Lot 12
  • 12

Attributed to the Della Porta workshops Italian, Rome, second half 16th century

400,000 - 600,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Four Busts of Roman Emperors, probably representing Julius Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, Titus and Domitian
  • white marble and coloured marble, including alabastro fiorito, verde antico, portasanta, bigio antico and brocatello, on coloured marble columns
  • Attributed to the Della Porta workshops Italian, Rome, second half 16th century


Considering the significant age of these important Renaissance marble busts the condition is very good overall. The condition compares well with other important marbles of a similar date, and the busts exhibit an expected level of wear. There is dirt and wear to the surfaces consistent with age. There are losses to the tips of the noses of each of the busts, visible in photographs. The busts are made in sections, and it is possible that some pieces of marble may be reattached. There are joints visible throughout. There are various relatively minor chips and scratches to the white marble heads, in particular to the chins. There are naturally occurring inclusions to the white marble. There is veining to the white marble, consistent with the material, in particular to the bases of the busts with brown drapery. The columns are in good condition, with general wear to the surfaces consistent with age. The white columns are composed in sections, and there are some restored breaks and some plaster restorations. There are minor chips and abrasions to the edges. There are iron dowels to the interiors of the columns. There are a few small losses to the corners of the darker columns. Below are some detailed specific observations: Pair of busts with green marble drapery: Bearded: a few small chips and abrasions to the hair, in particular to a lock above the forehead on the proper right side. A few larger chips to the proper left cheek. Several small areas of possible restoration to the green marble, in particular to the separately carved sections at the upper chest. There are some old restorations to the underside of the drapery on the proper right side. There are also areas of restoration to the green marble around the proper left shoulder. Some of the shoulder straps at the proper left arm may be reattached and there are small restorations. The furthest piece of white marble may possibly be a replacement. There are a series of naturally occurring veins, including one to the nose with a small chip. There are scratches to the neck. There are a few filled sections and restorations to the socle. The socle appears to be reattached in recent history. The reverse: there are restorations across the arc of the back. There are areas of restoration to the strut at the bottom and to the proper left side of the back. There are plaster restorations around the metal hook at the centre of the back. There is a small hole in the back on the proper right side. Clean-shaven: Some of the shoulder straps could be reattached and there are restorations. The white marble shoulder straps could possibly be replacements. There are some small chips to the shoulder straps. There are a few small restorations to the green marble, in particular by the neck on the proper right side. There are stable open veins to the green marble, consistent with the material. There is some relatively recent fill in the joint between the socle and the bust. The reverse: there are particular restorations at the back at the top, there is a metal hook in the back. Pair with brown marble drapery: Younger: Small chips to the edges of the marble pieces. Some of the joints may be partially restored, in particular at the shoulder straps. Sections of the shoulder straps may have been reattached. Some joints have opened slightly but are stable, in particular to the proper left shoulder, and the joint between the socle and the bust. There are particular scratches to the chin and neck. There are restorations behind the proper left should straps. There is a metal hook to the centre of the back, and plaster restorations surrounding it. The pieces of marble at the nape of the neck may be reattached. Older: There is a larger chip to the tip of the nose, and various chips to the face. Slightly open vein to the proper left temple. There are a number of composite restorations to the chest, in particular to the sternum, to the abdomen, and to the proper left upper pectoral. It is possible that several of the lower pieces of the grey marble could be replaced. There are white plaster restorations to the underside and back. Some of the shoulder straps could be reattached, and there are restorations. The white marble shoulder strap on the proper right arm could possibly be a replacement. There are yellowish restorations to the brown marble. There are a few small filled holes to the brown drapery. There are a few losses to the plaster fill between the socle and the bust. There are some small chips to the shoulder straps. The reverse: there are plaster restorations to the arc of the back. There are some plaster restorations to the back truncation on the proper left side and some restorations at the nape of the neck. There is a metal hook in the back.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

These magnificent unpublished Roman Emperors are among the earliest and rarest busts in this genre to have come to auction which can be dated to the second half of the 16th century. They are significant as an important addition to our understanding of the genesis in the collecting of Emperor busts that reached its peak during the Grand Tour. The dating can be established by a series of identical busts documented in the Palazzo Farnese collection from the 1560s (Jestaz, 1981, p. 390, n.12).  It is possible that the present group of four busts were also commissioned by the Farnese, possibly for another palace or as a diplomatic gift.

