Monday, April 16, 2012

The She-Wolf in Georgia

The city where I live celebrates her 2765th birthday on Saturday, April 21.

You probably know the legend. Mars, the god of war and Rhea Silvia, daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa, produced twins named Romulus and Remus. King Numitor was overthrown by his brother Amulius who then ordered the twins to be drowned in the Tiber River. A she-wolf found and suckled them, and later, a shepherd adopted them.

When they grew up, they reclaimed Alba Longa from their uncle and decided to found a town of their own near the place where they first encountered the she-wolf. Romulus began building a wall for the city on the Palatine Hill, but Remus jeered him because the wall was so low, jumping over it. An angry Romulus killed Remus and continued to build. Thus we have the city of Roma, not Rema. And despite the blurred lines between legend and history, not to mention changes in calendars, the date April 21, 753 BC has been adopted as the date of Rome’s official founding.

The Statue in Italy
Two symbols represent Rome in the international mind’s eye: the Colosseum and the statue. You’ve probably seen the statue, at least in photos, a pair of babies under the she-wolf, mouths open, reaching for her teats.

I first saw a copy of the original in Rome, Georgia, where I lived long before I came to Rome, Italy. A plaque at the base says the statue was a gift to the Georgia Rome from Benito Mussolini, but in her fascinating book, She-Wolf: The Story of a Roman Icon, Cristina Mazzoni tells another story.

Mussolini certainly gave replicas of the statue to potential allies, but, despite what the plaque says, he didn’t give this one. In 1928, a Milan-based rayon plant began construction of another plant in Georgia. Mazzoni says that, along with the machinery, the Milan business sent a replica of the company’s symbol—the she-wolf and twins statue.

The Statue in Georgia
The statue created a stir in Georgia. The Milan business had thought that it would be placed outside the factory, but it instead took a prominent place in front of the City Auditorium. While most people appreciated it as a work of art, others were shocked by the frontal nudity of the babies and the fine detail of the she-wolf’s anatomy. Frequently, the naked babies were diapered and the wolf draped during important events at the auditorium.

Some people even suggested sending the statue back to Italy, but that was too expensive. It had come from Italy as part of the machinery shipment. A return trip would have been as a work of art with ensuing taxes, not to mention the cost of shipping 1500 pounds.

Finally, a compromise led to a plaque proclaiming this statue to be a gift from Mussolini himself, who still was a somewhat admired world leader. The plaque says that he gave the statue as an “omen of prosperity and glory” from the “Eternal Rome to the New Rome.”

One of the twins was stolen in 1933, perhaps as a prank, but a replacement arrived from Italy with little fanfare, signaling that Georgians accepted the statue as part of the cityscape.

When Mussolini allied with Hitler in World War II, the statue entered a maelstrom of controversy again. Some people wanted to dynamite it; others to cast it into the nearby Oostanaula River. One car salesman advocated “melting it down and shooting it back” as bullets. Calmer heads prevailed and the statue was hidden away throughout the war.

In 1952, just over ten years before I first saw it, the statue emerged from hiding. It now stands in front of the Municipal Building, still bearing the plaque crediting Mussolini as the giver.