See Sculptures from Antiquity in Palazzo Altemps (National Museum Rome)

Visit the Palazzo Altemps in central Rome to see a small but fantastic collection of top sculptures from antiquity displayed in a historic palace of the National Roman Museum.

Palazzo Altemps in Rome

The Palazzo Altemps is part of the Museo Nazionale Romano (National Roman Museums) and is used to display around 150 quality sculptures from antiquity. Highlights of the museum include the Ludovisi collection such as the Ludovisi Gaul, the Ludovisi Throne, a seated Ares, exceptional sarcophagi, colossal heads, and magnificent further sculptures from antiquity that were restored to various degrees in especially the baroque period. The museum is absolutely worth visiting and included in combination tickets with the Palazzo Massimo in Rome.

Top Sculpture Collections in the Palazzo Altemps in Rome

The Palazzo Altemps in the heart of Rome is home to around 150 high-quality sculptures from classical antiquity. It is part of the Museo Nazionale Romano (National Roman Museums) but with only around 30 rooms far smaller than the more famous Palazzo Massimo near the Diocletian Baths and Termini station.

Excellent works from the famous Altemps, Boncompagni Ludivisi, and Mattei collections are on display here together with further sculptures, frescoes, and archaeological finds. The most famous sculptures are mostly on the upper level but it is worth strolling through all around 30 rooms — none are overly full and all the works are of very high artistic quality and cultural value. Displays are well described in both English and Italian — many descriptions use drawings to show modern additions where sculptures of antiquity were restored in later centuries.

Top Sculptures from Antiquity in the Palazzo Altemps in Rome

Ludovisi Collection in the Palazzo Altemps

Ludovisi Gaul in Palazzo Altemps in Rome

The most famous and absolute highlights in the Palazzo Altemps display are from the Boncampagni-Ludovisi Collection. Most of these sculptures were acquired by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi in the 1620s for his villa on the Quirinal Hill. The Ludovisi Throne was only discovered in 1887 during development work at the villa. The collection of 104 sculptures was bought from the Boncompagni Ludivisi family by the Italian state in 1901 with the top works now on display in the Palazzo Altemps.

Ludovisi Gaul

The Ludovisi Gaul (also Galatian Suicide, Suicide of a Gaul, or more accurately Gaul Killing Himself and His Wife) is an oversized Docimaean marble statue group of a standing naked male figure in the act of stabbing himself in the neck with a short sword while supporting a dying woman on his left arm. The two figures are Gauls (or Galatians), a Celtic people of Asia Minor (not France!), and are generally considered to have been part of the same group as the Dying Gaul, which is now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. (The Kneeling Youthful Gaul in the Louvre, and others, might have been part of a much larger group originally erected in Pergamon.)

The Ludovisi Gaul (also Galatian Suicide, Suicide of a Gaul, or more accurately Gaul Killing Himself and His Wife) in the Palazzo Altemps in Rome

These sculptures are Roman copies of the original Greek bronzes by Epigonos originally commissioned by King Attaus I to celebrate his victory over the Gauls in 240 BC. They are identified as Gauls by the clothes, wavy hair, mustache, the weapons on the base, and the custom of Galatian chieftains to bring wives to the battle. It is a rare victory statue displaying the defeated sympathetically and showing the preference for suicide rather than to be taken captive.

The location of their discovery supported the notion that the marble sculptures were made for Julius Caesar in memory of his victory over the Gauls, this time the Celtic people of the West (France / Asterix). However, current thinking places the marble works a century or so after the death of Caesar.

The sculpture was lightly restored using Carrara marble. The only major new parts are the four hands and lower arms, as well as parts of the fluttering cloak.

Ludovisi Ares

The Ludovisi Ares is considered to be the statue of a seated Mars described by Pliny as a work of the Greek sculptor Skopas Minor from the end of the 2nd century BC. This is currently the most widely accepted dating. The god of war is portrayed as a nude seated in a resting position — an iconic reference to the frieze from the Parthenon. Little Armor (Eros / Cupid) — the love child of Mars / Ares and Venus / Aphrodite — plays at his feet between his helmet and shield.

Bernini restored the sculpture in 1622 using Carrara marble, which is clearly offset from the Pentelic marble of the original. Major elements added by Bernini include only the head of Eros, the right foot of Ares, and the hilt of the sword.

