The Ruin of the Ages: Chateaubriand, the Torlonia Marbles, and the Twilight of Civilization - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Ruin of the Ages: Chateaubriand, the Torlonia Marbles, and the Twilight of Civilization
François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand (German Vizulis/Shutterstock)

Sculpte, lime, cisèle;
Que ton rêve flottant
Se scelle
Dans le bloc résistant!

Sculpt, and file, and chisel away;
So that your drifting dream
Is set
In hard unyielding stone!

– Théophile Gautier, “L’Art”


On June 2, 1828, the arch-Catholic novelist and historian François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand received his appointment as French ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the Holy See. It was an ideal diplomatic assignment for someone of his intensely religious and antiquarian sensibilities, and Chateaubriand could look forward to private audiences with Pope Leo XII and members of the College of Cardinals, extravagant feasts with his ambassadorial colleagues, and, in his spare time, moonlit rambles amidst the necropolises, tomb-lined avenues, and evocative ruins of that ancient city. The newly minted ambassador began his journey from Paris to Rome in high spirits, but his progress slowed to a crawl as his congenitally morbid temperament made its presence felt. “No sooner had I set out with Madame Chateaubriand,” he recalled in his posthumously-published Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, “than my natural melancholy joined me on the way.” Loitering in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, and then in Lausanne, he spent his days scribbling in his diary instead of making headway. In one entry, dated September 22, the vicomte cryptically jotted down the phrase esto cicada noctium, a haunting reference to one of Saint Jerome’s letters:

Esto cicada noctium. Lava per singulas noctes lectum tuum, in lacrimis stratum tuum riga. Vigila et fiere sicut passer in solitudine.

Be thou the cicada of the night. Wash your bed and water your couch nightly with tears. Keep vigil and be like the sparrow alone upon the housetop.

Chateaubriand’s adventure was off to something of a rough start, as the diplomat began to dread taking up a post he had coveted for so long. Rome could wait a while longer. After all, “no one cares to live in a ruin.”

Chateaubriand then found himself lingering, or perhaps malingering, in the resort town of Arona, by the banks of the Lago Maggiore, a place “blazing with the gold of the setting sun and edged with azure,” but the bucolic sight afforded him “neither pleasure nor sentiment,” though he did admit to noticing “the littleness of present society less when I find myself alone” — a modest consolation. Killing time in Milan, he made the altogether curious observation that in the span of “less than a quarter of an hour, I counted seventeen hunchbacks passing under the window of my inn.” His visit to the Duomo was similarly preternatural. Entering into the sepulcher of Saint Carlo Borromeo, the vicomte came face to face with the mouldering remains of the cardinal, who “reckoned two hundred and forty-four years of death. He was not beautiful.” A few days later, while lodged at the Borgo San Donnino, his wife was shocked to find her clothes inexplicably falling from their hangers, and became convinced that the inn was either “haunted by ghosts or inhabited by robbers,” though François-René helpfully suggested that an earthquake in the Apennines was the more likely culprit. Obliged to flee from that supposed “cave of murderers” with all speed, a bemused Chateaubriand contemplated how “the continuation of my journey has displayed to me on every hand the flight of men and the inconstancy of fortune.”

The next stop in this meandering and increasingly Gothic expedition down the Italian peninsula was Bologna, where Chateaubriand was received “with the honors with which ambassadors are pestered,” and where he sought refuge in the local cemetery — “I never forget the dead; they are our family.” Then came Ravenna, where he paid homage to Dante’s tomb, admired the perfection of the Byzantine mosaics of San Vitale and Sant’Apollinare, and wandered through an old forest lying along the Adriatic coast, where solitary, wind-swept pines resembled “the masts of galleys settled in the sand.” After that, in rapid succession, came Ancona, Spoleto, Terni, Narni, and Civita Castellana. Of Santa Maria di Faleri, once the site of a flourishing pre-Roman city, Chateaubriand found that “nothing is left but its skin, the walls; inside, it was empty: misère humaine à Dieu ramène [the misery of man leads him back to God].” By now the Grand Tour had gone on long enough, Rome beckoned, and duty called. Chateaubriand’s misery would finally lead him back to God, or at the very least to the seat of His representative on earth.

