Roman History & Sculpture
PALAZZO ALTEMPS OFFERS TROVE OF ROMAN HISTORY AND SCULPTURE
One of Rome’s best ancient sculpture galleries sits just a stone’s throw north of the tourist mecca Piazza Navona, yet many visitors are unaware of the Palazzo Altemps.
Once a home of German Cardinal Marco Sittico Altemps, who bought it in 1568, the palazzo today houses an important collection of Greek and Roman sculptures, and a significant collection of works from Egypt. Yet one of the most interesting attractions of the National Rome Museum: Palazzo Altemps is the building itself, host of the collection.
The art and the antiquities are carefully displayed across two floors of the lovely palazzo. These rise above a beautiful courtyard with a monumental fountain, and contribute to an atmosphere of a private collector’s home with its treasures, rather than an institution.
The palazzo itself retains many of the elegant frescoes originally painted there, including a lovely loggia decorated with tromp-l’oeil trellises and vegetation, looking down onto the courtyard.
The building was originally designed in the 1400s by Melozzo da Forli’ for Girolamo Riario, who was related to Pope Sixtus IV. The remains of a fresco that can be seen in the Room of the Sideboard celebrates the wedding of Girolamo to Caterina Sforza in 1477, showing the silver plates and other wedding gifts given to the couple. As the Renaissance unfolded, the palazzo was sold and resold until it found its way into the hands of Cardinal Altemps, who commissioned architect Martino Longhi to expand and improve the structure, including Longhi’s construction of the belvedere tower topped by a rampant ibex, the Altemps family crest.
By the 18th century, the Palazzo Altemps was a diplomatic residence that hosted lavish parties in its courtyard.
The sculpture collection, put together for the Altemps, comes from a list of contributors that reads like a who’s-who of the most important Roman families of the 16th and 17th century.
Including works by Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Alessandro Algardi, the sculpture groups’ original owners boast such ancient names as the Mattei and Drago families. However, the largest single group – 104 sculptures – is the Boncompagni-Ludovisi collection, begun somewhere between 1621 and 1623 by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi and later merged with collections of the Boncompagni family.
Displayed on the ground and first-floor, this collection includes the Ludovisi Juno and the Ludovisi Throne, covered in reliefs that are thought to represent the birth of Aphrodite, rising from the sea.
Other outstanding pieces include the Galatian Committing Suicide, an Athena restored by Algardi, the Grande Ludovisi Sarcophagus, and a nymph and satyr, whose head is believed to have been cared by Bernini.
Another special feature of the palazzo is its interior chapel, considerably more spacious and opulent than many other house chapels, with a choir loft, large altar, and numerous pews for worship.
Dedicated to the second-century Pope Sant’Aniceto, the chapel is decorated with delightful frescoes of musical cherubs to perhaps serve as a distraction from a tedious sermon.
Historians suggest the chapel’s dedication to the otherwise obscure martyr Saint Aniceto was intended as a rebuke to Pope Sixtus V who had the cardinal’s son executed during a crackdown on Rome’s boorish and dangerous young aristocrats. For a period of time, the house chapel was actually elevated to the status of a full church after the family somehow obtained the remains of Sant’Aniceto.
To honour these relics, the family chapel was transformed into a legitimate church, complete with dome and sacristy, between 1603 and 1617.
The presbytery is decorated with a Marian cycle and an enormous reliquary that presumably still contains the remains of Sant’Aniceto and which serves as the high altar.
ANSA by Sandra Cordon