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Some of the statues of the Torlonia family’s vast collection.

The Story of How the Torlonia Dynasty Is Crumbling from Within

The torlonia Family

The Torlonia is a noble family from Rome, who acquired a huge fortune in the 18th and 19th centuries by administering the finances of the Vatican. The first influential member of the Torlonia family was Marino Torlonia (1725-1785), who rose from humble origins to become a very wealthy businessman and banker in Rome.

Marino was the son of a merchant and laborer, who moved to Rome to become a cloth merchant and money lender near the Piazza Trinità dei Monti. This became the foundation of the family bank established by his son, Giovanni Torlonia (1754-1829), who began to handle the Vatican’s finances. So successful was he that the Vatican lavished and created several noble titles for Giovanni. Pope Pius VI made him Duke of Bracciano and Count of Pisciarelli in 1794. Pope Pius VII bestowed the titles Marquess of Romavecchia e Turrita and the first Prince of Civitella Cesi in 1803. He was made a Roman Patrician in 1809 and the Duke of Poli e Guadagnolo in 1820.

The Torlonia's riches

Giovanni was the builder of the beautiful Villa Torlonia in Rome, among other Palazzo Torlonia villas. The family’s wealth was so great that in the 19th century, the name Torlonia became synonymous with boundless riches. The banker became fascinated with ancient sculptures and his collection began in earnest with the acquisition of the works collected by sculptor Bartolomeo Cavaceppi (1717-1799), who was the most famous restorer of ancient statuary in the 18th century. The works featured a wide range of ancient marbles, terracotta and bronze statuettes, but the Torlonia Collection was destined to grow further. In 1816, about 270 works were purchased, including the prestigious ancient sculptures of Marquis Vincenzo Giustiniani. In the second half of the 19th century, archaeological finds were discovered on numerous proprieties of the family, adding to a remarkable collection, becoming the largest private collection of ancient sculptures in the world.

Alessandro Torlonia, heir to Giovanni, opened the collection to visitors in their family palace on Via della Lungara, close to the Tiber River in 1893. The private museum would continue for another 60 years until the 77-room palace was closed and converted into a 93 unit residential building. The collection was placed in storage and was not seen again for 50 years, until, in 2005, the Italian government attempted to buy the collection for $1.2 billion. The offer was declined.

The Torlonia family reached an agreement in 2016 with the Italian government to permit an exhibit of some of the statues. Ultimately, it was expected that the entire collection would be housed in a museum in Rome, but now an inheritance battle has broken out within the aristocratic Italian family.

Following the death of Prince Alessandro Torlonia in 2017, the title fell to his eldest son, Carlo Torlonia, who finds that the family is engaged in a war of succession. The Prince and his three siblings are now engaged in legal battles over the future of the estate. Some family members want to sell some of the statues, busts and other artworks and the battle royal has reached the point where a court in Rome issued a ban on any of the assets being sold or leaving Italy. There was evidence that members of the family had entered into negotiations to sell some of the collection to the Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California.

The Prince wants to follow the direction established by his father and have the collection of classic statuary, which rivals those held by the Vatican Museums and Rome’s Capitoline Museums, to be put on public display in Rome. Unfortunately, other family members see vast dollar signs in their future, if the world’s largest private collection is sold. It may take years to unravel in the Italian courts, so for the moment, the collection remains under wraps again. Hopefully it will not be another half century before the antiquities again reach the light of day.