Politics, the Capitoline Museum, and the She-Wolf

This quarter I am working with just a few of the senior art history majors on a special “Directed Study” course. We are exploring museum history and curatorial theory, using two new books: The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of an Institution in 18th- and 19th-Century Europe (2012) and New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction (2011). I really like that The First Modern Museums of Art is written in a very approachable, yet scholarly, way. Each chapter serves a case study for a different museum that was established; the book proceeds in a chronological fashion, based on founding dates for the institutions.

This week, my students and I read about the Capitoline Museum (established 1733). Carole Paul writes about how the objects within the museum serve as strong signifiers of political and cultural heritage. The museum, which contains a lot of Roman art, emphasizes Roman authority and jurisdiction. The artistic “progression” and superiority of Roman culture (and those Westerners who are heirs to the Roman tradition) are implied in many ways, including the display of art. For example, the visitor encounters Egyptian figures before the Greco-Roman antiquities, which suggests both artistic and political succession.

Capitoline She Wolf, 5th century BC or medieval

The political associations and signifiers of power also extend into the collection. I think it’s particularly interesting that the bronze sculpture of the she-wolf forms part of the collection, given the history of the piece. Before Sixtus IV donated this sculpture to the Compidoglio (Capitoline Hill), the she-wolf was displayed in the Lateran Palace, the pope’s official residence.1 This she-wolf was seen as a symbol of the city, since the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf. As part of the papal collection, this statue then served as a symbol of papal jurisdiction and the papal succession of authority after pagan rule.

Given these associations with Roman history, I can see why the Capitoline Museum seemed a bit hesitant to acknowledge the recent analyses which determined that the “She-Wolf” statue was cast during the medieval period! This was big change in the traditional attribution, which placed this statue in the fifth century BC (as an example of Etruscan art). When I covered this story in 2010, over two years after the new study results were made available, I was surprised that the Capitoline Museum did not have the updated medieval date on its website! Now that I understand the political and authoritative statements behind the formation of this museum, though, I can see why the museum seems to have been hesitant to acknowledge this new information. The museum would want to endorse this as a work of art as an authentic piece from the Etruscan/pre-Roman period, in order to emphasize the institutional message of Roman authority. If the “She-Wolf” is a medieval work of art, there isn’t as direct of a connection to Roman history.

However, today I went back and checked the Capitoline Museum website again. Now the site has been updated to acknowledge the alternate date and also mentions the Carbon 14 analysis (albeit that the information is slightly hidden under a “Reveal text” button).

What have been your experiences at the Capitoline Museum? Did you feel like the message of Roman authority and power came through during your visit?

1 Carole Paul notes that this wolf (lupa) was in fact returned to its rightful home through Sixtus IV’s donation. Paul writes that the wolf “had originally stood on the Campidoglio and in 65 BC had been struck by a bolt of lightning that apparently broke her feet and destroyed the suckling twins, who were replaced only in the fifteenth century.” See Carole Paul, “Capitoline Museum, Rome: Civic Identity and Personal Cultivation” in The First Modern Museums of Art: The Birth of An Institution in 18th- and 19th-Century Rome, Carole Paul, ed., (Los Angeles: Getty, 2012), 22. Given that the she-wolf is now thought to have been produced in the medieval period, I personally think that Paul might be referring to a different depiction of a wolf (perhaps lost) or that this story might have been a myth. Paul cites a 1980 publication by Richard Krautheimer in relation to this story about the lightening bolt. Therefore, she does not seem take into account the more recent Carbon 14 analysis and medieval date.

  • Hels says:

    Perfect timing! When I was writing about the renewed Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, this was my first sentence. “The National Gallery in London was founded in 1824, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was founded in 1870, the National Gallery in Berlin was opened in 1876 and Vienna’s Kunsthistorische Museum was opened in 1891. During this period, the main cities of the western world scrambled to build stunningly impressive art galleries.”

    Oops, I started in 1824 whereas the Capitoline Museum opened way earlier. This suggests two important differences. Firstly the designers of the Capitoline couldn’t visit all the 19th century galleries, to see who was building what. Secondly your museum contains a lot of ancient Roman art, so it is going to be very different from state galleries that focus on Renaissance, 17th century and more modern art.

    Thanks for the link

  • heidenkind says:

    I took a class like this in grad school, and it was sooo interesting. I didn’t feel like the power of Rome was a “message” at the Capitoline Museum (beyond the fact that Rome was powerful), but to be honest I was kind of exhausted by the time I got there. All I remember is geeking out over The Dying Gaul.

    I did definitely get that message of power and authority at the Vatican Museums, though. There’s an amazeballs book (I think it comes in several volumes) about the entire collection and the curatorial history of the Popes and the Vatican. I think it’s out-of-print but it’s worth searching out, especially for a course like this.

  • Ben says:

    Monica: Thanks for another fascinating post.

    Hels: The Ashmolean, Oxford, was founded in the 1670s and the museum was completed in 1683. It claims to be “the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum building.” (Sounds like the book doesn’t discuss this, though?!)

    The Ashmolean moved in the 1890s and the old premises are now the home of the Museum of the History of Science. Am looking forward to seeing both of them this summer!


