In Cincinnati, a sculpture gifted in 1931 by Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi draws new scrutiny

By ADBL Editor Corey Brennan

As so often these days, it started with a tweet.

In this case, it was the Twitter feed of Chris Seelbach, a third-term member of Cincinnati’s City Council. On 6 January 2020 Seelbach linked to a Cincinnati Enquirer article published almost precisely five years earlier. The piece had raised a legitimate question: what is a Fascist-made bronze copy of Rome’s Capitoline Wolf doing in Cincinnati’s picturesque Eden Park?

“The Governor of Rome to the city of Cincinnati”, reads the (Italian) inscription on the sculpture’s base, located near the park’s Twin Lakes. A date (“1931 —[Fascist] Year X”) clearly identifies it as a gift from Mussolini’s regime.

Seelbach fired off a tweet in which he promised to draft legislation the very next day to cast the Wolf—and the suckling twins Romulus and Remus, rival founders of Rome—out of Eden.

Reaction in Cincinnati was swift and intense. Seelbach’s vow received detailed newspaper coverage, with lots of online comments. Local television station WCPO sent out a reporter to Eden Park at nighttime for a dramatic spot on the Wolf’s fate. Social media was abuzz. Even your editor felt compelled to get into the action via (inevitably) Twitter.

By the afternoon of the next day, Seelbach had changed his mind. As he told reporter Sharon Coolidge of the Cincinnati Enquirer, “What I’ve learned in the last 24 hours is that while Mussolini’s acts have always been horrible, Cincinnati has found the power to redefine this sculpture to no longer reflect the actions of the man who gave it to us…Instead of introducing a motion to remove the sculpture, I’ll continue to listen and have conversations with all interested parties before considering any future decisions about the Capitoline Wolf sculpture in Eden Park.”

True to his word, Seelbach soon reached out for input—even to me. The Council member of course has a point. There is no question that the continued existence of this sculpture group in 21st century Cincinnati demands reevaluation. At a minimum, it would seem that the Wolf’s current explanatory plaque in Eden Park—which dodges all the historical questions (see image below)—needs a thorough revision.

Credit: Daderot / Wikimedia

What I offer below is not a full discussion of all the (difficult) issues that present themselves here, but simply two points that might otherwise escape attention in the “redefining” process.

1. The Cincinnati ‘Capitoline Wolf’ may be a unique monument of its historical type in the United States

The original sculpture of the Capitoline Wolf was once thought to be Etruscan in manufacture, cast ca. 480-470 BCE. Now it is widely (but not universally) agreed to be a  product of the 11th century CE. No one however doubts that the addition of the twins came only in the Renaissance. Since 1471, the Wolf has been prominently displayed in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on Rome’s Campidoglio. As such, it has had a long and versatile life as a political and cultural symbol in Italy, especially as an emblem of the city of Rome itself. (For a full treatment, see Cristina Mazzoni, She-Wolf: The story of a Roman icon [2010].)

It is a commonplace that the dictator Benito Mussolini donated replicas of the Capitoline Wolf throughout the world, as an expression of his pretensions to connect his regime with the perceived glories of ancient Rome. For the United States, three examples are regularly cited: in the cities of Rome, Georgia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Rome, New York.

The one from the state of New York can be set aside from this discussion, since it was offered only in February 1956 (in a hoped-for exchange of an Italian statue for an American snowplow) and dedicated in November 1958 at the Beeches, a local restaurant and inn.

The Capitoline Wolf of Rome Georgia firmly dates to 1929, and is displayed still today before the Rome City Auditorium. (From 1940 to 1952 it was removed in the face of anti-Italy sentiment.) Its base bears a strident Latin inscription naming Benito Mussolini ‘consul’ as donor, complete with a fasces device, all set on a large bronze ansa-shaped plate.

Credits: (upper image) 1960s-era postcard in collection of TC Brennan; (lower image) exploregeorgia.org

Yet the inscription’s ultra-grandiose tone (“Eternal Rome” dedicates the sculpture to “New Rome”), dodgy neo-Latin (the designation of Mussolini as ‘consul’ seems unparalleled in the epoch), and dating system (Roman MCMXXIX, but lack of the Fascist Era equivalent) all prompt some head-scratching.

Indeed, there is the strong possibility that Mussolini had nothing directly to do with the Georgia Wolf at all. More than 20 years ago, Michelle Brattain in her book The Politics of Whiteness: Race, Workers, and Culture in the Modern South (1997) argued that it was the Italian partners in a local textile plant—La Châtillon of Milan, which used the Capitoline Wolf in its branding—that foisted the sculpture on the Georgia city, claiming it came from Mussolini to make its scene of suckling more palatable. You can read a summary of Brattain’s argument here.

