The shocking news that the icon of Rome’s foundation, a life-size bronze statue of a she-wolf with two human infants suckling her, is about 1,700 years younger than its city hit the headlines this summer.
Scholars had long established that the bronze figures of Romulus and Remus feeding from their adopted wolf mother were added in the Renaissance. But the main sculpture’s link to antiquity, traditionally to the Etruscan period 5th century BC, wasn’t seriously questioned until the 1997 restoration.
The she-wolf was found to have been cast as a single unit, a technique typically used in the Middle Ages.
Ancient bronzes were cast in separate parts and then soldered together. First used by the Greeks and then adopted by Etruscan and Roman artists, the technique basically consisted of brazing the separate joints using bronze as welding material.
After much discussion, Rome’s officials decided to carry more in-depth tests to clear any doubt. Radio carbon testing has given the new dating range between 1021 and 1153 AD.
So what about the wolf and Rome? The wolf – lupa – is a strong theme throughout the Roman period. Lupercalia was a very ancient, possibly pre-Roman (pre-753 BC) fairly raunchy pastoral festival, held in February to avert evil spirits, purify the city and promote health and fertility. But it was an excuse for a lot of rampant youth to run through the streets whipping women with wolfskin thongs – more here. By the 5th century AD, when the public performance of pagan rites had been outlawed, a nominally Christian Roman populace still clung to the Lupercalia in the time of Pope Gelasius I (494–96). So over a thousand years of the wolf.
Lupa was also a slang Latin word for prostitute, hence the famous lupercal in Pompeii. Is there a meretricious element here, both in the wolf and the festival?
The moral of the story? Whatever the historic background – and a thousand plus years is considerable background – never take history for granted and look out for the medieval wolf in Etruscan clothing.