One of the most famous works of Roman art in the world, the Capitoline Wolf. It's a bronze sculpture of the she-wolf which nursed Rome's legendary founders, Romulus and Remus. The figures of the twin boys were lost centuries ago, and were replaced by the ones appearing here during the Renaissance, making the sculpture something of an interesting composite of styles.
The legend, told by several Roman authors, including the historian Livy in the first book of Ab Urba Condita, goes that Numitor, the king of Alba Longa and the grandfather of the twins, was deposed by his brother Amulius. The latter killed Numitor's son and ordered that his niece, Rhea Silvia be made a Vestal Virgin to prevent her from conceiving any children who could challenge him. Unfortunately for Amulius, however, the god Mars took a fancy to Rhea Silvia and impregnated her (Livy gives a somewhat different account). In any case, Rhea gave birth to twin boys, and when Amulius found out, he ordered her imprisoned and the twins put to death. The servant ordered to do the deed took pity on the boys and in Moses-style, set them adrift on the Tiber river, where they washed ashore in a pool on the river bank and were found by a wolf who had lost her own cubs. The wolf then raised the boys (there are actual recorded cases of this phenomenon, in the case of so-called feral children) until they were found by a shepherd, Faustulus, and his wife, who raised them to adulthood. The Tiber River God also reportedly rescued Rhea Silvia and took her as his wife. Romulus and Remus, of course, upon finding out their heritage overthrew their uncle and re-established their father as king.
This sculpture has also generated some controversy, particularly over its origin and dating. It is traditionally held to be an Etruscan bronze dating to the fifth century BC, with the twins added in the late fifteenth century AD, but its dating is uncertain. It is unclear if this is the original one mentioned by Pliny the elder, who wrote of a bronze statue of a she-wolf in the Roman Forum. Cicero also mentions a gilt copy as being one of several sacred objects on the Capitoline, which was struck by lighting in 65 BC. Its early history is, of course, obscure, but there are some medieval references to a wolf sculpture in the Pope's Lateran Palace, mentioned in particular in the tenth century Chronicon of Benedict of Soracte, who wrote that there was a place in the Lateran palace called The Wolf (the mother of the Romans), and trials and even executions apparently took place there until 1438. In 1471 Pope Sixtus IV had the present sculpture moved to the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline, one of the branches of the Capitoline Museums, so it's a long-time resident. It is believed that the twins were added some time after this event. Copies of varying dimensions can be found all over the city and in some cases all over the world; copies were cast by Mussolini, who sent them to several US cities, including Cincinnati, Rome, Georgia and Rome, New York. Another has apparently ended up at North-Eastern Normal University in China which has offerings in Greco-Roman history.
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