BMCR 2011.02.09

She-wolf: The Story of a Roman Icon

, She-wolf: The Story of a Roman Icon. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xiv, 282. ISBN 9780521145664. $24.99 (pb).


“Lupus est homo homini.” Plautus Asinaria 495

This famous quotation, through its various translations, perfectly encapsulates the themes explored in Cristina Mazzoni’s new book. Man is a wolf to other men—as Plautus undoubtedly meant it——but a wolf can also be interpreted as a human being in particular circumstances. In both Italian and Latin the word lupa can describe a she-wolf or a prostitute, either a ferocious animal or a female human of voracious sexual appetites. This paradox has informed interpretations of the legend of Romulus and Remus since antiquity, where the she-wolf figures as animal, mother, and whore simultaneously, and the complexity and ambiguity of this formative being have given her long life as a symbol representing a myriad of concepts, individuals, and entities. Mazzoni sets herself the ambitious task of exploring the she-wolf in all her forms and interpretations, from the famous Lupa Capitolina to her appearance in modern art, archaeology, poetry, and literature.

The organization that Mazzoni adopts for her daunting task is remarkably unique in privileging thematic and disciplinary divisions over chronological phases. The book is divided into three main sections, the first focusing on the Lupa Capitolina herself, the second on the literary depictions of the she-wolf in general, and the third on the she-wolf in the visual arts. Each large section is further divided into three chronological chapters: Antiquity, Middle Ages and Renaissance, and Modern and Contemporary Times. This doubly tripartite organization provides the support for Mazzoni’s eclectic style, which includes complex scholarly applications of gender theory, metaphorical descriptions of the contours of the eternal city, and plain matter-of-fact reporting on historical trivia. As described in her preface, this unusual format is largely borne from Mazzoni’s background in comparative literature “in which the personal and professional cannot be disentangled from one another.” (xiii) Her interest in the subject is influenced both by her birth in Rome and her son’s bout with lupus, and thus her reaction to the material is both critical and emotional. A summary of the chapters can provide only a basic introduction to the multiplicity of representations, themes, and theories in She-Wolf; so rich is the material and Mazzoni’s treatment of it.

Chapter 1 begins the history of the Lupa Capitolina, focusing in great part on the information and debate arising from the recent restoration and re-installation of “the most venerable work of Roman archaeology.”1 Though the traditional attribution of the work places it in an Etruscan workshop of the fifth century BC, the recent analysis has suggested a medieval date for the Lupa, thereby disassociating this particular depiction of the she-wolf from those described in ancient authors such as Cicero, Sallust, and Livy. (29) Mazzoni here summarizes the ancient role of she-wolf statues in tandem with a detailed account of the scholarly catfight over the bronze’s authenticity, thereby encapsulating the enduring importance of the work in the formation of Roman identity.

In Chapter 2 Mazzoni charts the post-antique travels of the Lupa in the city of Rome, from her service as a symbol of papal law at the Lateran to her installation as a marker of papal generosity and civic pride in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline. These meaningful wanderings allow Mazzoni to interpret the statue in the context of Derrida’s gift theory (53), museum history and theory (57), and via the many reproductions of the she-wolf reinterpreted and misinterpreted by modern visitors to the eternal city. “In the company of these she-wolves, the illusion of original meanings and stable signifiers becomes impossible to sustain.” (62)

This foray into modern reproduction and misinterpretation provides a meaningful segue into Chapter 3, which focuses on the embarrassing and at times amusing associations arising from the Lupa ’s increasing familiarity in modern times. Nineteenth-century travelers were more familiar with Byron’s famous line from Childe Harold (“And thou, the thunder-stricken nurse of Rome!”) than with the Lupa herself, spawning cringe-worthy episodes in later novels and romantic descriptions in modern guidebooks. The chapter also includes analysis of the poetry of American Yusef Komunyakaa (75) and of the scale reproductions of the Lupa created during the Fascist era (70) and sent as good-will gifts to friends great (the Nation of Romania) and small (a textile mill in Rome, GA) with some unintended results.

Chapter 4 returns to antiquity, beginning with a close consideration of the details of the myth of Romulus and Remus. Mazzoni here analyzes the meaningful suppression of significant female elements in the tale, including the role of Rumina, a little-known goddess associated with lactation and nursing and a possible eponym for the Eternal City. Thus “the imagined etymology of Rome connects not only wild beasts and founders but also humanity and divinity through the she-wolf’s udders and the name of the goddess of breast-feeding.” (94) Mazzoni also analyzes the importance of the she-wolf’s tongue as portrayed in Augustan-era writers such Virgil and Livy; as the she-wolf shapes the twins with her licking, she acts as poet and creator, helping to create their uniquely Roman form through breast and tongue.

Chapter 5 takes up a theme explored briefly throughout and in the conclusion to the preceding chapter: the she-wolf as an object of misogyny, particularly in medieval and Renaissance literature. This idea derives from the ambiguity in the word “lupa” described above, and resulting interpretation of the twins’ adoptive mother Acca Larentia as a woman of dubious repute. Tales of wolfish and predatory women, and of she-wolves with the negative qualities associated with human females, were prevalent in the period. In turn, the she-wolf served as an emblem of greed and other generalized human vices, as seen most prominently in Dante’s Divine Comedy (122), or as a symbol of loss in Petrarch and Du Bellay (127, 131).