The German art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann considered the Ludovisi Ares the most beautiful Mars to have survived from antiquity. (Many others of course lost their heads and other bits through the centuries.)

Ludovisi Throne

Ludovisi Throne in Palazzo Altemps
Ludovisi Throne in Palazzo Altemps

At first glance, the Ludovisi Throne seems artistically less impressive than some of the other works in the collection but it had researchers possibly more excited than any other sculpture here. This large marble dates from around 460 BC and the transition from archaic to Early Classical Western Greek art.

The large relief on the back of the block shows Aphrodite rising from the sea (or the birth of Venus Anadyomene) with the help of two assistants. On the side panels are a nude woman with crossed legs playing the aulas (double flute) and a cloaked woman with an incense burner. These are generally interpreted as priestesses of Aphrodite and representing profane and sacred love.

The iconography of the throne is without parallel in antiquity leading to alternative interpretations, such as Persephone returning from the underworld, and even doubt whether the whole work is an original or a fake.

Colossal Female Heads

Two colossal female heads on display in the Palazzo Altemps in Rome never fail to impress but they are very different in origin:

The Ludovisi Acrolith dates from 480-470 BC and was probably the head of a metal-plated sculpture of a goddess seated on a throne. She is generally identified as either Aphrodite or Persephone.

The Juno Ludovisi was part of a colossal sculpture three times normal size. This head of Juno (or Hera) was at times the most celebrated sculpture in the collection — she inspired various artists including the German classical literature giants Goethe and Schiller. However, she is most likely a portrait of Antonia Minor, the mother of emperor Claudius, and dating from the mid-first century AD.

More Ludovisi Sculptures in the Palazzo Altemps in Rome

Pan and Daphnis and Great Ludovisi Sarcophagus

A few further sculptures in the Ludovisi Collection — some with major restorations and later additions — include among others:

Athena with the Snake in Palazzo Altemps in Rome.

Athena with the Snake — most of the snake, as well as everything below Athena’s knees and above her neck, is new but her surviving cloak is of incredible fine detail.

Athena Parthenos — only the arms are new (and wrongly positioned compared to the larger Greek original) but once again the dress shows remarkably fine detail.

Two statues of Apollo with his Lyre (Apollo Citaredo) — for both only the torso and right leg (and seemingly genitals, as an advance of being seated) are original. Ippolito Buzio restored the works in the 17th century with the new heads inspired by Apollo Belvedere and Praxiteles’ Apollo Lyceus.

Cupid and Psyche — only the upper body of Psyche and Cupid from knees to shoulder are original. Buzio added the rest including heads from antiquity (Apollo for Psyche and a female for Cupid).

Aphrodite in a Crouching Position with a Dolphin

In the statue of Aphrodite in a Crouching Position with a Dolphin both she and Amor (Eros) received new heads but most of the rest are original. A further Crouching Aphrodite also received a new head and arms. Only the torso and upper legs of the Knidian Aphrodite are from antiquity.

Statue of Hermes Loghios — largely original but for the feet and right arm.

Colossal Group with Dionysus and a Satyr — Dionysus got new legs, new genitals, a new left arm, and a panther while the satyr got at least a new head and arms. This satyr inspired the head of the quarreling Satyr and Nymph that Bernini added to the Roman copy of the Greek original. Pan and Daphnis is another Roman copy of the well-known and often copied Greek original.

The statue of the Pouring Satyr only needed a new right arm while Dionysys with the Panther additionally required a new head and right knee too. A nearby statue of Dionysus (with a fig leave) is a fine example of a 17th-century fake — the sculptor used marble fragments to give the impression of a restored ancient torso but the statue reminds of Michelangelo’s Bacchus in the Bargello in Florence.

Ludovisi Sarcophagi in the Palazzo Altemps in Rome

The Boncompagni Ludovisi Collection has two sarcophagi depicting battle scenes between Romans and Barbarians:

Great Ludovisi Sarcophagus in the Palazzo Altemps in Rome

The Great Ludovisi Sarcophagus is a colossal sarcophagus dating probably from the late 2nd, early 3rd century. Battle scenes on the front facade are on three levels: victorious Romans at the top, the fighting at the center, and the defeated, mostly slain barbarians at the bottom. The face of the deceased (general on horseback, center) might have been reworked. The large sarcophagus is often the background to images of the Ludovisi Gaul.