The ambassador arrived at the walls of the Eternal City on October 11, 1828. He had served there before, back in 1803, when he had been a 35-year-old secretary to the cardinal and diplomat Joseph Fesch, prince of France. “As ambassador in England in 1822,” Chateaubriand reminisced, “I sought out the places and men that I had formerly known in London in 1793; as Ambassador to the Holy See in 1828, I hastened to visit the palaces and ruins, to ask after the persons whom I had seen in Rome in 1803: of the palaces and ruins I have found many there; of the persons, few.” In a letter to his confidante Juliette Récamier, composed soon after his arrival, the vicomte complained that “Rome finds me cold, and bereft of enthusiasm,” adding that “my memory for places, which is both astonishing and painful, will not let me forget a single stone. I have traversed alone and on foot this great dilapidated city only in longing to leave it.”

After a cursory private audience with Pope Leo XII, Chateaubriand was left more or less to his own devices. The next order of business — and perhaps the real reason he had so strenuously sought out a position in Rome — would be an archaeological investigation of the city and its environs. The early months of 1829 saw Chateaubriand organizing a dig at Torre Vergata, “the most beautiful and most deserted” site imaginable, though now somewhat marred by the unattractive modernist architecture of the sprawling Università degli Studi di Roma Tor Vergata. “My digs are going well,” he reported to Madame Récamier, “I find many empty sarcophagi; I shall be able to choose one for myself, although my dust will not have to drive away that of those who are long dead, which has been swept away by the wind.” The ghosts of the past were everywhere, quite literally, if our protagonist’s account is to be credited: “Soon the night brings the inhabitants out of their palaces and the stars out of the firmament; earth and the heavens become repopulated; Rome is brought back to life; and the life that has silently begun again in the darkness, around the tombs, resembles the life and movement of the shades going back down to Erebus at the approach of the day.”

One day in mid-February, the ambassador-turned-archaeologist managed to unearth “three fine heads, a draped female torso, and a funeral inscription by a brother to a young sister, which touched me,” all the more so given that Chateaubriand had lost two beloved sisters of his own,

Julie in 1799 and Lucile in 1804, the latter likely at her own hands. Lucile’s last desperate letter to François-René described how her “life is shedding its last ray, like a lamp that has burnt itself out in the darkness of a long night, and can only last until the dawn in which it is to be extinguished.” Lucile’s earthly remains were consigned to an unmarked pit, where she was “buried among the poor,” Chateaubriand knew that much, but “in what grave-yard was she laid? In what motionless wave of an ocean of dead was she swallowed up? . . . What nomenclator of the shades could point out to me that obliterated tomb?” Deprived of the chance to furnish an inscription for his sister’s tomb, Chateaubriand had no choice but to make her “a solitude in my heart: she shall leave it only when I shall have ceased to live.”

Chateaubriand had always been haunted by an incident that had occurred in Paris decades earlier, at the height of the Jacobin Terror, when he caught his melancholic sister “casting her eyes upon a mirror” before giving a sudden, spine-chilling cry: “I have just seen Death come in.” Writing breathlessly from Rome in a February 25, 1829 letter to Madame Récamier, he would echo that very language: “Death is here; Torlonia went yesterday evening after two days’ illness. I saw him lying all painted on his death-bed, his sword by his side. He lent money on pledges, but on such pledges! On antiquities, on pictures huddled promiscuously in an old, dusty palace.” The pitiable figure whose disquieting death-bed scene Chateaubriand so poignantly described was Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia, 1st Prince of Civitella-Cesi, a Franco-Italian banker of such boundless wealth and influence that Ignazio Silone wryly put it this way:

At the head of everything is God, Lord of Heaven.
After him comes Prince Torlonia, lord of the earth.
Then comes Prince Torlonia’s armed guards.
Then comes Prince Torlonia’s armed guards’ dogs.
Then nothing at all. Then nothing at all. Then nothing at all. Then come the peasants. And that’s all.

“And the authorities, where do they come in?” (asks the Hon. Pelino.) Ponzio Pilato interrupted to explain that the authorities were divided between the third and fourth categories, according to the pay. The fourth category (that of the dogs) was a very large one.