With the election of Alessandro Farnese as Pope Paul III in 1534 the Farnese dynasty rose to pre-eminence in Rome and immediately set about enhancing their prestige through collecting antiquities and the patronage of leading architects, painters and sculptors of the day. In this endeavour Paul III was assisted by his grandsons Cardinal Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma. During his papacy Michelangelo completed the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.  The famous triple portrait by Titian of Paul III with his two grandsons (Museo di Capodimonte, Naples) is one of the greatest psychological studies of power and intrigue in Renaissance painting and may depict one of the patrons of the present outstanding group of Emperor busts.

The decoration of the Palazzo Farnese

In 1787 Ferdinand IV of Naples, heir to the Farnese collections, transferred the majority of the works of art from the Roman palazzo to Sicily against strong opposition. Our knowledge of the original display in the Palazzo Farnese before this time is based on two inventories made around 1640 and in 1653. Bernard Jestaz’s 1981 article ‘Le décor mobilier, la sculpture moderne et les objets d’art’ gives a detailed room by room account of the interior decoration of the palace as far as is possible to reconstruct it from these two mid-17th century descriptions.

One of the grandest state apartments was the Emperor Room (described as piece N by Jestaz, 1981 op. cit. p. 390).  The walls were hung with gilded and silvered leather decorated with heraldic lilies and unicorns, the devices of the Farnese family. Painted portraits of the 12 Caesars, copies by Carracci after Titian, adorned the walls. The two famous busts of Paul III by Guglielmo Della Porta were described here in 1653. In the centre of the room was a massive alabaster table with green marble border supported on four marble stands sculpted with addorsed dolphins and masks (similar to the one from the adjoining Sala de' Filosofi, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, see Raggio, op.cit.). The room was further decorated with various antique statues: two standing figures of Venus, a pair of equestrian groups, one an Amazon the other a soldier, and a red marble figure of Adonis with the head of a boar in black marble. In addition there was a set of 12 marble busts of Roman Emperors. The inventory is too vague to identify the busts with complete certainty, but Jestaz proposed that they are likely to have been some of the numerous busts now in the Capodimonte Museum (Jestaz, 1981, op. cit. pp. 389-392, figs. 1-9). He illustrated nine busts with white marble heads and coloured marble shoulders which he considered could be possible candidates. The varied handling of these busts suggest that there may well be different sculptors responsible for them. However, several among them share very particular affinities with the present magnificent set of four Roman Emperors (figs. 1 & 2). In particular the broad flat treatment of the laurel crown, the large angular anatomy of the ears, the generous panels of high quality coloured marble drapery and, above all, the idiosyncratic carved relief decorative pattern in the grey marble cuirass. These details are so comparable, and so unusual, as to lead to the conclusion that the present busts are from the same set, or at least from a near contemporary commission from the same workshop.

Commissions for busts of Roman Emperors from the Farnese and other Roman patrons

In 1642 Giovanni Baglione described the commission given by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese for a set of the 12 Caesars to the Della Porta worshops (Baglione, op. cit., vol. 1, p.74). These are thought to be the set of plain white marble busts that remain today in the entrance to the Palazzo Farnese, but which were probably intended by the Cardinal for the Palazzo of Caprarola, and later moved to Rome. They are now considered to be by Tommaso Della Porta il Vecchio (Palazzo Farnèse, op.cit. pp.310-315, nos. 1-12; and see below).

Numerous archival sources record several series of busts commissioned from the Della Porta workshops. However, commentators have not always been able to clarify which commission relates to which workshop or individual sculptor.  Vasari (who himself owned a prized bust by Tommaso) describes the commission Tommaso received from Pope Julius III for a set of 12 Emperor busts, now lost, which reveals a fierce rivalry with Guglielmo. In 1566 the commission seems to have been proposed as a diplomatic gift for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (1527-1576). This seems not to have happened, because three years later the same group were prepared for shipment to Philip II of Spain (1527-1598). These may be the same set which is said to have been made for Pope Paul IV (Brown and Lorenzoni, op. cit., p. 230).