That leaves the Cincinnati Capitoline Wolf as the only one of the three with—for better or worse—an unshakable provenance as an actual gift of Mussolini’s regime. How it got to the Ohio city is a complicated story, tied to the desire of the Order Sons of Italy in America to have a Capitoline Wolf grace their biennial convention, to be held in Cincinnati in September 1931. An article of 9 August 1931 in the Cincinnati Enquirer offers the fullest version of the background: the request from America; Mussolini’s approval of the idea; and his delegation of the arrangements to the Governor of Rome.

Cincinnati Enquirer, 9 August 1931 p14

Intricate planning still led to an initial disappointment. As Owen Findsen told the tale in the Cincinnati Enquirer (27 July 1997), “the dedication of the She-Wolf” on 20 September 1931 “revealed a problem. It was the wrong wolf. The Italian government had sent a small model of the statue rather than a full-scale reproduction…a second dedication ceremony was held June 11, 1932, when the full-scale sculpture arrived”.

It appears neither the small nor large version of the sculpture arrived in Cincinnati from Italy with a base. So its inscribed marble one in Eden Park is likely to be a local production. Whatever the case, its date “1931 —[Fascist] Year X” makes little sense in the context. The date of initial dedication—20 September 1931—belongs to Year IX of the Fascist Era (with Year I reckoned from 28 October 1922, the March on Rome). So the fact that the stone says “Year X” may refer to carving later in 1931 (after 28 October), or even to that second dedication in June 1932. Or it’s simply a Cincinnati mason’s error.

2. The career of the (unnamed) ‘Governor of Rome’ who gifted the sculpture to Cincinnati reveals some real surprises

Now, how about ‘Il Governatore di Roma’ on the inscribed base? One of Mussolini’s most far-reaching decisions was to replace Rome’s age-old municipal council (Comune) with a creation of his own—the ‘Governatorato di Roma’, introduced on 28 October 1925, the third anniversary of the Fascist March on Rome. Rather than an elected Mayor, the notion was that the city henceforth would have an appointed ‘Governatore’, reporting directly to Mussolini.

Prince Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi (1886-1955) was third in the series of such Governors, taking office on 13 September 1928, and continuing in the position until 23 January 1935. And so it was he who in 1931 technically gave the Capitoline Wolf to the city of Cincinnati.

Video: as Governor of Rome, Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi participates (with Mussolini and Ezio Garibaldi) in the 1932 inauguration of the Anita Garibaldi (d. 1849) statue on Rome’s Gianicolo. He speaks starting at :33.

So who was he? It’s a daunting task to trace even in outline the life and career of Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi, especially if one wants to take in his personal and family history. The closest work that approaches a proper biography of the man is a superbly researched 2009 doctoral dissertation by Paola Starocci, I Primi Governatori di Roma: Tra continuità conservatrice e trasformazione totalitaria (1928-1935). But (as the title implies) that focuses mainly on his six and a half years as Governor.

If one had to single out one attribute of this Governor, it’s his unusually strong links to the Catholic Church. For a start, he was a direct descendant (9th great-grandson) of the late 16th century pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni, who introduced the Gregorian Calendar. On top of that, he was 8th great grand-nephew of the important 17th century pope Gregory XV Ludovisi.

And for the entire term of his Governorship, his father Monsignor (!) Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi—who had renounced his noble titles and (in 1895) entered the priesthood after losing two wives—was one of the highest-ranking officials (Vice Camerlengo) of the Papal household. The positions that son and father simultaneously held in Rome demonstrably helped pave the way for the Lateran Pacts of 1929 between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See, that established Vatican City as a sovereign state.

Press photo of Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi as Governor of Rome in late 1929. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Villa Aurora, Rome

But there’s a lot more to be said, especially thanks to the recovery (in 2010) and now full digitization of the Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi in Rome’s Villa Aurora, the home of †HSH Prince Nicolo’ (the Governor’s grandson) and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.

Paola Starocci fortunately interviewed Prince Nicolo’ about his grandfather for her 2009 study. But since then massive new documentation has emerged on Francesco’s earlier life (especially his war service 1915-18), Presidency of the Banco di Roma (1923-1927), years of Governorship, subsequent withdrawal from high-profile public life and ostensible focus on agronomy—as well as some crucial details of his service to the Allies in WW II.

Diary entry of Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi, composed 20 May 1946. Transcribed and translated by Nicoletta Romano (Rutgers ’15). The diary is a group one kept by heads of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family since the 1600s. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Villa Aurora, Rome

In a September 2016 address at Harvard University, Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi—who discovered and rescued a significant portion of the family archive—offered a welcome summary of Francesco’s activities in the dozen years that followed his Governorship:

In 1935…Mussolini removed my husband’s beloved grandfather Francesco, a officer and decorated hero in World War I, from his post as Governor of Rome, and replaced him with a Fascist hard-liner [Giuseppe Bottai]. [After 8 September 1943] he had to go into hiding, and at great risk to himself aided the Italian partisans and the Allies, helping materially with plans for the invasion of Italy.

Hitler placed a shoot-to-kill order on Francesco’s head, and there was every expectation that the Nazis would take over [his home] the Villa Aurora, as they had the neighboring hotels on Via Veneto.

