Ex-Ludovisi portrait of Antinous, long split between Rome and Chicago, stunningly matched then reunited through thrilling technology

When it comes to investigative art history, you’ve got to hand it to the Department of Ancient and Byzantine Art of the Art Institute of Chicago. Since early April—and until 28 August 2016—a fascinating exhibition has been telling the story of how the museum managed to reunite the truncated face of a Roman marble portrait, long held in its collection, with its original sculptural bust housed at the Museo Nazionale Romano Palazzo Altemps [inv. no. 8620].

The paired portrait fragment and the bust (now with an early modern face, and a clearly visible join) represent the emperor Hadrian’s presumed lover, the Bithynian youth Antinous, who drowned under suspect circumstances in the Nile on 30 October 130. And the kicker is that the bust—and conceivably also the separated face—once formed part of the Ludovisi collection of ancient sculpture.


3D scale model at (one-third) combining the Antinous pieces in Chicago and Rome. From the online catalogue Roman Art at the Art Institute of Chicago (in turn crediting Studio MCM srl, Rome)

Here is the basic story. At some point in its history, perhaps even before it entered the Ludovisi collection, the Antinous bust lost its ancient face. A new one was added by the mid 18th century at the latest. For it has emerged from the Art Institute’s investigation that the pioneering German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann had noted that feature in the notes of his visit to the Villa Ludovisi in the year 1756, his first encounter with the great Roman collections.

It is a good bet that Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (1595-1621-1632) himself found or acquired the bust, when assembling the Villa and its art collection during the papacy of his uncle, Gregory XV Ludovisi, in the years 1621-1623.  A 1641 inventory shows an over life-size ‘Antonio’, as AIC Ancient and Byzantine Art Department collection and exhibition manager Elizabeth Hahn Benge has observed, which is likely to be our piece.

Antinous Palazzo Altemps inv 8620

Ex-Ludovisi bust of Antinous in the Palazzo Altemps (inv. no. 8620). Credit: Karen Manchester

The earliest published reference to this Antinous in Ludovisi hands seems to be 1693. In his (amazing) Mercurio errantePietro Rossini mentions “il Busto di Antino” as one of the precious statues exhibited in the very first display room of the Palazzo Grande in the Villa Ludovisi. (That structure now is occupied by the US Embassy in Rome.) Mariano Vasi has it in the same place in the late 18th century, and it shows up in all the 19th century published catalogues of the Boncompagni Ludovisi holdings. Even without its ancient face, it clearly was a bust of Antinous—enough remains of the ultra-distinctive curly hair locks to secure the identification.


Entrance to the Palazzo Grande of the Villa Ludovisi in 1885. Credit: HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi

Whether the Boncompagni Ludovisi also had the face fragment among their artworks is at present an open question. (But see below for some speculation.) There are all sorts of possibilities, including that the face was separated from the bust in antiquity and rediscovered only in the rough excavations that accompanied the construction of the Rione Ludovisi in the late 19th century, and so was unknown to the family. And who reassembled the bust (which itself was in fragments) and carved the early modern face that Winckelmann already noted?


View of Chicago fragment of portrait head of Antinous. From the online catalogue Roman Art at the Art Institute of Chicago

It was the Art Institute of Chicago’s first president, Charles L. Hutchinson (1854-1924), who bought the Antinous face-fragment in Rome in April 1898 for his personal collection. The purchase was made at the newly-renovated Palazzo Odescalchi in the Prati section, from the well-connected artist and antiquarian Attilio Simonetti (1843-1925). Simonetti correctly identified the face as that of Antinous, but represented it (perhaps innocently, perhaps not) to Hutchinson mounted as a relief. Hutchinson’s widow bequeathed the fragment to the Chicago museum after his death in 1924.

As for the restored bust, that stayed in Rome. In 1901 the Boncompagni Ludovisi family sold it, and more than 100 of their other magnificent ancient sculptures assembled by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi, to the Italian state. This ex-Ludovisi collection resided for almost a century in a section of the Museo Nazionale Romano at the Baths of Diocletian. Then, in 1997, the artworks were transferred to Palazzo Altemps where they are today shown to exquisite effect.

In 2005, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago, W. Raymond Johnson, suggested to the Art Institute that the museum’s fragment was originally part of the bust of Antinous that is housed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome.


The Antinous pieces of Chicago and Rome in juxtaposition. Credit: Art Institute of Chicago

Enter Karen Manchester, Chair and Curator of Ancient and Byzantine Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. In short (to borrow from the AIC’s press release announcing this curatorial triumph), Manchester “led a decade-long quest to explore Johnson’s hypothesis through a first-of-its kind international partnership and collaborative endeavor between the Palazzo Altemps and the Art Institute. Archival research of published and unpublished documents in Chicago and Rome provided new details about the history of the two works, and the two museums brought into play the tools of contemporary technology—laser scans, 3D printers—to create a reproduction of the sculpture as it originally appeared.”

