NEW from 1928: the Vatican gifts a live Capitoline wolf to Mussolini’s Rome


Postcard commemorating (from the Italian perspective) the Lateran Pacts of 11 February 1929. Pictured, clockwise from lower left: Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Pope Pius XI, King Vittorio Emanuele III, and Benito Mussolini. At lower center, the Capitoline Wolf.

An illustrated essay by Michael McGillicuddy (Rutgers ’21)

One of the traditions which Benito Mussolini emphasized greatly during his time as Prime Minister of Italy (1922-1943) was the Roman symbol of the Capitoline Wolf, whose long history as an icon is the subject of a full-length study (2010) by Cristina Mazzoni. An important facet of this emphasis was a live wolf—or rather a series of wolves—which since the early 1870s had been caged and put on display in the very center of Rome.

By examining this tradition from its origins in the 1870s to its demise in the early 1970s, one can see plainly among the historical threads how Mussolini exploited this living symbol to push his own brand of “Roman-ness” (romanità). Yet the story of the wolf also reveals a secret line of diplomacy between Mussolini’s government and that of Pope Pius XI Ratti (reigned 1922-1939), just before the Lateran Pacts (11 February 1929) which established a new Vatican state.

Our interest in the caged live wolf originates from a letter found in the digitized Archivio Boncompagni Ludovisi, recovered and preserved by HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi in 2010. The letter, written on 13 September 1928 by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Gasparri (served 1914-1930), and addressed to Monsignor and Vatican Vice-Camerlengo Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi, describes a domesticated wolf that Gasparri has available that the Cardinal is offering to procure for the Monsignor.

Letter (13 September 1928) from Cardinal (and Vatican Secretary of State and Camerlengo) Pietro Gasparri (1852-1934) to Monsignor (and Vice-Camerlengo) Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi (1856-1935). Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Casino Aurora, Rome.

More specifically, Cardinal Gasparri is writing this letter from his home town of Ussita (Marche, in central Italy). He explains that his nephew has a she-wolf that is a few months old and “tame”, that he is willing to give to the city of Rome. Gasparri then supplies his nephew’s contact information in Ussita.

The politics here are fascinating. Tensions between the two powers, Church and state, were high because of the capture of Rome by the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, which led to Pope Pius IX Mastai Ferretti confining himself to Vatican City and declaring himself “Prisoner of the Vatican”.  By the time of the letter’s writing, a pope had not left the Vatican in 58 years, so as not to recognize the authority of Italy in ruling over Rome.

The reason for this gift, says Gasparri, would be to commemorate the appointment of Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi’s son, Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi (1886-1955), as the new Governor of Rome. Indeed, Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi had taken up his new office that very day—13 September 1928. The donation of this wolf would be used as a gesture of goodwill from the Vatican to the Kingdom of Italy, which had been in a state of cold war for almost six full decades.

Indeed, the interaction between Cardinal and Monsignor also implies an interesting hidden line of communication between the Vatican and the Kingdom. Now, Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi (1856-1935) was the eldest child of Rodolfo and Agnese (née Borghese) Boncompagni Ludovisi, the Duke and Duchess of Sora, who in 1883 became Prince and Princess of Piombino and as such headed the noble family. Ugo received a university degree from Louvain (1876) and in the 1870s and 1880s played a vigorous role in promoting the need for Catholics to involve themselves in Italian political life.

Four generations of Boncompagni Ludovisi at the Villa ‘La Quiete’ (Foligno) 20 October 1907: detail from larger group photo. Standing behind center of bench (with hat) is Rodolfo Boncompagni Ludovisi (1834-1911), and seated at center is his wife Agnese Borghese (1836-1920), with granddaughter Maria Campello della Spina (1902-1987) on lap. Standing behind Agnese, in clerical garb, is her son Ugo (1856-1935). Sitting, on right of bench, Ugo’s son Francesco (1886-1955), holding the hand of nephew Lanfranco Campello della Spina (1901-1969). Directly to the right of the boy is the Boncompagni Ludovisi family agent, Alessandro Rocchi. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome. Colorized from BW original by DeOldify

However, by 1892, Ugo had lost two wives within a decade, after seeing the birth of five children. Ugo was so grief-stricken that he decided to enter a monastery, though his children from his second marriage were then only ages seven, six and three. A simultaneous banking crisis also had wiped out a significant portion of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family fortune. Three years later Ugo definitively renounced succession to the title of Prince of Piombino (27 January 1895) in favor of his son Francesco, and was ordained as a priest.

