The Capitoline Wolf is Medieval?!?

I don’t know how I missed this news (it’s over two years old), but I thought that I would post it for others who may not have heard. In recent years scholars have questioned whether the “Capitoline Wolf” (an iconic statue of a she-wolf that is related to the mythological founding of Rome, see left) is Etruscan. Winckelmann first attributed this statue to the Etruscan period; he based his reasoning on the way that the wolf’s fur is depicted. In turn, it generally became accepted that the statue was created in the 5th century BC.

However, a couple of scholars have questioned this attribution since the 19th century. The most recent critique was published by art historian Anna Maria Carruba in 2006. Carruba noted that in the 1997 restoration of the statue, it was observed that the she-wolf was cast as a single unit – a technique that was common during the medieval period.

Carruba’s work eventually led to radio-carbon dating tests on the sculpture. About twenty dating tests were conducted at the University of Salermo, which resulted in the announcement that the she-wolf was created in the 13th century AD! In other words, she was created up to 1,700 years later than we originally thought. Wow. Sorry Winckelmann: it looks like you’ve struck out again. Ouch.

This is a crazy paradigm shift for me. I’ve always connected the Capitoline Wolf with the Etruscans (and the Romans by extension, since she is connected with the story of how Rome was founded). I’ve always known that the Romulus and Remus figures underneath were made during the Renaissance (they were fashioned in the late 15th century AD, probably by Antonio Pollaiolo), but it’s crazy to think that the Capitoline Wolf is medieval.

I should note, though, that the attribution of this statue is still far from resolved. Not only can one get a sense of the ongoing debate here and here, but right now the Capitoline Museum still has the Etruscan date on their official website. As for me, though, I’m currently inclined to go with the radio-carbon tests and the several scholars which have questioned the attribution. (And maybe I feel this way because I often question Winckelmann’s judgment, even outside of this Etruscan attribution.)

Is this news for anyone else? Maybe I’m just behind the times. What do other people think about this new date?

  • H Niyazi says:

    Hi M! I had indeed read this a couple of years ago – but I don't think I was surprised at all.

    I remember a metallurgist friend mentioning it to me. He added the comment that any metallurgist worth their salt could tell you that even a visual inspection would suggest that is not 2 thousand years old.

    Still, I think it's safe to say it is a medieval copy of the she-wolf iconography we see in other artefacts from antiquity. What is more interesting is why would medieval artisans bother with such a non-religious piece?

    They must have valued it in an historical sense as well I imagine.

    H

  • heidenkind says:

    I think it's got to be a copy, don't you? The whole story about it being Etruscan is so ingrained into art history–and into Rome itself, I think!

    This is actually pretty exciting. If it wasn't created by the Etruscans, who was the artist? Why did they make it? Was it based off a copy? It's an art history mystery!

  • in the Garden of Earthly Delights says:

    what?! this is craziness… it has always led me to the etruscans too! now what am i supposed to attribute it to… medieval just seems weird.

  • Dr. F says:

    M:

    Another theory bites he dust! But the art historians were only 2000 years off. It might take as long to change the tag in the Museum.

    Frank

  • Zsombor Jékely says:

    I was not aware of this. There is a new book on the she-wolf. You can 'look inside' and read quite a bit of the book at Amazon: She-Wolf: The Story of a Roman Icon

  • H Niyazi says:

    Haha! Well said Frank – I can see the Capitoline wishing this would go away. I can imagine less people would be as excited to visit it knowing it's a 'medieval copy'

    They'd be better off seeing the same motif in relief sculpture at the Ara Pacis (pic here) – at least that is a bit more contiguous with Rome!

    I think this is a perfect example of the need for connoisseurs to get some analytical skills based on, or augmented by the scientific method – not merely intuition and wishful thinking.

    H

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! I'm glad to hear that not everyone was aware of this discovery.

    Some people think that this statue matches Carolingian art in style, and I think that Carolingian period might be a good explanation for the she-wolf subject matter in the Middle Ages. Since Charlemagne felt like that he revived the the Roman Empire with his rule, it would make sense that he would want to be associated with this symbol of Rome. In fact, we know that the Palace at Aachen had a bronze copy of a she-wolf statue (see here). Anyhow, it's my guess that the Capitoline statue is a 13th century copy of a Carolingian she-wolf statue (the original would have dated from about the 9th century CE). But H Niyazi still brings up a good point: why would medieval artisans have bothered creating this piece in the 13th century? It really is a mystery.

    Zsombor Jékely, thanks for including the link to that book. I'm interested in checking it out to see if there is any commentary on this medieval attribution.

    And Dr. F, I loved your comment! Ha! We'll see how long it takes for the museum to change the label. :)

  • P. M. Doolan says:

    I have no idea how old the statue is. I always presumed it was Etruscan. One thing that surprised me this summer though, when I visited Siena, in the heart of Tuscany, is the large number of "She-wolf with Romelus and Remus" statues that pepper the city.

  • ixoj says:

    Wow! I had no idea either (which isn't saying much considering my lack of knowledge regarding art), but I'm quite excited to find out!

  • Dr. F says:

    M and H:

    Why wouldn't the 13th century have been interested? In "The Gothic Image," Emile Male's ground breaking work on the Medieval Cathedrals, he showed that it was the intent of the designers of the cathedrals to reproduce the whole world of history, science, and nature. The importance the medievals attached to bestiaries is just one example.

    Frank

  • Douglas says:

    This is certainly interesting. Also, I don't really see mideval copy as making it that much worse-there's very little mideval bronze-work of that size left and almost no secular bronze-work I think. On that note, is it going too far on a limb to suggest Arnolfo Di Cambio as someone to look at? The dates are plausible and it is vaugely reminsicent of the St. Peter possibly by him.

  • M says:

    Dr. F – You may be onto something there (although I'm not sure if the medieval Italian structures had the same secular interest as the Gothic cathedrals in France. Are there any medievalists or architectural historians who know more about Italian cathedrals/basilicas? This idea makes me wish that I had this book at my disposal, too.) I also wonder if such a statue would have significance to any of the popes from the 13th century – maybe it also ties into this idea of secular/world history.

    Douglas, I think Arnolfo di Cambio is a good suggestion! It's a good starting point, to say the least. Vasari did mention that di Cambio made some sculptures of animals (see here, so that's at least some evidence that that di Cambi had experience (and perhaps interest) in representing animals in sculpture.

  • Dr. F says:

    M:

    Emile Male has a short chapter "The Mirror of Nature" in a collection of essays entitled "Religious Art from the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century." I believe it's stiil in paperback. He also has chapters on 12th and13th century sculpture.

    Frank

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.