Galatians terrorised their neighbours and forced them to pay tribute. This of course led to reprisals from other rulers. Both the Seleucid king Antiochos I (281-261 BCE) and king Attalos I of Pergamum (241-197 BCE) were nicknamed Soter (“Saviour”) after defeating the Galatians.

The Ludovisi Gaul.

It was king Attalos who, around the year 240 BCE, had a monument erected in Pergamum in honour of his victories. A bronze statue of a Galatian committing suicide, attributed to the sculptor Epigonos, is said to have been part of it. The marble Roman copy was found in the former Horti Sallustiani, the estate just north of Rome that belonged to the politician and historian Gaius Sallustius Crispus (ca. 86-35 BCE). The previous owner of the estate was Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE), a close friend of Sallustius. The information panel in the museum suggests that Caesar had the Ludovisi Gaul made to celebrate his victory over the Gauls in present-day France. In this respect it is interesting to note that after his Gallic War Caesar himself was given command of a newly raised legion, Legio XXII Deiotariana, which was composed of Galatians and was named after their king Deiotarus. With the Galatians at his side Caesar won a lightning-quick victory over king Pharnakes II of Pontus in 47 BCE, which prompted him to speak the immortal words veni, vidi, vici. In the seventeenth century the Horti Sallustiani were acquired by cardinal Ludovisi, who had the Villa Ludovisi built (now gone). Many more sculptures were found in the former Horti.

2. The Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus

I have previously written a long post about the Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus, which was crafted in 250-260 and found in 1621 near the Porta Tiburtina. On the sarcophagus we see a beautifully sculpted battle between a Roman army and a force of ‘barbarians’, probably Goths. Of course the Romans are victorious, while their adversaries are cut to pieces and crushed. Interesting details of the sarcophagus are two junior officers with their musical instruments, a tuba (trumpet) and a cornu (horn). These instruments were used to issue commands to the soldiers during a battle. Other details of the sarcophagus are equally impressive. Note for instance the Roman soldier wearing a helmet with a bird’s head and the standard bearer on the far right wearing a chainmail shirt (lorica hamata).

The Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus.

Who was this splendid sarcophagus intended for? The dating might give us a clue. The sarcophagus may have been made as a final resting place for either Hostilianus or Herennius Etruscus, the sons of the emperor Decius (249-251). Decius and Herennius Etruscus were both killed in June of 251 fighting the Goths at Abritus, Hostilianus succumbed to the plague not much later. It has recently been suggested that the central figure on the sarcophagus is actually the emperor Gallienus (253-268).[1] If we compare this figure to a bust of Gallienus, also in the Palazzo Altemps, the similarities are indeed hard to miss. On the other hand, classical sources tell us that Gallienus was entombed in a mausoleum along the Via Appia, close to the ninth milestone. That is not exactly where the Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus was found.

3. The Ludovisi Throne

The Ludovisi Throne was found in 1887 in the former Horti Sallustiani and then sold to the Italian state in 1894. The object is probably not a throne, but part of an altar (this is at least what the museum claims). The front relief features a naked Aphrodite who is born from the foam of the sea and is dressed by two Horai, the goddesses of the seasons and time. I must say the relief strongly reminded me of the Birth of Venus by the Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli. On the left side of the ‘throne’ a naked priestess is playing a double flute, while on the right side a fully dressed and veiled priestess is offering incense. The altar was possibly made around 460-450 BCE in Magna Graecia, the part of Southern Italy where Greek colonies were founded as early as the eighth century BCE.

The Ludovisi Throne.

4. The Ludovisi Ares

This statue of the seated war god Ares or Mars was, for once, not found in the former Horti Sallustiani. It was dug up in 1622 on the former Field of Mars, or Campus Martius in Latin. The statue shows the war god as a handsome and beardless young man. It is probably a Roman copy from the second century CE after a Greek original, possibly by the sculptor Skopas, from the fourth century BCE. When the statue was unearthed four hundred years ago, it was no longer fully intact. The restoration was entrusted to a young Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), who used Carrara marble in the process; the original marble was from a quarry in Pentelikon, Greece. Parts that are not original include the head of Eros near Ares’ helmet, the war god’s right foot and the hilt of his sword.