  • Hi Hels! Thanks for the comment and the link to your post. I’m so glad that you are writing about the Rijksmuseum, given the exciting news that the renovated museum is about to open. Ten years is a long time for a restoration project!

    You’ve started a good 19th century list! The textbook I have mentions a few other museums and collections (open for public view) which were established before the National Gallery. If you are interested, here are some of the major museums mentioned in the book which predate the National Gallery in London:

    – Capitoline Museum, 1733
    – British Museum, opened to public in 1759 (Parliament act establishing the museum came into force in 1753)
    – Nationalmuseum/Royal Museum in Stockholm (founded 1792, a few months after Gustav III was assassinated)
    – Musée de Louvre, opened to the public in 1793
    – Prado, Madrid, galleries inaugurated in 1819 (although there were unsuccessful attempts to establish museum at end of 18th century and during the French occupation of 1808-1813)

  • Hi heidenkind! I can imagine why you were exhausted by the time you got to the museum, especially since it is located on a hill! I think that dominating location also helps to underscore this museum theme of authority and power.

    I can see what you are saying about the Vatican Museums, too. The Museo Pio-Clementino (Vatican City) is mentioned in the textbook as well; there is some discussion about this museum was also interesting in “establishing Roman tradition.” One paragraph mentions in passing that even the display of objects was inspired by the displays at the Capitoline Museum.

  • Hi Ben! Thanks for your comment. The Ashmolean is actually mentioned on the second page of the textbook, in the preface. It doesn’t receive much attention beyond this point, though; the writer of the preface makes pains to assert that “at the time of its founding [the Ashmolean] was primarily a science and natural-history collection, not an art museum” (p. viii).

    Still, it sounds like it was a really important institution to consider in relation to museum history. I also surmise that this museum’s collection must have also expanded to include art? It sounds like a great place to visit, along with the Museum of the History of Science!

  • Ben says:


    Right, it was certainly a lot more inclusive than later art museums! Apart from Ashmole’s own collection, the origins of the Ashmolean are really the wunderkammer–John Tradescant’s “Ark.” This was a fascinating and sprawling mix of natural and man-made artifacts. It certainly included some works of art. See this list of contents: http://www.ashmolean.org/ash/amulets/tradescant/tradescant03.html
    I guess I’d prefer to think of the Ashmolean as “narrowing down” to focus on art (or a certain idea of art), rather than broadening out to include it!

    It’s interesting to see how certain museums are self-consciously returning to these earlier models of the collection, and exploring the idea that “art” might be continuous with natural history, rather than set apart from it (see: Pliny!). Hence, museums have been collecting wunderkammers; hence shows like the Getty’s “Devices of Wonder,” and hence the success of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, Los Angeles.

    And so I have to mention my favourite museology book: Lawrence Weschler’s “Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder,” which I’d definitely encourage your students to read!


  • Hi Ben! This webpage for the Ashmolean makes me feel like there were several similarities between this museum and the origins of the British Museum. The Tradescant collection of the Ashmolean reminds me quite a bit of the eclectic collection of Sir Hans Sloane. The Sloane collection was bequeathed to King George II for the British nation; it formed the basis of the British Museum:


    In fact, “The First Modern Museums of Art” book even stresses that the “origins [of the British Museum] lay in the Wunderkammer, rather than the Kunstkammer” (p. 68). Perhaps the Ashmolean was not discussed more in this text, simply because the scope of the book focuses on the 18th and 19th centuries.

    I agree that some museums are self-consciously returning to these earlier “Wunderkammer” models. Perhaps the inclusive nature of postmodernism is encouraging this shift?

    Thanks for your reply! Also, thanks for the recommending the Weschler book. I think that you may have mentioned it before in some other conversation; the title sounds familiar to me. I really need to check it out!

  • Hasan Niyazi says:

    Another wonderful post! I’d like to add the 2010 Cristina Mazzoni book on the She-Wolf as a wonderfully useful text on this topic.

    With regards to Museums, I wonder if any consideration is made of the Uffizi Tribuna – was this not the archetypal museum space, long before the notion of display spaces became institutionalised?

    Kind regards

  • Hi Hasan! The Uffizi Gallery is actually another museum that is included in the textbook, so I’m glad that you mentioned it. It definitely is an early example of a museum institution. I didn’t put it in the previous list because it is a little bit difficult to date. Vasari designed the structure in 1560. This design was built by the architect Buontaleti in 1581, and Buontaleti completed the octagonal Tribuna in 1589. The Uffizi began to transform from a “cabinet of curiosities” to a gallery of art and antiquities in the late 17th century, under the rule of Cosimo III. In 1675, Cosimo III inherited a collection of drawings and paintings from his uncle Leopold; this collection was placed on special display in a room in 1681.

    Out of all of these dates, though, the Uffizi website highlights the 1581 date:

    Paula Findlen, the writer of this particular case study in my textbook, discusses how the Uffizi attracted travelers for many generations, “reaching an agopee in the 1770s” (p. 73). Since this book focuses on the 18th and 19th centuries, there isn’t too much discussion of the history from previous centuries.

    Also, thanks for the Mazzoni recommendation! I read some reviews and that book looks very interesting!

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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.