As semi-official banker to the Vatican and much of Rome, Giovianni Torlonia could afford to spend 200,000 crowns on a splendid palace in the Borgo district, for use not as a residence, but dedicated solely to hosting lavish balls. Those familiar with William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair may recall one such event towards the end of the novel, the “splendid evening entertainments” organized by Prince “Polonia,” where “all the great company in Rome,” not to mention the “refuse and sediment of rascals” — Becky Sharp and Major Loder included — thronged to the princely saloons where “halls blazed with light and magnificence . . . resplendent with gilt frames (containing pictures), and dubious antiques.” Chateaubriand attended one such ball, and understandably came away complaining in a distinctly Thackerean vein of the “multitude of insipid Englishwomen and frivolous dandies who, holding each other linked by the arms, as the bats do by the wing, parade their eccentricity, their boredom and their insolence.”

Both Thackeray and Chateaubriand made a point to mention the many antiquities with which Giovanni Torlonia had surrounded himself. The author of Vanity Fair was skeptical of their authenticity, though unfairly so, since Torlonia excavated many of his sculptures himself, and acquired others from reputable sources like the restorer Bartolomeo Cavaceppi and the fading aristocratic Giustiniani family. Chateaubriand, meanwhile, considered the prince’s hoard proof of the axiom that vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas — where the prince was going, surely his amassment of ancient treasures would do him little good. Yet the cynical Thackeray and the lugubrious Chateaubriand had both failed to understand the real reason for Torlonia’s mania for accumulating ancient artifacts. Walter Benjamin had a far better grasp of the mindset of the true art lover:

Happiness of the collector, happiness of the solitary: tête-à-tête with things. Is not this the felicity that suffuses our memories — that in them we are alone with particular things, which range about us in their silence, and that even the people who haunt our thoughts then partake in this steadfast, confederate silence of things. The collector “stills” his fate. And that means he disappears in the worlds of memory.

Torlonia had indeed created his own world of memory, one that celebrated the glories of the past and the remarkable achievements of his nascent banking dynasty. And owing to the dutiful efforts of his son and heir, Alessandro, the sculptures he had acquired would not remain “huddled promiscuously in an old, dusty palace.” Instead, they would form the basis of the renowned Museo Torlonia, which opened in 1876 in a converted grain warehouse and would become, in the words of the art critic Federico Zeri, the “most important private museum of sculpture in the world.” Pietro Ercole Visconti, the museum’s first curator, was equally ardent in his appraisal: “the museum of ancient sculpture formed by Prince Don Alessandro Torlonia, far exceeding the limits of every private collection, is now beyond comparison, save with royal and public collections.” The 620 Roman marble and alabaster sculptures, portrait busts, reliefs, and sarcophagi displayed therein would be the Torlonia dynasty’s gift to Rome and to the world, providing a venue where for years to come, the marvels of ancient Rome would be brought back to life before the eyes of discerning visitors.


The world of memory is, of course, a fragile thing, wholly dependent on subsequent generations for its perpetuation. “Our life resembles those frail buildings,” Chateaubriand once mused, “shored up in the sky by flying buttresses: they do not crumble at once, but become loose piecemeal; they still support some gallery or other, while already they have become separated from the chancel or vault of the edifice.” Unfortunately, the Museo Torlonia was not immune to the forces of entropy, decadence, and decline. By 1948, the members of the withering Roman nobility had lost their official titles, privileges, and much of their wealth, and the Torlonia family itself succumbed to infighting; around a decade later their private museum was extra-judicially converted into an apartment complex. One resident, the BBC journalist David Willey, was able to convince the building’s superintendent to grant him access to the antiquities still stored on the grounds, “crammed higgledy-piggledy into a series of ill-lit strong rooms behind steel doors, and covered in dust, grime and rat droppings. It was a real shock to glimpse valuable and famous works of art in such a sorry, dirty, abandoned state.”

In 2005 Silvio Berlusconi offered to purchase the collection from the dynasty for a suitably princely sum — 130 million euros, it was said — only for the deal to fall through. By 2016, Prince Alessandro II Torlonia, not long for this world, was at last willing to come to an agreement with the Italian state regarding the exhibition of a portion of the overall collection at the Villa Caffarelli, though even this did not come off without a hitch. Scheduled to open in October of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic repeatedly interrupted public access to the Torlonia Marbles, and the showcase ended on June 29, 2021, having attracted only a fraction of the audience it deserved.