Small Ludovisi Sarcophagus

The Small Ludovisi Sarcophagus has only a single band of battle but the Romans here fight three enemies. Winged victories standing on nude prisoners and palm trees at the corners symbolize victory. Although using Hellenistic sculptural models, the portrayal is a typical Roman view of triumphal power. The style of the relief is similar to the Column of Marcus Aurelius and thus this sarcophagus probably also dates from 175-180 AD. The smaller sarcophagus is on display in the room adjacent to the Ludovisi Gaul.

Two further interesting sarcophagi fronts in the collection are:

Hercules Sarcophagus

The Hercules Sarcophagus with depictions of nine of the twelve labors of Hercules: the victory over the Nemean lion, the combat with the Lernaean hydra and the Erymanthian boar, the capture of the Cerynean hind, the hunt for the Stymphalian birds, the victory over Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, the cleaning of the Augean stables, the capture of the Cretan bull and finally the taming of the mares of King Diomedes. The central portrait of the deceased is of far lower quality than the rest of the work. It dates from around AD 240.

Triumph of Dionysus Sarcophagus

The Triumph of Dionysus with an allusion to the myth of the triumph of Baccus in India. Dionysus on a two-horse chariot pulled by an elephant follows a retinue of dancing satyrs. The work dates from around AD 190-220.

Further Highlights in the Palazzo Altemps in Rome

Courtyard of the Palazzo Altemps in Rome

Of the original Altemps Collection acquired in the 16th century, only 16 works remained in the Palazzo with the best original works now on display in major museums worldwide including in the Louvre and British Museum.

Four large sculptures from the collection, all Roman-era copies of the Greek originals, are on display in the courtyard (from left): a maenad, a young Hercules, an athlete at rest, and a Demeter. Two herms and a sarcophagus decorate the fountain, while other sculptures adorn the monumental staircase.

church of San Anicento

Note the protective canopy in the courtyard. A similar canopy inspired by the sail of the Colosseum has been in use since at least the 18th century when the palace was used by the French ambassador. The main purpose is to protect the sculptures and facade from rain rather than to keep the courtyard dry.

Many of the frescoes in the palace date from the 15th and 16th centuries. The room of the painted perspectives is particularly interesting with trompe-l’oeil landscapes, false windows, and draperies. The loggia resembles an antiquarian gallery and is decorated with frescoes and a fountain.

Also worth seeing is the small church of San Anicento with its original 17th-century decorations and frescoes.

Tickets for the Palazzo Altemps in Rome

Colossal Group with Dionysus and a Satyr in Palazzo Altemps in Rome.

Tickets for the Palazzo Altemps are €8 for adults, €2 for EU nationals 18 to 25, and free for children under 18.

Many visitors will get better value from combination tickets for all venues of the Museo Nazionale Romano (National Roman Museums) including the Palazzo Altemps, Palazzo Massimo, and Baths of Diocletian (and the Crypta Balbi if open). Tickets valid for a week are excellent value at: €12 for adults, €8 for EU citizens 18 to 25, and free for children under 18.

Admission is free to all National Roman Museums on the first Sunday of each month.

Tickets bought online have a small surcharge and are only a benefit in the busiest of seasons. Ticket queues at the Altemps or Baths are usually shorter than at the larger and better-known Palazzo Massimo.

Various Rome passes are accepted while tours are more common to include the Palazzo Massimo and Baths of Diocletian than the Palazzo Altemps. Descriptions in the Palazzo Altemps are fortunately very clear and almost always in both English and Italian.

Opening Hours and Location of the Palazzo Altemps in Rome

The Palazzo Altemps is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30 to 19:00 (last admission at 18:00).

The Palazzo Altemps is at Piazza di Sant’Apollinare 46, just north of the Piazza Navona and half a block from Sant’Agostino church with art by Raphael and Caravaggio.

Henk Bekker in armor

About the author:

Henk Bekker

Henk Bekker is a freelance travel writer with over 20 years of experience writing online. He is particularly interested in history, art, and culture. He has lived most of his adult life in Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark. In addition to, he also owns a travel website on the Lake Geneva region of Switzerland and maintains statistical websites on car sales and classic car auction prices. Henk holds an MBA from Edinburgh Business School and an MSc in Development Finance from the University of London.

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