Rome’s eternal symbol?
If one could choose any animal to become one’s mother, how many people would choose a wolf? Wolves are not known to be the gentlest of animals, and in the ancient world, when many people made their living as shepherds, wolves could pose a significant threat. But for reasons we do not understand, the Romans chose a wolf as their symbol. According to Roman mythology, the city’s twin founders Romulus and Remus were abandoned on the banks of the Tiber River when they were infants. A she-wolf saved their lives by letting them suckle. The image of this miracle quickly became a symbol of the city of Rome, appearing on coinage in the third century B.C.E. and continuing to appear on public monuments from trash-cans to lampposts in the city even to this day. But the most famous image of the she-wolf and twins may not be ancient at all—at least not entirely.
The Capitoline She-wolf (Italian: Lupa capitolina) takes its name from its location—the statue is housed in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. The She-wolf statue is a fully worked bronze composition that is intended for 360 degree viewing. In other words the viewer can get an equally good view from all directions: there is no “correct” point of view. The She-wolf is depicted standing in a stationary pose. The body is out of proportion, because its neck is much too long for its face and flanks. The incised details of the neck show thick, s-curled fur which ends with unnatural beads around the face and behind the forelegs. The wolf’s body is leaner in front than in the rear: its ribs are visible, as are the muscles of its forelegs, while in the back the musculature is less detailed, suggesting less tone. Its head curves in towards its tail; the ears curve back. The children themselves have a more dynamic posture: one sits with his feet splaying to either side, while the other kneels beside him. Both face upwards. They, too, are lean, with no trace of baby fat.
Hollow-cast bronze: How was it made?
The She-wolf is a hollow-cast bronze statue that is just under life-sized. Hollow casting is one of the many ways that metal sculptures were made in the ancient world. It was the typical method for large-scale bronze statues.
In antiquity, hollow casting (also known as “lost-wax casting”) could be a lengthy procedure. A large sculpture was made in many smaller pieces, and these were joined as the last step of the process. A sculptor first made a model of the statue in a less-valuable medium, such as clay. He then coated the model with a second model, which was made in multiple pieces so it could be removed. Once removed, the second model was coated in wax and another layer of clay. The second and third models were then attached to each other and fired, leaving a hollow space as the wax melted. Molten metal was poured in to replace the wax, and the molds were (at last) removed only when the metal had cooled and set. In the case of large statues, the pieces were soldered together and polished as a final step.
But although the She-wolf is hollow-cast, it is not made of multiple pieces. This has raised significant questions about whether the wolf is ancient at all.
Questions of chronology
While it was known for some time that the twins are Renaissance additions to the sculpture, it was not until 2006 that the chronology of the She-wolf itself was challenged. Long believed to date to fifth century B.C.E. Etruria (Etruscan culture), the She-wolf’s date is now debated. If ancient, the original sculpture probably would not have depicted Rome’s she-wolf. We do know that Romans engaged in regional trade that led them to acquire art objects from surrounding areas, including Etruria (Pliny the Elder, Natural History 35.45).
But in the fifth century B.C.E., Rome was still a fairly small city, and possibly had not yet begun using the she-wolf and twins as its symbol. Other Etruscan artifacts (like the Lupa of Fiesole below) have a lone wolf as part of a hunt or ritual, and it is more likely that a fifth century B.C.E. Etruscan object would relate to Etruscan culture, rather than Roman culture.
But new laboratory analysis suggests that the She-wolfis not ancient and was made in the Middle Ages, specifically the twelfth century C.E. Questions about the authenticity of the She-wolf were first raised when the statue was restored in the late 1990s. At that time, conservators realized that the casting technique used to make it is not the same as the hollow casting technique used on other large-scale bronze sculptures. Instead of using multiple molds, as described above, the She-wolf is made as a single piece. Proponents of this view argue that the wolf is more similar stylistically to medieval bronzes. Proponents of the Etruscan date claim that the few surviving Etruscan large-scale bronze statues are stylistically similar to the She-wolf.
The claim that the She-wolf is medieval has generated a lot of controversy in Italy and among scholars of ancient Rome. Several respected researchers have publicly disputed the new findings and maintain the She-wolf’s Etruscan provenance. Physical and chemical testing on the bronze has been inconclusive about the date. The Capitoline Museums admit both possibilities in the object’s description.
Although the debate continues with regard to the date of the Capitoline She-wolf, either interpretation offers interesting points for analysis. The only definitive testimony suggests that materials used in casting the wolf came from both Sardinia and Rome. If the work is from the fifth century B.C.E., we can use that evidence to analyze trade patterns in Italy. Remembering that the wolf was originally cast without the twins—no matter what date we assign to the wolf sculpture—we can try to imagine the original significance of the statue.
On the other hand, if the wolf is medieval, what was its original function? We should not think that a medieval wolf is any less valuable just because it is more recent in its date of manufacture. In fact, a pastiche Capitoline She-wolf might be an even better symbol of Rome: a Renaissance addition to a medieval statue that recreates the ancient symbol of the eternal city.
This work at the Capitoline Museum
View this work in the Capitoline Museum gallery
Etruscan bronzes on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Greek and Roman bronze-casting technique on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Medieval casting technique, including a video, from the Victoria and Albert Museum
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A. M. Carruba and L. De Masi, La Lupa capitolina: un bronzo medievale (Rome: De Luca, 2006).
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Dale Kinney, “Book Review: The Lupa Romana: An Antique Monument Falls from Her Pedestal,” Speculum 88.4 (2013), pp. 1063-65
A. La Regina, “La lupa del Campidoglio è medieval: la prova è nel test al carbonio,” La Repubblica July 9, 2008
Françoise-Hélène Massa-Pairault, “Romulus et Remus: réexamen du miroir de l’Antiquarium Communal = Romulus and Remus: a re-examination of the mirror from the Antiquarium Communale,” Mélanges de l’École française de Rome – Antiquité, 123.2 (2011) pp. 505-525
C. Mazzoni, She-Wolf: The Story of a Roman Icon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).