Meanwhile his cousin Boncompagno [Boncompagni Ludovisi, 1896-1988] worked closely with the OSS in this country, especially regarding landing points for the Allied invasion. There are 600 pages of documents in the National Archives in Washington DC that detail his efforts [see here, Boxes 388-9.].

Fortunately Rome was liberated [4 June 1944] before there could be a confiscation. Afterward, Francesco promptly turned over our Villa to the British Red Cross, where they remained even after the end of war.

Then in 1947 Francesco, shocked by the horror of the two World Wars he had seen, gifted the bulk of the Boncompagni Ludovisi archives—that go back to the tenth century, when my husband’s family first came to Italy with the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II—to the Vatican Secret Archive. It took them 60 years to inventory what he gave them, about 2 million pages of documents.”

Leather document box presented by British Red Cross to Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi: collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Villa Aurora, Rome. The accompanying letter of thanks (16 April 1946) is housed in the Archivio Segreto Vaticano (Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi prot. 614D no. 14).

Unfortunately, this story is hardly well known. One would hardly guess it from e.g., the Treccani biography of Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi, his biographical notice on the Senate of Italy website, and much less his Wikipedia entry. As far as I can tell, ex-OSS operative Peter Tompkins is the only author to detail the ex-Governor’s aid to the Allies during the war, in his books A Spy in Rome (1962) and L’altra Resistenza (1995). Paola Starocci in her dissertation mentions these activities only in passing.

To piece together the wartime narrative of Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi, one must turn to the primary documentary sources. First and most important are the proceedings of two trials he faced (October 1944, July 1946) in the High Court of Justice for Sanctions against Fascism (abbreviated in Italian ACGSF), now held by the Archivio Centrale di Stato. Here he mounted a spirited, extensive defense of his conduct before and during the war, in the second instance (successfully) adducing many authoritative testimonies in his support. The file (118 pages in all) can be viewed online.

Then there is the thick OSS dossier (only recently declassified) that concerns his cousin Boncompagno Boncompagni Ludovisi, deposited in the National Archives and Records Administration, which provides more context than detail.

A third vital source is the Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi itself, both the portions held in the Vatican Secret Archive and those maintained by Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi in the Villa Aurora. Some representative items from these archival collections follow below.

Boncompagno Boncompagni Ludovisi writes from detention in New Jersey to Earl Brennan, then head of the Italian Division of the OSS, 23 April 1943. The lower third of the page outlines his cousin Francesco’s “hatred” of Mussolini’s regime formed already in winter 1939. Credit: National Archives and Record Administration

This 1 July 1944 letter from General Guido Accame sets out some of the main details of Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi’s (dangerous) efforts to aid the partisan and Allied cause in later 1943-early 1944. Credit: Archivio Centrale di Stato

Diary entry of Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi, composed 20 May 1946. Transcribed and translated by Nicoletta Romano (Rutgers ’15). Note the item that on 13 April 1942 he met privately with King Vittorio Emanuele III and advised him to get rid of Mussolini. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolo’ and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Villa Aurora, Rome.

“Certificate of Appreciation” (22 January 1945) of Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi, signed by Major General and OSS head William J. (“Wild Bill”) Donovan. A letter in support from Donovan carried great weight in Boncompagni Ludovisi’s second trial (1946) in the ACGSF. Credit: Archivio Centrale di Stato

Patriot’s Certificate (undated, no. 2622, a low number for this series) presented to Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi, This document was given to the partisans of the Italian resistance movement during and after the Second World War, signed by the British field marshal Harold Alexander, commander of Allied forces in Italy. Credit: Archivio Centrale di Stato

So where does this deep dive into some of the history and context of the Eden Park Wolf leave us? At a minimum, it would seem that the biography of this Capitoline Wolf is even more complex than has been supposed, especially given the subsequent career of its formal dedicator, Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi.

And what is to be done? More study and discussion, to be sure. Here we’ll let Cincinnati-based classicist / archaeologist Amanda Pavlick have the last word for now—via Twitter, as seems appropriate.

 

Credit: Jenny Pansing / Flickr

Comments

  1. Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi says:

    Professor Corey Brennan, your unending quest for the truth is a breath of fresh air, in this Orwellian age of Trump. Nicoló and I can never repay you for all you have done for our family. Your students are very, very fortunate to have a Professor of such scholarly dedication and devotion.

  2. Eric Kondratieff says:

    Corey, once again some great work on your part! A fascinating story, and certainly a justification for keeping and honoring the statue as a gift from a staunch friend of the allies and Italian and Roman patriot.

  3. Anthony Majanlahti says:

    The history of Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi is a fascinating and complex one, well worth more and detailed study. Dissertation, anyone?

Trackbacks

  1. […] For more discussion on the history of the Eden Park Capitoline Wolf and the current conversation, see Corey Brennan’s “In Cincinnati, a sculpture gifted in 1931 by Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi draws new scrutiny.” […]

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