Sénéchal’s analysis of the 1568 Farnese inventory identified the 12 Emperor busts in the salotto appresso alli studioli as by Tommaso (op. cit., p. 250, no. 11).  The 1606 inventory of Giovanni Battista Della Porta's personal collection inherited by his brothers Tommaso the younger and Giovanni Paolo, records ‘dodici imperatori [armati] moderni con soi petti di marmo et peducci di mischio, maggior del naturale’. These sculptures have been identified with the set by Giovanni Battista now in the Salone d'ingresso of the Galleria Borghese, Rome,  acquired with the entire Della Porta collection of antiquities in 1609 (Brown & Lorenzoni, op. cit., pp. 228-9 and Ioele, 2016b, op. cit., pp. 194-5).

Other sets of Emperor busts may have been commissioned from the Della Porta workshops in Rome during the second half of the 16th century, but the striking affinity between the present four busts and those from the Farnese collections now in Capodimonte make it plausible that they were produced at the same time and for the same decorative scheme.

Identifying the Della Porta workshops in Rome

Many attempts have been made to unravel the family and artistic relationships between the many sculptors and architects named Della Porta working in Rome during the 16th century. It is generally accepted that they originate from Lombardy. Guglielmo Della Porta (circa 1515-1577), probably the most renowned sculptor, was born in Porlezza, near Como and was the son or nephew of Gian Giacomo (d.1554-5), with whom he worked in Genoa Cathedral before moving to Rome and becoming official sculptor, Piombatore Apostolico, to Paul III in 1547. His son Teodoro (1567-1638) was also a sculptor. Giacomo Della Porta (1532-1602), also born in Porlezza, was one of the leading architects in Rome who succeeded Michelangelo as surveyor of the works on the Capitoline and worked with Jacopo Vignola, the great Farnese architect. He seems to be unrelated directly to Guglielmo, but was the brother of Tommaso Della Porta, the Elder (circa 1520-1567) the sculptor who is known to have worked for the Farnese. Tommaso, the Elder was the uncle of Giovanni Battista (1542-1597), Tommaso, the younger (1546-1606) and Giovanni Paolo (1552-1609) who all worked as sculptors, but it is Giovanni Battista who was the dominant force in this workshop and who seems to have been close to his uncle.  In addition to the direct Della Porta family members these workshops employed highly skilled sculptors with their own artistic idenitities. Raggio (op. cit. p. 221) singled out known assistants working for Guglielmo such as Domenico da Tivoli (who worked directly for Cardinal Alessandro and whom Jestaz (op. cit., 1981, p. 390, no. 12) proposed as a possible author of the Capodimonte busts), Mo Giovanni Angelo, Mo Niccolo and Mo Manco.

In relation to the present exceptional group of Emperor busts the artists that are most relevant are Guglielmo, Tommaso, the elder and Giovanni Battista. All three had the skill and opportunity to produce these busts. Whilst Guglielmo had the most prestigious role with the Farnese, Tommaso and Giovanni Battista were employed on more decorative projects that would have included sets of Emperor busts.  In addition, the sumptuous use of high quality coloured marbles is more consistent with the activity of Giovanni Battista and, to some extent Tommaso, who were also collectors and dealers in antiquities and antique marble.

Whilst it is not possible at present to identify the specific sculptor of these Emperors in the Della Porta workshops, support for Jestaz's association of the Capodimonte busts (figs. 1 & 2), and by implication the present busts, with the 16th century Farnese inventories is provided by the unusual elaborately carved floral pattern on the cuirasses. This patterning is consistent with a date in the second half of the 16th century as is shown by comparisons with contemporary fabrics, such as the silk and linen brocatelle fragment (no. 81.1.12), or the silk damask fragment (no. 75.1.559) both in the Museo del Tessuto, Prato. It has not been possible to identify a similar treatment of armour or drapery in other works by  Guglielmo, Tommaso the elder or Giovanni Battista Della Porta, but it is interesting to note in the work Leonardo Sormani (d. after 1589), who worked closely with Giovanni Battista, a tendency for the representation of rich fabric effects, such as in the white marble statue of Pius V (1586-88) in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome and in the bust of Rodolfo Pio da Carpi (1567) in the Orsini-Caetani chapel, Santissima Trinità dei Monti, Rome, or again in the bust of Paolo Odescalchi (1585) in San Girolamo della Carità, Rome.

