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She-wolf: The Story of a Roman Icon, by Cristina Mazzoni

Reviewed by Genevieve Gessert

“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.” 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.

Read the original article at: Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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