In February a new book, a fine slim volume, stirred up a wasps’ nest of controversy. It is boldly called “The capitoline she-wolf. A mediaeval bronze.” The meaning of the very emblem of Rome, the she-wolf sculpture in the Capitoline Museums, sign of antique might and power of the city, is being challenged. What is at stake is a loaded symbol cherished through the ages.
A dutiful scholar and restorer, Anna Maria Carruba, who has cleaned, reconstructed and studied it, argues in this book that the famous sculpture is not Etruscan but was cast in the Middle Ages. The Lupa is not from about 700 BC, but from 700 AD. She does not come from the rolling hills of Etruscan pre-Roman Latium by the Tiber, but from the dark forests of Carolingian Germany.
This is how we see the unforgettable Lupa: there she stands firmly poised on all fours, taut, her head twisted to the left. Her ears are stiff in sharp alert, her eyebrows triangular over fierce eyes. Her nose is shiny, polished, wet.
Her maw is half open about to slaver, about to growl to defend her brood in neat aggression. Her symmetrical lines of udders hang full of milk. The mane around her muzzle and the crest of curls on her back are in tight plaited rows. The pelt over her bones is carefully modelled. All is a cunning repeat of pattern honed down to a streamlining flow, an almost oriental stylisation. It cradles an extraordinary intensity of expression, the pride of might and plenitude.
The babies, Romulus and Remus, reaching up to drink, made by the Renaissance sculptor Antonio Pollaiuolo (1432-1498), are mild and cuddly, no match for the focused severity of the mother arched above them.
The main body of Carruba’s work rests on a technical cavil. She asserts that the bronze in the Capitoline Museums, always believed to have been Etruscan, could not be so because it was made in one single cast. The Etruscans, the Greeks and the Romans made sculpture in hot metal mixtures most often in the so-called “Lost wax” or “Cire perdue” process. This means the sculptor makes the basic sculpture roughly in plaster. Then he coats it with wax. After this he covers the core with clay and lets it set. Then through vents, molten metal is poured between these layers. In the end the wax is lost and instead the cooled metal remains as the true final shape.
Carruba explains that the ancients made all their bronze sculptures in this way, casting them in separate pieces then soldering these together, leaving hardly discernible seams.
In the Middle Ages the demand for pure sound in church bells required unsoldered, seamless work. The first people to cast sculpture in one piece were probably the Carolingians. She asserts that the Lupa was made in one single throw. She says that in Etruscan times creation of a single-piece cast was impossible.
Was it? Through charted and uncharted history insoluble wonders of the human mind have been found. How could the Stonehenge people, how could the Egyptians have known how to build according to precise stellar calculations? How could the tiny mechanism as small as a shoebox, found in an ancient shipwreck near the Antikythera island in the Aegean, have been so ineffably modern? It is an analog computer made in circa 150 BC. Do we go back or do we go forward? High periods of development are always followed by fallow ones. No reasonable logic favours these sports, but how poor have we become to trust in the choking finding of tangible facts alone?
After writing with sober and clear assurance about the lost wax process and one-piece casting, Carruba backs up her astounding assertion with tidy photographs detailing mediaeval sculpture corresponding to her idea of the she-wolf as a symbol of papal power and justice under Charlemagne. She hardly refers to Etruscan sculpture and its splendid terracottas.
Not once does she mention how the she-wolf, with her so very visible teats, is the very emblem of rich sheltering motherhood. Dr Larissa Bonfante, the editor of Etruscan News who teaches at New York University, said that only technicians and the former head of the Sovrintendenza Archeologica, Adriano La Regina, believe in the mediaeval wolf. However, sculptor and scholar Peter Rockwell, who also supports Carruba’s theory, told me: “Restorers are more trustworthy on technique than art historians. In Roman times, statues believed to have been made in 200 BC were actually made centuries later.”
In a stormy marathon meeting on 28 February convened by Gilda Bartoloni, professor of Etruscan studies at Rome’s La Sapienza University, a host of active archaeologists, art historians and restorers were assembled. La Regina was backing Carruba’s new theory. But many scholars, armed with their own photographs, attacked the theory for its insensitivity to style and iconography, the vision of the sculptor disregarded.
The argument of Eugenio La Rocca, sovrintendente of the Capitoline Museums and the very keeper of the Lupa, ran somewhat like this: “Our period exalts the objectivity of technology, forgetting that it is for man to question and interpret it…”
The Etruscans were traders and seafarers. They were interested in hoarding riches, not in conquering. They were merchants, not warriors. We owe the survival of the major part of Greek vases, that marvellous example of the best of the human spirit, to the Etruscans’ fervid collecting. Their Roman sons, more rough, were ashamed of them because of their sophisticated, laid-back lifestyle and their belief in the equality of women. But they inherited their grand gift for building: aqueducts, the major and minor highways, the arches and basilicas, were totally Etruscan.
Perhaps the Etruscans came from the east. Their art in paint, terracotta and bronze was of taut line inhabited by elegant stylisation, a fine restraint laced with enigmatic lyricism.
By contrast, after the bounty of Greek and Roman classicism had sunk into the Middle Ages, a sturdier and rougher attack set in. For all its expressive drive, Middle Ages art has little fluidity, nor does it wish to. It projects a fervent and pungent new power; it has nothing to do with the pagan: it is Christian art.
We look at the Lupa, a lure from dark times and mystical forces from a pagan river valley, the pure wild female. She stands over us, a sign of the will of life and its plenitude. Long live La Lupa etrusca!