Monday, 2 July 2012

A Wolf in Medieval Clothing

A few weeks ago, Italy's Corriere Della Serra newspaper carried a report entitled "From Etruria to the Middle Ages". It claimed that radiocarbon dating now proves that the Lupa Capitolina (the famous Capitoline Wolf, pictured here) is "17 centuries younger" than previously thought. This seems to be an odd claim, for more than one reason. But first, a few words about the Capitoline Wolf.

Back in the Middle Ages

In the closing years of the thirteenth century, a certain Master Gregory travelled from Britain to Italy in order to view the wonders of the city of Rome. His report, discovered in the archives of St. Catharine's College Cambridge, became known as Magister Gregorius de Mirabilibus Urbis Romae.

An appendix to the manuscript describes a sculpture that Gregory saw at the entrance to the Lateran Palace, in porticu ante hiemale palatium domini pape ('in the portico in front of the Pope's winter palace'). It was a bronze she-wolf, paired with a bronze ram; the ram (now no longer extant) stood at the entrance to the palace, where water poured from its mouth; the wolf, posed as if stalking the ram, had once spouted water from its teats, but had been broken off at the feet and propped up in the nearby portico.

Nearly two centuries later, in 1490, when Giovanni da Tolentino recorded his own observations in Rome, the wolf -- now ensconced in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline -- was apparently pueros geminos lactantem ('suckling twin boys'). In fact, it seems that the sculpture was moved nearly twenty years previously, on the orders of Pope Sixtus IV, and had perhaps acquired the twins at that stage (inspired by Livy 10.23.12).

Twins or No Twins?

Since the days of the German scholar Winckelmann (who studied in Rome in the 1750s), the Lupa Capitolina was assumed to be an Etruscan bronze, despite the occasional doubts that, stylistically, it looked rather Carolingian. In 1925, the French classicist Jérôme Carcopino published a book entitled La Louve du Capitole, in which he took it for granted that it was so. Equally, he recognized that the 'twins' had been added around 1474 in connection with the activities of Sixtus IV. However, some of his other assumptions were more problematic.

He assumed that the wolf was the totem of the Sabine people, so it had been set up on the Capitol to symbolize the fusion of Latins and Sabines. Furthermore, in his opinion, the wolf had originally been depicted suckling two small gilt bronze boys, representing these two nations. Having gone out onto a limb this far, he went even further, suggesting that the statue group had given rise to the legend of Romulus and Remus (rather than the reverse).

Others had assumed (and continued to assume) that an original statue group represented Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf, echoing a motif found on coins of the Roman Republic. This is certainly implied by Pliny the Elder (15.77), while the Livy passage (above) may imply that sculptures of twins had been added to a pre-existing she-wolf sculpture. Many assumed that this group had been struck by lightning in 65 BC (which Cicero records: Against Catiline 3.19; also On Divination 1.18). One medieval commentator attributed the damage to the legs (evidently where the she-wolf had been hacked from her podium when she was carried to the Lateran portico) to a lightning strike! However, although there obviously were wolf-and-twins sculptures in ancient Rome, the testimony of Master Gregory shows that this was not the origin of our wolf.

Modern Research

In 1997, the Italian banking group ICCRI funded a major project to study the Capitoline Wolf, headed by Anna Maria Carruba. Preliminary findings were reported over a decade ago (in an exhibition catalogue entitled La Lupa Capitolina), and Carruba's full report (La Lupa Capitolina: un bronzo medievale) followed in 2006, along with newspaper coverage in Italy's La Repubblica.

A study of the casting process concluded that it was medieval work, not ancient. Scientific thermoluminescence dating showed that the bronze had last been heated in around 1515, but researchers took this to be a sixteenth-century modification to an originally medieval sculpture.

However, organic samples extracted from the bronze have now been subjected to radiocarbon dating and found to date broadly from the eleventh or twelfth century. Case closed!

An Odd Claim?

That is why the recent Corriere piece seemed so odd, coming six years after the "final report". But the newly-reported radiocarbon dating is actually an exciting confirmation that the Capitoline Wolf is (probably) the water-spouting sculpture that Master Gregory saw over 700 years ago, and not a lightning-damaged wolf-and-twins sculpture.


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