Thorvaldsen's Frieze

A triumphal entry

A masterpiece of nineteenth-century European sculpture decorates the Salone dei Marmi walls: the marble frieze of Alexander the Great’s Triumphal Entry into Babylon (1818–28), commissioned by Giovanni Battista Sommariva from sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen. A plaster version of this work, conceived as an allegorical homage of Napoleon’s deeds, was cast in 1812 for the Quirinale Palace in Rome.

The artist in person, in the company of his patron, welcome us to our exploration of the Carrara marble frieze, Alexander the Great’s Triumphal Entry into Babylon, produced in Rome between 1818 and 1828 by Bertel Thorvaldsen. In one of the side panels closing the composition, the Danish sculptor is shown presenting his newly-finished magnum opus for the Tremezzo villaìs Salone dei Marmi to its owner, Giovanni Battista Sommariva.

The frieze tells of Alexander the Great’s triumphal entry into Babylon at the head of the Macedonian army, drawing inspiration from great masterpieces of ancient sculpture including the reliefs of the Parthenon in Athens and the Trajan Column in Rome. The work shows the meeting of two cortèges that converge towards the centre, one behind the figure of Alexander in a four-horse chariot driven by Victory, followed by his famous horse Bucephalus and his soldiers, laden with plunder. Opposite the leader, the allegorical figure of Peace, recognizable from the olive branch she carries as she precedes the people and the rulers of Babylon, who bear gifts (horses, lions, panthers ...) for the victor, while dancers scatter flowers in his honour.

A previous version of the frieze was made for the Quirinale Palace in Rome, and this version is considered one of the finest masterpieces of nineteenth-century European sculpture.

“I will then talk to you in person about the solemn relief made by this Phidias–Thorvaldsen. I like to think it was the best contract I ever signed for this subject, even in theory.”

Giovanni Battista Sommariva to his son Luigi. Rome, 9 March 1818.

Timeline

1809 Napoleon announces he wants to go to Rome for a second coronation in Saint Peter’s

1811 Thorvaldsen receives the commission for the sculptural decoration to be placed in the Quirinal Palace’s Salone d’Onore

1812 Thorvaldsen works on the frieze from March to November

1818 Following the fall of Napoleon, a second version of the frieze he had commissioned is left unfinished and only half paid for. Sommariva pays the outstanding amount and buys the work for his lakeside Villa

1829 The 33 panels of the frieze are all put in place and the work is completed by Luigi Sommariva

1838 Thorvaldsen makes a new version of the frieze for the Royal Palace of Copenhagen

Learning Resources

A Story Guide to Thorvaldsen's Frieze

Download and take this pdf with you. It's an in in-depth guide to the frieze, with all the historical facts needed to make the most oof it.

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Learning resources

The contract

“I, the undersigned Bertel Thorvaldsen undertake to make marble statuary of the first quality for His Excellency, the Gentleman Sommariva, depicting Alexander the Great’s Entry into Babylon, comprising four sides, of which two larger of the length of forty-three spans each (equal to 8.6 metres), and the other two sides of thirty-seven and one half spans each (equal to 8.3 metres); which I promise to begin immediately and continue until its completion. I acknowledge the Gentleman Sommariva as my Patron, giving me the sought-after opportunity to complete this work of mine, which I regard to be one of my best.”
Rome, 1 January 1818


Download a pdf with a scan of the original contract

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, "Portrait of Thorvaldsen in Front of the Alexander Frieze", 1814. In 1814, while he was in Rome, the Danish painter Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853) painted one of the most famous portraits of Bertel Thorvaldsen, of whom he was a close friend. He painted Thorvaldsen in his studio, wearing the clothes of the artists admitted to the Roman Academy of San Luca, one of the oldest and most prestigious art institutions in Europe. The fact that Thorvaldsen chose to have himself portrayed in front of one of the Frieze of Alexander panels he had in the studio, showing Alexander on the chariot driven by Victory, proves he considered this work to be his masterpiece and wanted it to epitomize his art. In this room a colour lithograph reproduced the portrait of Eckersberg, which is found in Copenhagen.
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