From 2 October 2013 to 4 January 2014, for the first time in over two hundred years, an exhibition will bring back to life in the Vatican the charm of the eighteenth-century collections of the Profane Museums at the time of Pius VI, before the Napoleonic requisitions. It offers a unique opportunity to see reunited, in their original museum context, works previously exhibited in the Museum and now conserved in prestigious international cultural institutions. The exhibition will open simultaneously with the new display of the historical collections of the Profane Museum.
The Profane Museum, the original nucleus of the collections of profane antiquities in the future complex of the Vatican Museums, was created by Clement XIII (Rezzonico, 1758-1769) and enriched with further collections and furnishings under Pius VI (Braschi, 1775-1799). The conclusion of this demanding restoration project, which involved the entire collection and its context, is an opportunity to imagine a momentary "homecoming" of a nucleus of antique gems and cameos, mounted in elaborate Neoclassical settings at the end of the eighteenth century, and a valuable numismatic collection of Greek, Etruscan and Roman exemplars. Involved in the dramatic wartime events of the Napoleonic period, these works were transported to France as a war indemnity following the assassination of General Mathurin-Léonard Duphot in Rome in 1798.
Curated by Guido Cornini and Claudia Lega, curator and assistant in the Department of Decorative Arts of the Vatican Museums, the exhibition Precious antiquities: The Profane Museum at the time of Pius VI – presented in the evocative surroundings of the Room of the Aldobrandini Wedding – displays for the first time in over two hundred years works such as the Augustus Group, with its splendid portrait of the emperor in chalcedony, the famous Carpegna Cameo of magnificently engraved onyx depicting the Triumph of Bacchus, the “Delle Paste” Group, with a glass cameo pinax depicting the loves of Bacchus and Ariadne, and other Groups and cameos masterfully reinterpreted and infused with new life by Luigi Valadier, celebrated silversmith in Rome at the time of Pius VI.
Of particular note is the extraordinary Gonzaga Cameo, an exquisite Hellenistic creation portraying Ptolemy II Philadelphus and his wife Arsinoë, the final great acquisition of Pope Braschi in Rome still under the ancient regime. It was sequestered by Napoleon for Josephine Beauharnais, who subsequently gave it to the Tsar Alexander II of Russia, and is now one of the most admired pieces in the Hermitage.
These works are accompanied by the beautiful copper plate engravings illustrating the collection of the Profane Museum, produced in the eighteenth century and held at the National Institute of Graphic Design, and a selection of coins from the Carpegna collection in the Vatican Numismatic Cabinet, alongside other pieces from the same original collection now held in the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Alongside these, there is the rare Etruscan coin from the "Valle Fuino" votive deposit near Cascia, unearthed at the time of Pius VI.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue published in three languages by Edizioni Musei Vaticani, which will present the works on display and their history, focusing on the Profane Museums during the pontificate of Pius VI, the period in which the collections reached the peak of their splendour.