The Pollaiuolo Brothers and the Capitoline Wolf

The Pollaiuolo brothers, Florentine artists who jointly ran a flourishing workshop, first in their native city and then from about 1484 in Rome, were exceedingly productive sculptors, painters, and metal workers. There are considerable problems in attempting to disentangle their individual contributions in assessing their output, including determining a provenance for the Renaissance addition of the twins Romulus and Remus to the (also-date-disputed) Lupa Capitolina. As best as can be determined, Antonio was primarily a goldsmith and worker in bronze, whilst Piero was mainly a painter.

Though the infant twins seem only to have one function – to further illustrate and memorialize the legend of the founding of Rome – they are imputed with multiple meanings. The twins may represent the union within one city of two distinct peoples, the Latins and the Sabines. Jérôme Carcopino also made this claim in his 1925 monograph and pointed out as corroborating evidence the Sabine people’s veneration of wolves. The two distinct ethnic communities became one, as Carcopino unquaveringly relates, with the rape of the Sabine women!

But the visual characterization of the babies, no matter their obvious and concealed iconography, is itself both clever and plain, and their appearance makes sense in the light of the need to accommodate the work to the ancient bronze Lupa as well as to the style of other Lateran/Capitoline small bronzes. The approach suggests that the twins were themselves to be seen as ancient works and this, indeed, was precisely what they were taken for until Johann Joachim Winckelmann observed otherwise in the 1750s.

The sculptures can be considered, in a sense, a work of imatatio, and one that demonstrates the intimate relationship between the manufacture of small bronzes and the legacy of antiquity in the fifteenth century. In 1919 Adolfo Venturi proposed Antonio Pollaiuolo’s authorship of the twin figures of the suckling Romulus and Remus that were added to the bronze She-Wolf on the Capitol after it had been moved there from the Lateran Palace. During the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance the “Etruscan” wolf had stood first in the portico in front of the Lateran and then high against the wall of the nearby Torre degli Annibaldi. Along with other monumental ancient bronze works at the Lateran, the wolf was seen as an ancient “idol,” and one who had later become less associated with the legendary origins of Rome than with papal justice. Master Gregorious’s Twelfth-Century account also suggests how the Lupa had accrued other legendary and sexual associations reinforcing the multivalency of the bronze.

The earliest reference by an artist to the added twins is that of Albertini in 1510, though they appear 20 years earlier in a personal letter of Giovanni da Tolentino to the poet Baldassare Taccone describing Roman antiquities. Another indication that the bronze twins were added not long after Lupa’s move to the Capitol is a visual one. The dedicatory plaques on the doors of the reliquary of St. Peter’s chains at San Pietro in Vincoli, completed in 1477, are flanked by twin putti who are oddly perched on little knolls with their knees and arms raised in postures that seem to depend on those of the Capitoline Romulus and Remus.

The recent restoration and analysis of the Capitoline group have rendered problems of assessing style and manufacture of the bronze twins slightly less intractable. Certainly the sculptor seems to have had in mind antique models for an active baby. At a first face to face encounter these gaping infants with their highly regular features, punctuated by blank eyes (which would not have been visible where installed), high arching brows, bow shaped upper lips and beautifully chiseled even locks of hair look alien not only to Pollaiuolo, but to contemporary Florentine sculpture generally. The conception of the figures as “restorations” is also apparent from their poses. The way the left-hand child is seated, legs akimbo, while the other kneels on his left knee, both hands raised towards the source of succor, recalls images of the wolf on early Roman silver coinage. As such coinage also offered several other poses for the infants, the choice of this alternative may well have been guided by the Quattrocento interpretation of its meaning. The pose of the kneeling child suggests reverence, as before a source of grace, and the way the twins raise both their hands simultaneously implies reception and wonder, as at a miracle.

The most striking discovery during the 2000 restoration about the twins is their method of manufacture through which, although assembled in different poses, they emerge as truly identical. Each figure is constructed from the same six cast pieces: the head, the torso and each of the four limbs. These have been subsequently adapted to their different poses after casting by soldering together at different angles. Even the tightly bent leg of the kneeling child was adapted through cutting and resoldering at the knee. This highly unorthodox procedure had several advantages, beyond the primary thematic one of allowing the twins to look exactly the same. Requiring only one model from which waxes for two sets of limbs could be produced, it presumably saved time and avoided the technical difficulty of casting a whole figure with intricate extremities in one pour. Such an ingenious method also seems peculiarly compatible with a “Renaissance” way of conceiving of the human body in terms of an assemblage of perfected parts.

The addition of the twins helped if not to fix, then to control, the ancient work’s meaning. From a fearful symbol of judicial authority, the wolf was reinvented as an appropriately beneficent source of miraculous succor to Rome ancient and modern.

Reference: Ian Chilvers. “Pollaiuolo, Antonio.” In The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists. Oxford University Press,

Possibly Etruscan Lupa Capitolina, c. 500 BCE; additions from the Renaissance. Museo Capitolino, Rome, Nr. 1957.14.8.

Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Judith, c. 1470. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Nr. 37.147.

Piero Pollaiuolo, The Annunciation [Die Verkündigung an Maria], c. 1470; Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Style of Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Marsyas, second half of the 15th centuryThe Frick Collection

Possibly Antonio Pollaiuolo, Saint John the Baptist, Metalwork-Gold and Platinum, probably c. 1460-80. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown Italian Artists, The Capitoline Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus, 1475. The National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.); Samuel H. Kress Collection.

Further Reading: Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann. Toward a Geography of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 

Sarah Blake McHam. Looking at Italian Renaissance Sculpture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 

Posted by By Jean Marie Carey

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