Plans have been made for some of the sculptures to be temporarily hosted by the Louvre, the British Museum, and other institutions abroad while a permanent home is prepared for them by the Fondazione Torlonia back in Rome. (In the meantime, those curious about the collection may content themselves with The Torlonia Marbles: Collecting Masterpieces, a comprehensive catalogue edited by curators Salvatore Settis and Carlo Gasparri and published earlier this year by Rizzoli, which details the growth of the collection over the course of the 19th century and includes stunning reproductions of the 92 masterpieces included in the 2020-2021 exhibition.) Hopefully the ongoing resuscitation of the Museo Torlonia and its treasures will raise international awareness of these unfairly neglected masterpieces of Classical art.

Perhaps the revival of the Torlonia Marbles will even serve to counteract the stream of sludge that has been gurgling up out of the intellectual sewers of post-modern academia, as archaeologists take to Twitter to suggest how to topple obelisks, Princeton professors bemoan how “systemic racism is foundational to those institutions that incubate classics and classics as a field itself” (while abolishing requirements for their students to so much as learn Latin or Greek), and the “decolonization” of university curricula, libraries, and museums continues apace. The French Classicist Raphaël Doan, in his razor-sharp March 11, 2021 Le Figaro essay “Ces historiens de l’Antiquité qui haissent l’Antiquité,” expressed shock at how far his field has fallen: “Should the Greco-Roman heritage be burned down? This absurd question does not come from a Visigoth of the fifth century, but from the best American universities of the twenty-first century.” Doan continued, “By explaining that our world has no filiation link with the Greeks and Romans, and that these civilizations have no particular interest in and of themselves, some researchers have plunged themselves into real existential crises.” The goal is evidently to transform the discipline into “a place of protest and expression for ‘communities that have been disparaged by it in the past.’ For example, to make ancient texts a laboratory field for ‘critical race theory’ or for ‘activist organization strategies.’” We now have, to take but one example, courses like Wake Forest University’s “Classics Beyond Whiteness,” which addresses the woke word salad of “misconceptions that ancient Greeks and Romans were white; race in Graeco-Roman societies; the role of Classics in modern racial politics; and non-white approaches to Classics. Considers race as social construct; white supremacy, fragility, and privilege; and critical-race-theoretical study of ancient cultures.” Thus, according to Doan, has “the Greco-Roman heritage been overwhelmed with unfounded and frankly stupid moral condemnation.” Classicists once took inspiration from works like the Torlonia Marbles; now one suspects that many of their intellectual successors would be pleased to put those masterpieces back into storage, or worse.

So while the Torlonia renaissance is to be welcomed, we also have to acknowledge that the antiquities have emerged from their warehouse into an unrecognizable world. We should also admit the fundamental limitations of the public museum itself. Nicolás Gómez Dávila maintained that “museums are the invention of a mankind that has no place for works of art, either in its home, or in its life,” while G.K. Chesterton went even further: “the museum is not meant either for the wanderer to see by accident or for the pilgrim to see with awe. It is meant for the mere slave of a routine of self-education to stuff himself with every sort of incongruous intellectual food in one indigestible meal.” This may seem harsh, but the fact of the matter is that museums function largely as the civilizational equivalent of a seed vault, a place where masterpieces are protected, yes, but divorced from their context, unable to bear fruit, preserved as if in aspic, behind the glass of climate-controlled vitrines, fenced off with velvet rope, and guarded by private security, asset tags, monitors, and sensors. Cultural institutions have managed to remain relatively sequestered from the increasingly hideous, plastic world around them, but as we have seen, the walls are starting to crumble just as Chateaubriand predicted, not all at once, but coming loose piecemeal.

It may be a truism, but one that bears repeating: the Torlonia Marbles were never meant to be seen this way. In their original context, they adorned homes and public squares, tombs and temples. They were vital aspects of peoples’ homes and peoples’ lives, just as Gómez Dávila would have it. In Les Martyrs, Chateaubriand’s prose epic of the Roman persecution of Christians, he described the all-encompassing aesthetic of Roman daily life:

the grandeur of a Roman horizon uniting itself with the majestic features of Roman architecture — their aqueducts which, like rays tending to a common centre, convey water upon triumphal arches to this kingly-people — the unceasing noise of the fountains — those innumerable statues, which resemble a motionless crowd in the midst of a moving one — those monuments of every age and of every country — those works of kinds, of consuls, of Caesars — obelisks, the spoils of Egypt — tombs, once the pride of Greece — an indescribable beauty in the light, the vapors, and the outline of the mountains…But what shall I say? — Every thing at Rome beats the stamp of boundless authority and of unlimited duration; I beheld the chart of the eternal city traced upon marble rocks at the Capitol, in order that even its image might not be effaced!