The multivalent and contradictory quality of the she-wolf presented in the preceding chapter provides the foundation for Chapter 6, a grab-bag of the various uses the twins and their lupine nurse have been put to by Roman natives, visitors, and immigrants alike. The chapter touches on Romantic poetry, Italian nationalist writers both pre- and post-Risorgimento, satirical Roman dialect poetry, Mussolini’s youth brigade I figli della lupa (with its unfortunate double entendre), and the fascinating 2006 novel by Algerian-Italian writer Amara Lakhous, titled in the original Arabic How to Suckle a She-Wolf Without Getting Bitten.2

Chapter 7 opens with the thought-provoking concept of Rome as “a curvaceous city”; the domes and hills mirror the udders of the she-wolf, and provide a contrast to the “straight, patrilineal succession” (171) ushered in by Romulus’ foundation. Despite this strong and vivid beginning, this chapter is Mazzoni’s most problematic, since the majority of works selected either do not depict the mythical she-wolf (the mirror of Bolsena; the Augustus of Primaporta) or exist only in a fragmentary state (Ara Pacis). Though Mazzoni mentions several important works that certainly depict the legend and illustrates one (the altar from Ostia in the Palazzo Massimo), much of this chapter focuses on the theoretical divide between archaeology (Carandini) and history (Wiseman), and very little on actual iconography. The most that comes from this treatment is the idea that “the complexity of this venerable icon allowed it to indicate different things to different people” (186); this straightforward concept forms the basis for the final two chapters.

Continuing in this vein, Chapter 8 looks at the competing applications of the she-wolf’s image in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, beginning with the tenth-century Diptych of Rambona and concluding with Rubens’ 1616 painting Romulus and Remus.The she-wolf served as allegorical image in the civic art of medieval Perugia and Siena, allowing these communities to associate themselves with Rome in various ways (197). Later she served a different allegorical purpose in the Quattro Fontane of Sixtus V, helping to create the pope’s image as both the protector of antiquity and the architect of the new Rome. (207)

Chapter 9 features the she-wolf in a wide array of modern and contemporary artworks, but perhaps the most fascinating are those executed in new media. Luigi Ontani’s photographic Lapsus Lupus (which Mazzoni describes as a “grammatical inaccuracy” (235) but could simply be translated as ‘Lapsed Wolf’) has the Italian artist himself as the androgynous nursemaid for two distinctly non-Italian babies, a parodic recycling of an image so profoundly recognizable in the present that it paradoxically has lost its layers of historical meaning. This superficiality is physically conveyed by Kristin Jones’ 2005 installation Summer Solstice which makes use of the century-old grime on the Tiber embankments to create temporary large-scale images of the Lupa Capitolina and other she-wolves without their legendary twins. The viewer takes their place, protected by the she-wolf; in turn viewers understand themselves as protectors of these fugitive images and the ideas they represent. (242) The volume closes with a fascinating account of the history of the live wolves displayed on the Capitoline from the establishment of Rome as the capital of unified Italy until the 1970s.

While the double tripartite arrangement and eclectic style afford Mazzoni opportunities for interesting textual and visual analyses that would be impossible in a straight diachronic treatment of the material, the organization also has its drawbacks. Mazzoni must frequently reiterate her major themes at the beginning of each chapter or section, and refer forward or back to the correlating chronological chapter in each disciplinary grouping. Key ideas that are innovative and convincing at initial appearance, such as feminist readings of the she-wolf legend and Derrida’s gift theory, seem less forceful upon repeated mention. At several points Mazzoni emphasizes the importance of the palimpsest of meaning that the she-wolf has acquired through her various movements, depictions, and adaptations, but this development (whether chronological, disciplinary, or thematic) is difficult to trace through the nine chapters; by the end the reader comes away with an abstract mosaic of information rather than a definable pattern of influence. Palimpsests whether archaeological or cultural are difficult to read, thus a systematic and stratigraphic analysis is required to record the processes of both creation and erasure.

It is worth mentioning in this review focused on classicists that Mazzoni’s primary research interests are firmly post-classical, and as a result, the strongest sections of the volume deal with works from the 19th-century on. Furthermore, the sections focusing on textual analysis reveal her virtuosity in this arena, particularly on the themes of gender and allegory. The nature of the subject, vast in both chronology and interdisciplinarity, undoubtedly required Mazzoni to step out of her scholarly comfort zone, and where she must rely on the theories of others she openly acknowledges her debts. The range of the study does result in some unfortunate inaccuracies, most notably regarding the ancient location of the Ara Pacis and the translation of Ontani’s Lapsus Lupus; these are minor in the face of Mazzoni’s ultimately impressive accomplishment.

Filled with insightful gems of information and passages of lyrical and innovative prose, She-Wolf leaves the reader not simply with a vivid picture of the complexity of the lupa, but a sense of her presence in the fabric of Rome itself, both past and present.


1. J. Carcopino, La louve du Capitole. (1925) 3, quoted on p.21.

2. A. Lakhous, Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator on Piazza Vittorio. trans. A. Goldstein (2008).