What Do We Know about the Fame of the Mellini Family’s Art Collection at the Time of Pietro and Savo?

Nuria Rodríguez Ortega

The Mellini family’s position on the Roman cultural scene had its origins with Pietro Mellini I (1406–1483), who, during the fifteenth century, began assembling a collection of artworks and antiquities that his descendants continued to build, at least until the first third of the seventeenth century. During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the time of the family’s greatest splendor, the Mellini art collection—especially the sculptures and antiquities—enjoyed a considerable degree of celebrity in Rome.1

In the early 1620s, Giulio Mancini wrote in his Viaggio per Roma that he had seen “many good modern paintings” in the villa that Pietro Mellini I had built in the Monte Mario district of Rome during the fifteenth century.2 In a 2012 study,3 Fausto Nicolai argued convincingly that this allusion by Mancini has to do with the efforts of Giovan Battista Mellini,4 who purportedly assembled the nucleus of the collection of paintings that his descendants Pietro and Savo would inherit years later.

The Mellini collection of paintings seems to have had double origins; it was begun by Giovan Battista Mellini together with his uncle, Cardinal Garzia Mellini (1562–1629). Subsequently the collection passed to Garzia Mellini’s nephew, Urbano Mellini III, and then to Urbano’s nephew, Savo. A good portion of the works described by Pietro in his 1681 poem can be found in the inventories that were drawn up after the death of Garzia Mellini in 1629.5 The collection was also enlarged by the inheritances of other branches of the family, such as the Crescenzi, Astalli, and Patrizi families, who were related to Caterina Pinelli, the wife of Urbano III.6

By the middle of the seventeenth century, however, the collection seems to have become invisible; we have found no further references to the Mellini collection after this time. It is not mentioned in the guidebooks and other works dedicated to descriptions of Rome and its wonders that were so numerous at the time. For example, Giovanni Pietro Bellori7 did not mention the Mellini collection in his Musei in 1664, nor did Pietro de’ Sebastiani allude to it in his Viaggio curioso de’ palazzi e ville più notabili di Roma of 1683. And yet, in the late seventeenth century, the collection clearly aroused interest, since Giuseppe Ghezzi8 requested several of the more important works from the Mellini collection for the exhibition he organized in the cloisters of the church of San Salvatore in Lauro, in Rome.9

Is it possible that the dwindling fame of the Mellini collection was one of the reasons why Pietro took the trouble to have an official inventory drawn up in 1680, and then further “publicized” the most important works in the collection in the rhyming inventory that he dedicated to his brother, Savo, the following year? For the moment, this interpretation must remain hypothetical, for we have not been able to determine with certainty whether Pietro’s poem was a private or public document or both—that is, we do not know if Savo was the only intended reader of the document or if it was intended to circulate among a wider group of people.

The fact that the 1681 manuscript was originally preserved in a volume that contained personal documents of the Mellini family10 inclines us to believe that the poem was fundamentally of a private nature—part of the personal correspondence that Savo kept during his years as papal nuncio. Nevertheless, the fact that the actual writing of the document was entrusted to a professional scribe—it is not in Pietro’s handwriting, which was much less clear and legible than that of the scribe (figs. 1, 2), who appears to have also written the 1680 inventory—could be an indication that Pietro was envisioning a broader audience than just his brother. In fact, it is difficult to imagine that Pietro would have put so much effort into this literary and rhetorical effort (as amateurish as it may have been) if he intended it to be read by only one person.

Scribe’s handwriting in 1680 traditional inventory
Fig. 1. Example of the handwriting (likely that of a professional scribe) found in the traditional inventory of 1680 in the Serlupi Crescenzi archive. From Scritture diverse della Casa Millini (1674–1696), X, fols. 164r–196r. Rome, Archivio Serlupi Crescenzii
Pietro Mellini’s handwriting
Fig. 2. Example of Pietro Mellini’s handwriting, in a letter to his brother Savo Mellini. Palma de Mallorca, Spain, Fundación Bartolomé March, Papeles Savo Millini, vol. 15, Signatura B81-D-08, fols. 56v–57r

Another hypothesis is supported by the appellative nature of the poem.11 Pietro not only calls Savo’s attention to the family’s patrimony in the form of these paintings collected by their ancestors, but reminds him of his responsibility to take care of it, particularly because in Roman society during the last third of the seventeenth century, this legacy was a symbolic expression of the social status that the Mellini family had attained over several centuries of aspiring to be influential patrons of the arts.12 Perhaps we will never know with certainty who Pietro’s intended audience was. But there is no doubt that if he did intend the poem to be read by others besides Savo, he would have been thinking of cultivated people well versed in the classics, since ellipsis and metonymy are recurrent rhetorical devices in the poem. Yet another mystery is the “invisibility” of the Mellini collection throughout the centuries. Only recently have several studies, including this project, begun to call attention to the historical, social, and contextual relevance of Pietro’s ideal “gallery.”