“In the end,” Manchester told this weblog, “we concluded that the two pieces were indeed once one, and we used 3D measurements and modeling techniques to create a plaster cast that approximates the sculpture’s original appearance.”  The eureka moment? “In April 2013, I took [the] cast of our head to Rome to compare the two, and then again in June, when digital measurements were taken of both pieces, the ‘modern’ head [was] ‘removed,’ and our head put in its place.” What is more, isotopic and petrographic analysis of samples extracted from the Chicago portrait and the Altemps bust reveals that both pieces were carved from Carrara marble, and very probably from the same block of stone.


Laser scanning of a cast of the Chicago portrait fragment of Antinous; the reflective targets can be seen on the cast as well as on the Palazzo Altemps bust of Antinous to the right. From the online catalogue Roman Art at the Art Institute of Chicago

One need not tell the whole complicated and engrossing tale here: the video (above) and especially Karen Manchester‘s entry in the online scholarly catalogue, Roman Art at the Art Institute of Chicago (cat. #9) do that especially well. The catalogue also details the crucial roles played by Jerry Podany, senior conservator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum; Alessandra Capodiferro, director of the Palazzo Attempts museum; and more than a few others in this whole thrilling detective story. Adding to the suspense: the Chicago portrait was on what one might charitably call “unofficial loan” for the years 1961-1983, making its way back to the Art Institute only by a fluke.

As for the Chicago exhibition itself, the AIC press release rightly notes that it “is focused and rich in detail, exploring the modern methods used to rebuild the ancient past and featuring related portraits of Hadrian and Antinous, including one depicting Antinous in the guise of the Egyptian god Osiris which was re-discovered in 2010 and makes its first museum appearance here.” That Antinous-Osiris is said to be from Hadrian’s Villa, and was formerly in the collection of Thomas Hope (1769-1831). (When found, it was exhibited outdoors at Thornbridge Hall in Derbyshire.) Support for this exhibition is provided by Fred Eychaner and the Jaharis Family Foundation, Inc.

Next stop after Chicago? In September the exhibition will travel to Rome where it will be on display at the Museo Nazionale Romano at Palazzo Altemps. It opens 15 September 2016.

01 Title Wall

03 AIC Plaster Cast Altemps Sculptures

Views of the Art Institute of Chicago exhibition, “A Portrait of Antinous, in Two Parts”. Above: Antinous in the guise of Osiris (rediscovered 2010). Below: the Chicago fragment (at left), the actual ex-Ludovisi Altemps bust on loan from Rome (inv. no. 8620, at right), and a composite plaster cast of the two reunited (center), created by Studio MCM srl in Rome. Credit for both photos: Art Institute of Chicago

Now what about that face fragment? It may also be ex-Ludovisi. (Professional art historians are advised to read no further, since what follows is merely the semi-informed rambling of the editor of this blog.)

One possibility is that the antiquarian / painter Attilio Simonetti (or someone connected to him) saw the “original” face in the storeroom (indeed, a Roman cryptoporticus) that lay beneath the Casino delle Statue of the Boncompagni Ludovisi. That is where they kept their spare statue parts. Antiquarian visitors conceivably could visit the Cryptoporticus as part of their Museo tour.  In 2008 Valeria Brunori, Fine Arts curator at the US Embassy Romepublished the proceedings of a conference on the graffiti of the Cryptoporticus, in the volume Unexpected Voices. (See e.g., the contribution by Anna Holst Blennow in that work on the continued accessibility to the storerooms.) The automotive service garage of the US Embassy today sits above this space.

Rome Crypto after treatmentxjpg-1

The Roman Cryptoporticus underneath the present-day service garage of the US Embassy in Rome, following its magnificent restoration in the mid-1990s. Credit: US Department of State

And so—to continue with this line of speculation—the Antinous face was obtained ultimately from the Boncompagni Ludovisi, who had started deaccessioning artwork in the general financial crisis of the early 1890s. This “original” face may have been in storage since its separation (for reasons unknown) and replacement, perhaps already in the 17th or early 18th centuries. One notes that analysis of the Chicago portrait reveals surface deposits “that appear to be from a preindustrial cement such as the Romans used”. It is worth wondering whether there are traces of that same cement in the ex-Cryptoporticus of the Villa Ludovisi.

More than anything, it really does seem more than a bit of a coincidence that the Antinous face would crop up for sale in Rome precisely in the year 1898. All sorts of ex-Ludovisi pieces were on the market at that time, both great and small. One notes this was about the same time that, through the agency of Richard Norton, Charles F. and Mary Pratt Sprague purchased the colossal ex-Ludovisi “Juno” (7 tons, 13 feet tall) and transported it to their estate in Brookline MA.

And then in 1901 the bulk of the sculptural collection, including the Antinous bust itself, was sold to the Italian state—to the world’s enormous advantage, it will be noted.


Villa Ludovisi (1885): the Museo Boncompagni Ludovisi, where the Antinous bust was ultimately displayed, near the Palazzo Grande. The ancient Roman Cryptoporticus was located under this building. Credit: HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi

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