In the Villa Caffarelli, on the other hand, the antiquities that survived from that era were arranged in serried rows, atop plinths of dark gray brick, standing against a homogenous and rather sickly jaundice-yellow background. Edmund de Waal, in his recent and wonderfully lyrical book on the Musée Nissim de Camondo in Paris, Letters to Camondo, described the collection as a “space to talk to the dead, to welcome them in.” In modern exhibition spaces like the Villa Caffarelli, and likely whatever space into which the antiquities eventually settle, the conversation can seem less like a dialogue and more like a garbled monologue, dissociated from the surrounding reality.

Such is the tragedy of any object that attains the status of artistic treasure. As the French archaeologist François-Xavier Fauvelle perceptively noted in The Golden Rhinoceros (2013),

“Treasures” are good documents to use in assessing the past, one might think. But we can also shift our perspective by suggesting that treasures exist only when the archaeological documentation that should have accompanied their discovery in missing. The fruits of hasty collections, of casual or selective excavations, “treasures” may sometimes be a godsend for the historian; but they also illuminate processes of elimination that have reduced all the potential documentation of a site, or indeed of a region or period, to this residual form. The “treasure” is what remains when everything else has disappeared.

It is one thing, for instance, to wander through the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Trier, or the National Bardo Museum near old Carthage, and be astounded by the intricate floor mosaics on display. It would be very different thing indeed to attend Trimalchio’s banquet and actually stand on such elaborately-decorated surfaces, with their trompe-l’oeil geometric floors strewn with oyster shells, bird bones, candle drippings, fruit pits, and flower petals, rather than the loathsome laminate or linoleum to which we are now so accustomed. We should be thankful for the “residual traces” of the past that have survived in the shrunken cultural oasis of modern life, which can be a godsend of a sort, but we cannot rely on them to save us. At this historical juncture, one suspects that Heidegger was right to declare that “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten” — “only a God can save us” from the forces of modernity.


François-René de Chateaubriand understood the challenges posed by modernity as well as anyone. He, like myself and other traditionalists, desperately clung to the past, but with decidedly mixed results.

Ancient smiling Italy offered me her host of masterpieces. With what holy and poetic awe I wandered among those vast edifices consecrated by art to religion! What a labyrinth of columns! What a train of arches and vaults! How beautiful are the sounds we hear among the domes, like the sigh of Ocean waves, the murmur of forest winds, or the voice of God in his Temple! The architect builds, so to speak, with the poet’s ideas and makes them tangible to the senses. But what had I learned thus far with so much effort? Nothing certain among the ancients; nothing beautiful among the moderns. The past and the present are two unfinished statues: the one has been rescued, all mutilated, from the ruin of the ages; the other has not yet been perfected by the future.

Doing his best to perfect the future, in the words of the late and much-lamented Roberto Calasso, Chateaubriand “sought to saturate the psyche in a new liquid. Nameless sunsets, misty cataracts, hollow echoes. A burnish of aesthetic retreat, a lining of death, a claustral cobweb, heather invincible among ancient slabs of stone,” all in the service of “cultivating and nurturing the past in the new age.” Nothing he did, however could shake what he diagnosed as mal du siècle, the “sickness of the century,” an overwhelming sense of melancholia and world-weariness that tormented the younger generations of the Romantic era, as the inhuman forces of modernity, efficiency, and perpetual revolution ominously hoved into view.

Following in Chateaubriand’s footsteps was Alfred de Musset, author of La Confession d’un enfant du siècle (1836), who disturbingly described the “the present, the spirit of the time, the angel of the twilight which is neither night nor day; they found him seated on a lime-sack filled with bones, clad in the mantle of egoism, and shivering in terrible cold. The anguish of death entered into the soul at the sight of that specter, half mummy and half foetus” — a fitting mascot for our times, simultaneously etiolated and infantile, yet never lacking in self-regard. The virtuoso poet and essayist Giacomo Leopardi, for his part, perceived a faint flicker of something like hope: “although all things great and beautiful have been extinguished from the world, our inclinations toward them remains. Though we may be denied these things, nothing has or ever could stop us from wanting them. Young people have not lost that longing which drives them to seek a life for themselves and to scorn nothingness and monotony.” These days we cannot rely even on that vital instinct, as nothingness and monotony seem to be the chief exports of our politico-media-culturo-pharmaceutical-economic industrial complex. Yet Chateaubriand was still correct in describing the past and future as unfinished statues. It is still possible to cultivate and nurture the past so that we may cultivate and nurture the future, in defiance of the shadow cast by Musset’s grotesque ange du crépuscule.

