Over the last few days I have become a world expert in the bottom left-hand corner of Pietro da Cortona’s painting of the “Rape of the Sabines”. Why? Because -- although the connection is not, at first sight, an obvious one -- I have been giving a paper at conference organized by the Belgian Academy in Rome.
The gathering was arranged to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the publication of a famous book in the study of Roman Religion: Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain, by the Belgian scholar, Franz Cumont. This book was a turning point in the study of the religions of Mithras, Isis, Cybele etc in the Roman world. And it is still worth reading, even though – and this was part of the agenda of the conference – we would now feel less confident than Cumont about dubbing religions as “orientales”.
Part of the proceedings took place in the Belgian Academy itself. But one day was held in the Capitoline Museum, in the room where most of the Pietro da Cortona’s are displayed – with rows of chairs specially installed for the occasion. When I was not actually giving my paper I was sitting right next to the “Rape of the Sabines”.
I have to confess that, for me at least, listening to a dozen or papers, back to back, in different foreign languages, some of them delivered at grand prix pace, demands considerable concentration. By the middle of the afternoon, after a Roman lunch, that concentration was wandering and my eyes drifted to the painting. From where I was sitting I could only see that one corner (turning round to catch the whole of the picture would have given my inattention away). It was an extraordinary mixture of male legs, female feet, dress and sandals, with an angry toddler beneath all this shaking his (or her) fists – presumably at the abduction of his (or her) sister – a detail you would hardly notice unless you were nose to nose with canvas, like me.
But as I was dreaming away next to Pietro da Cortona, another object in the museum, also pointing back to the myths of Rome’s foundation, was stealing the headlines. The famous bronze Wolf was being ‘outed’ as early medieval, not primitive Roman at all – in other words, at least a thousand years younger than we thought.
This wolf has long been the symbol of the city of Rome, reproduced on thousands of postcards and posters. The orthodox view is that it is an early commemoration, dating from the fifth century BC, of the she-wolf who found and suckled the abandoned twins Romulus and Remus – so saving them to grow up and found the city. A triumph of primitive Romano-Etruscan metal-working, even if the little bronze twins that now go with the animal are well-known to have been a fifteenth-century addition.
But on Friday there was a long article in La Repubblica newspaper by Adriano La Regina, who was until recently the Director of Antiquities for Rome. He was reporting on the results of a recent restoration of the bronze wolf, which showed that it could not have made at that early period. The argument rests on the technique used. The wolf is made by the so called ‘lost-wax’ method of casting. The early Romans (and Greeks) used this, but always to make bronze statues in small pieces, which were then soldered together. The wolf is made in one piece, a technique apparently not known before the early middle ages.
Do we believe it? Well, technical arguments of this kind are always rather vulnerable. You only need someone to come up with one clear contradictory example and the whole edifice collapses. On the other hand, people have had their doubts about exactly how old the wolf was before – just by looking at it. Until now, the fact that it is so much more appealing to see it as coming from the mists of Roman time (like the myth of the wolf itself) has tended to drown those doubts out.
So who knows? When the conference was over I went to have a closer inspection. The wolf was just where it has been for centuries now, looking the same as ever. But there must, I thought, be a lot of postcard producers hoping that this new idea won’t catch on.