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  • Writer's pictureAman Mehta

A Brief History of Palazzo Altemps in Rome

What is the Palazzo Altemps?

The Palazzo Altemps is a 15th-century palace in Rome that houses one section of the Museo Nazionale Romano, including an extensive collection of ancient Roman sculpture.

Lalupa, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Palazzo Altemps History

Once the residence of 16th and 17th-century noblemen and cardinals, Palazzo Altemps has after a long period of decline and abandon been superbly restored by the Italian government. The palazzo belonged to Cardinal Marco Sittico Altemps, who bought the building in 1568 with a mind to housing his magnificent collection of manuscripts, books and ancient sculptures. Today, the museum contains only 16 of the hundred or so works that once decorated the cardinal’s palazzo; most of the original pieces are scattered among the world’s major museums. At the end of the 19th century, the palace was sold to the papacy, which turned it into a school of theology. In a dismal state, it was purchased by the Italian government in 1982 and transformed into a museum.

The museum’s inventory includes artworks from several major Roman art collections, in particular, the Boncompagni Ludovisi collection that for years was accessible only to scholars. Now, it exhibits for a universal audience some world-famous pieces: the magnificent 5th-century-BC Ludovisi Throne depicting the birth of Aphrodite; the breathtaking Great Ludovisi Sarcophagus with its violent battles between Roman and barbarian soldiers; the tragically moving suicidal pose of the Ludovisi Gaul; and the inspiring, noble Ludovisi Ares. The Painted Loggia on the first floor, with its charming frescoed decoration, is now the setting for the Ludovisi busts of the Caesars.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, restoring sculpture meant reconstructing their missing parts. This museum is one of a very few institutions which makes plain and elaborates on this fact. Panels near the statues use shading to indicate the parts that were added.

On the first floor, you’ll find the Chiesa di Sant’Aniceto, a beautiful but tiny church that may have been the only private church to house the remains of a saint. Anicetus, its namesake, was one of Rome’s early popes and martyrs. The church’s frescoes (the most important of which are by Pomarancio) tell the story of the saint’s death by decapitation. In reality, however, the story of Anicetus was altered to resemble that of Roberto Altemps, who was sentenced to death by decapitation for adultery by Pope Sixtus V. Richly decorated in Baroque style, the church features striking examples of marble and mother-of-pearl inlay.

The palace’s original wall and ceiling decorations have been restored so that the décor of this patrician palace exemplifies the gradual transition from Renaissance to Baroque. The beautiful courtyard features a nymphaeum, a curved wall fountain coloured with mosaics and decorated with sea-shells. The four large statues facing the courtyard, protected from the elements by a large removable canopy, come from the original Altemps collection.

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