One day, I hope, it will be possible for me to visit the Torlonia Marbles in person. I will seek out the portrait of Euthydemus of Bactria, with his wrinkled face, knobbled nose, and frowning mouth, and the famous bust of the baldpate Old Man of Otricoli, nobler than Euthydemus but even more wracked by age, with deep-set folds of skin around his glazed-over eyes. Other immortal masterpieces will be there — the scowling, brutal likeness of Caracalla, the horrific full-length figure of the satyr Marsyas (an unfortunate early martyr to the principle of free speech) being flayed alive by Apollo, and the serene bust of Livia, replete with waving locks and a delicate veil. But there is one piece I have always wanted to see in person, No. 33 in the recent exhibition, the Unfinished Statue of a Dacian Prisoner. Unearthed during an 1859 excavation at 46 Via del Governo Vecchio — in ancient Roman times the site of a sculptural workshop, now home to “Madame Gu’s Club and Restaurant in a Yacht,” where I can’t imagine being caught dead — the work dates from the Trajanic era, and depicts a heavily bearded, hulking barbarian, defeated but subtly defiant, directing his mournful gaze towards the ground. It is a work of surprising and incomparable dignity. The right hand above the Dacian’s wrist has disappeared, the left fingers are missing, and there are chisel marks all over the Luna marble slab from which the statue never quite emerged during its abortive production. And yet here it is, still extant in the 21st century, having survived the accident of it artistic stillbirth and the innumerable invasions, conflagrations, earthquakes, and other fickle forces of man, nature, and chance that followed over the centuries.

Oscar Wilde, in his “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.,” eloquently articulated the appeal of masterpieces like the Dacian and his fellow Torlonia Marbles:

We sit at the play with the woman we love, or listen to the music in some Oxford garden, or stroll with our friend through the cool galleries of the Pope’s house at Rome, and suddenly we become aware that we have passions of which we have never dreamed, thoughts that make us afraid, pleasures whose secret has been denied to us, sorrows that have been hidden from our tears. The actor is unconscious of our presence; the musician is thinking of the subtlety of the fugue, of the tone of his instrument; the marble gods that smile so curiously at us are made of insensate stone. But they have given form and substance to what was within us; they have enabled us to realise our personality; and a sense of perilous joy, or some touch or thrill of pain, or that strange self-pity that man so often feels for himself, comes over us and leaves us different.

The joy and the strange self-pity prompted by the Torlonia Marbles alone justifies their continued existence. We should come away from them feeling different, and wanting to build a world in which they, and works like them, are the rule and not the exception. As usual, Chateaubriand put it best: “no one cares to live in a ruin.”


On September 7, 1847, the French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve wrote to his friend François Colombet, informing him that “Chateaubriand is more silent than ever: he lives in his dreams. His fine mouth still smiles, there are tears in his eyes, his broad peaceful brow has all its majesty. But what is there inside and below? And is there indeed anything?” Chateaubriand was suffering from gout while holed up in a room off the rue du Bac, where the only furniture, as Roberto Calasso sadly noted in The Ruin of Kasch, “was a white wooden chest with a broken lock.” But we know that there was indeed something remaining inside Chateaubriand: the solitude in his heart that he had kept all those years, the one reserved for his sister Lucile.

One of the few portraits of Lucile Angélique Jeanne de Chateaubriand that has survived to this day, a rather clumsy but charming miniature from 1787, shows a young woman with an elaborately braided coiffure, arched eyebrows, bags under her tender eyes, and wry lips. It just so happens that she looks for all the world like specimen No. 24 in the Villa Caffarelli exhibition of the Torlonia Marbles, the finely wrought late antique Female Portrait on a Modern Bust, Called Helena Fausta. Looking at the painting of Lucile de Chateaubriand, and then at the portrait bust of Helena Fausta, I am left with that selfsame sense of perilous joy, and an attendant thrill of pain, and the distinct impression, pace Lucile’s last letter to her brother, that life has not shed its last ray, and that the lamp of civilization might still survive the darkness of a long night.


Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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