The Ludovisi Ares.

5. Aphrodite with a dolphin

Eros was the result of an extramarital affair between Ares and the aforementioned Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Aphrodite was married to Hephaistos (Vulcanus in Latin), the blacksmith of the gods, but he was not attractive and a cripple to boot. The Palazzo Altemps possesses a statue of a naked Aphrodite after bathing, with Eros standing behind her with a towel and a dolphin lying by her left knee. The dolphin symbolises the birth of the goddess from the sea, which was already discussed above. The heads of Aphrodite and Eros are not original. Again the statue is a Roman copy. Unfortunately the museum gives no dating, but I suspect it was made in the Imperial era. According to the museum, the bronze original was crafted by a certain Doidalses, an otherwise unknown sculptor from the third century BCE who worked for king Nikomedes I of Bithynia.

Aphrodite with a dolphin.

6. Head of Mars

If I mention Aphrodite and Eros twice, then I should also do that with Ares/Mars, the lover of the former and father of the latter. Above the Grand Ludovisi Sarcophagus hangs a bust of the war god from the second century. Only the head the with the helmet is truly original; the suit of armour with the head of Medusa was added in the sixteenth century. The details of the sculpture are quite beautiful. Note for instance the sphynx under the crest of the helmet. All in all the bust is highly reminiscent of the statue of Mars Ultor which is currently in the Capitoline Museums of Rome.

Head of Mars.

7. Relief with the judgment of Paris

The Trojan prince Paris was once asked to be the judge in a beauty contest between the goddesses Hera, Pallas Athena and Aphrodite (there she is again). The contest had a reason: during the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of the Greek hero Achilles, the goddess of discord Eris had thrown a golden apple with the text “for the most beautiful” among the feasting gods. This was the original apple of discord. Zeus then appointed Paris as an arbiter. On a relief in the museum we see him in the middle while he is persuaded by Eros to choose his mother Aphrodite. His reward will be Helena, the most beautiful woman in the world. On the left Hera, Pallas Athena and Aphrodite have been depicted, together with Hermes, the messenger of the gods. The woman with the pan flute is Oinone, Paris’ first wife. He left her for Helena, who he first had to abduct from the palace of her husband, king Menelaos of Sparta. The abduction of Helena then became the cause of the Trojan war. According to the museum the bearded man to the right of Paris is the personification of Mount Ida in present-day Turkey. The relief dates from the reign of the emperor Hadrianus (117-138) and was possibly part of a sarcophagus.

Judgment of Paris.

8. The Bull of Apis

The last object I would like to discuss in this post is not Roman or Greek, but Egyptian. The Palazzo Altemps has a nice Egyptian collection as well, and the Bull of Apis is one of its top pieces. The statue was found in 1886 in the Via dello Statuto on the Esquiline hill, in the former Horti Maecenatis or Gardens of Maecenas. It is made of granodiorite, a type of rock that may have been quarried near Aswan in Egypt. The statue dates from the second century BCE, so it was made at a time when the descendants of Ptolemaios, a general of Alexander the Great, ruled over Egypt (323-31 BCE). After the future emperor Augustus had defeated queen Cleopatra and her lover Mark Antony and had driven them to suicide, the Romans took over this mysterious old kingdom. It quickly led to a genuine Egyptomania in Rome. A double temple of Isis and Serapis was built in the city (the Isaeum and Serapaeum; see Rome: Santa Maria sopra Minerva) and rich Romans presumably began decorating their private estates with statues of Egyptian deities (much like spiritually inclined westerners like to place statues of the Buddha in their gardens). The Apis bull, which was closely connected to Isis and Serapis, may have been an example of this phenomenon.

Bull of Apis, second century BCE.


[1] Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 33.

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