G. Vasari, Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architettori scritte da Giorgio Vasari pittore arentino, G. Milanesi (ed.), 1906 (1568);
G. Baglione, Le vite de pittori, scultori et architetti, dal pontificato di Gregorio XIII del 1572 in fino à tempi di papa Urbana VIII nel 1642, J. Hess and H. Röttgen, Città del Vaticano 1995 (Rome, 1642);
R. Laurent-Vibert and P. Bourdon, 'Le Palais Farnèse d'après l'inventaire de 1653' in Mélanges d'archéologie et d'histoire, 1909 vol. 29, pp. 145-198;
O. Raggio, ‘The Farnese Table: A Rediscovered Work by Vignola’, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, vol. 18, no. 7, March 1960, pp. 213-231; 
B. Jestaz, ‘Le décor mobilier, la sculpture modern et les objets d’art’ in Le Palais FarneseEcole française de Rome, 1981, vol. 1 pp. 387-407; 
C. Riebesell, ‘Die Antikensammlung Farnese zur Carracci-Zeit’ in Les Carrache et les décors profanes. Actes du colloque de Rome (2-4 octobre 1986) Rome, École Française de Rome, 1988. pp. 373-417; 
C. Ribesell, Die Sammlung des Kardinal Alessandro Farnese. Ein 'studio' für Künstler und Gelehrte, Weinheim, 1989, pp. 28-30, figs. 10-21; 
B. Jestaz, ‘Copies d’antiques au Palais Farnèse. Les fonts de Guglielmo Della Porta’, in Mélanges de l’Ecole française de Rome. Italie et Méditerranée, 1993, vol. 105, no. 1, pp. 7-48;
G. Panofsky, ‘Tommaso della Porta’s ‘Castles in the Air’, in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 56, 1993, pp. 119-167; 
C. M. Brown and A. M. Lorenzo I, Our accustomed discourse on the antique. Cesare Gonzaga and Gerolamo Garimberto. Two Renaissance collectors of Greco-Roman Art, New York and London, 1993, pp. 228-232; 
P. Sénéchal, ‘Le premier inventaire des antiques du Palais Farnese, in Mélanges de l’Ecole française de Rome. Italie et Méditerranée, 1996, vol. 108, no. 1, pp. 241-264;
F. P. Arata, 'Copie e calchi di sculture' in Palazzo Farnèse. Dalle collezioni rinascimentali ad Ambasciata di Francia, exh. cat. Rome, Palazzo Farnese, 2010, pp. 174-181;
C. Riebesell, 'Guglielmo della Porta' in Palazzo Farnèse. Dalle collezioni rinascimentali ad Ambasciata di Francia, exh. cat. Rome, Palazzo Farnese, 2010, pp. 254-261; 
A. Bacchi and C. Riebesell, Capolavori dell'officina Farnesiana. Due busti d'imperatori all'antica in bronzo e marmi policromi, Giovanni Pratesi Antiquario, Florence, 2011;
G. Ioele, 'Profilo biografico e stilistico del Cavaliere Giovanni Batista Della Porta', in Scultura a Roma nella seconda metà del Cinquento. Protagonisti e problemi, W. Cupperi, G. Extermann, G. Ioele (eds.), San Casciano, 2012, pp. 151-202; 
G. Ioele, 'Marmi colorati nella bottega Della Porta: mercato, collezionismo, restauro', in G. Extermann and A. V. Braga (eds.), Splendor Marmoris. I colori del marmo, tra Roma e l'Europa, da Paolo III a Napoleone III, Rome, 2016a, pp. 87-104; 
G. Ioele, Prima di Bernini. Giovanni Battista Della Porta Scultore (1542-1597), Rome, 2016b, pp. 17-23, 194-195