  • 1. Anna Maria Corbo, “La committenza nelle famiglie romane a metà del secolo XV: il caso di Pietro Millini,” in Arnold Esch and Christoph Luitpold Frommel, eds., Arte, committenza ed economia a Roma e nelle corti del Rinascimento (1420–1530): Atti del convegno internazionale, 121–53, Rome, 24–27 October 1990 (Turin: G. Einaudi, 1995); Sandro Santolini, “Pietro e Mario Millini fondatori di una dinastia di collezionisti antiquari,” in Anna Cavallaro, ed., Collezioni di antichità a Roma tra ‘400 e ‘500, 39–62 (Rome: De Luca, 2007).
  • 2.Giulio Mancini, Viaggio per Roma per vedere le pitture, che si trovano in essa, ed. Ludwig Schudt (Leipzig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1923). Giulio Mancini (1559–1630) was a well-known intellectual, art collector, and writer born in Siena. In 1592 he moved to Rome, where he became a personal physician to Pope Urban VIII.
  • 3. Fausto Nicolai, “Le ‘molte pitture moderne buone’ nella raccolta di Giovan Battista Mellini (1591–1627),” Rivista d’Arte, ser. 5, vol. 2 (2012): 217–35.
  • 4. Giovan, or Giovanni, Battista Mellini (1591–1627), a lawyer and dean of the university of Rome, was the son of Paolo Mellini, brother of Mario III and Urbano III, and the uncle of Pietro and Savo. He died prematurely in 1627, leaving his collection of paintings to his uncle, Cardinal Garzia Mellini. The collection was divided between the family’s palace in the Piazza Navona and their villa in the Monte Mario district of Rome. The inventory drawn up following Giovan Battista’s death is preserved in the Archivio di Stato di Roma, 30 Notai Capitolini, uff. 31, vol. 118, pp. 774–90, 1627.
  • 5. The inventory of Urbano III is preserved in the Archivio di Stato di Roma, 30 Notai Capitolini, Landus Pinus, uff. 31, 12 julio 1667, fol. 336r–353v. The inventory of what was in the Palazzo del Rosario at the time of Mario III’s death in 1673 is preserved in the Archivio di Stato di Roma, 30 Notai Capitolini, sezione 31, Landus Pinus, 1673, maggio, fol. 779r–784v; 801r–804v.
  • 6. Jorge Fernández-Santos Ortiz-Iribas, “The Inventory of Pietro Mellini’s Collection at the Palazzo del Rosario in 1680,” Burlington Magazine 150, no. 1265 (August 2008): 512–20.
  • 7. Giovanni (also known as Gian, or Giovan) Pietro Bellori (1613–1696) was a painter and antiquarian best known for his biographies of seventeenth-century artists; he is often called “the Vasari of the Baroque.”
  • 8. Giuseppe Ghezzi (1634–1721), a painter in the style of Pietro da Cortona, was the first secretary of the Accademia di San Luca. The Accademia, an association of artists founded in 1577 in Rome under the directorship of the painter Federico Zuccari, took its name from Saint Luke the Evangelist, who, according to tradition, made portraits of the Virgin Mary and Saints Peter and Paul.
  • 9. Giulia De Marchi, Mostre di quadri a S. Salvatore in Lauro (1682–1725): Stime di collezioni romane (Rome: La Società alla Biblioteca Vallicelliana, 1987).
  • 10. See the essay “Provenance of the Mellini Manuscript.”
  • 11. See the essay “Ut Pictura Poesis.”
  • 12. “E a Voi di cui la mente aspira a Gloria / Lieto consacro di si rari, e tanti / Egregi spirit l’immortal memoria / Ma s’ ebber gl’astri ai Danni lor costanti / Hor chi’il fato alla fin gl’ arrise, e sono / L’opere note a Voi chiari i lor vanti / Chieggon la Vostra protettione in dono, / Acciò per lungo spatio habbino almeno / dal tempo avaro ad impetrar perdono” (Relatione of 1681, folio 6 verso).