As a direct descendant (8th great-grandson) of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni (1502-1572-1585), and 7th great-grand-nephew of Pope Gregory XV Ludovisi (1554-1621-1623), Ugo seemed well-poised for a career in the Roman Catholic church. He was soon appointed to the College of Canons of St. Peter’s Basilica, and later (1900) as a Protonotary Apostolic, i.e., a member of the highest college of prelates in the Curia. Within a few years a report in the Washington Post (18 April 1905) opined that “it is by no means improbable that he may one of these days be raised to the sacred college [i.e., of Cardinals], in which there is at the present moment no representative of the old patrician houses of Rome.”

Children of Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi (1856-1935): Guendalina, Guglielmina (by Vittoria Patrizi, d. 1883), Francesco, Eleonora & Teresa (by Laura Altieri, d. 1892) ca. 1905 (?). Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Casino Aurora, Rome. Colorized from BW original by DeOldify

In 1921, under Pope Benedict XV, Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi was made Vice-Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church, to serve under Cardinal Gasparri (who since 1916 was both Secretary of State and Camerlengo). As a leading officer of the Papal household, Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi would have had a significant ability to influence the actions of the Vatican, especially in regard to communications with Italy.

It is telling that Boncompagni Ludovisi wrote five lengthy books during his time as Vice-Camerlengo (1921-1935), of which four concerned themselves with the secular history of Italy. Then there was the remarkable fact that—uniquely, among all Church officials—he had a son who filled important public roles in the Italian state: president of Banco di Roma (1923-1927), Undersecretary for Finance (1927-1928), and finally Governor of Rome (1928-1935).

So the relationship between Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi and his son Francesco illustrates a quiet back-channel of communication between the Vatican and Italy that we can see here was used to facilitate negotiations between the two powers. The letter from Gasparri is therefore likely a prime example of what was occurring behind the scenes in terms of “soft diplomacy” after Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi’s appointment to Governor, and there were probably several other communications similar to this one that would help to smooth over tensions.

Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi wearing the uniform of the Governor of Rome. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome. Colorized from BW original by DeOldify

Just a few months after this letter was sent, the Lateran Pacts were signed by the Vatican and Italy on 11 February 1929, which ended the “Roman Question” dispute over the status of the Vatican and fixed relations between the two powers. The time between these two events is so short that it seems extremely likely that these unofficial communications played a large role in enabling the Pacts to be signed in the first place. This letter from Cardinal Gasparri is therefore doubly interesting: first for its gift of a live wolf, but also for the implications in negotiations between the Vatican and Italy that could occur as a result of the father-son relationship of Ugo and Francesco Boncompagni Ludovisi.

Two views of Ugo Boncompagni Ludovisi, as a young man in the late 1870s / early 1880s, and near the time of his death in 1935. Collection of †HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

To understand the relevance of the live wolf in Rome more fully, we first need to understand the importance of the wolf in general throughout Roman history.  The she-wolf has been a symbol of Rome and Roman power ever since at least the mid-Republican period of ancient Rome.  Its origin comes from the myth of the founding of Rome, which tells that the two brothers Romulus and Remus, after being abandoned and thrown into the river Tiber, were discovered and suckled by a she-wolf.  After this event, Romulus killed his brother and founded Rome, which then obviously went on to become one of the world’s greatest powers.

Since the wolf was the reason why Rome was ever able to exist in the first place, the she-wolf became an eternal symbol for the power of Rome.  From the mid-third century BCE, Roman coins would be minted with the she-wolf on it to represent Rome, and this would mark the beginning of the link in art between the wolf and Rome which would continue for centuries, even up to the present day.

Sliver didrachm, minted at Neapolis (?) for Rome, ca. 269-266 BCE. Head of Hercules r. / she-wolf r. suckling twins, with legend ROMANO (i.e., “Romanorum” = “of the Romans”). Crawford, Roman Republican Coinage (1974) 20/1. Image: Badian Collection, Rutgers University Libraries.

The tradition of the live wolf in Rome was set in motion on 20 September 1870, when the Kingdom of Italy annexed Rome and effectively put an end to the Papal States. The annexation symbolized the triumph of Italian political power over the Pope’s temporal authority. This victory received a living commemoration two years later, when in September 1872 a caged wolf was established on the Capitoline Hill, on the left-hand side as one ascends Michelangelo’s magnificent steps to the Campidoglio.

The Morning Post (London), 28 September 1872 p5

The cage likely served two purposes: first, to remind passersby that Roman power (symbolized by the wolf) was superior to Church power, and second, to provide an attraction to those walking by the Campidoglio that was highly evocative of the city and its roots.

View of Campidoglio in 1929., with arrow indicating area of animal cages to left of Michelangelo’s stairs. From Antonio Muñoz, Roma di Mussolini (1935) p66

From images, the cage can be seen as relatively small, with the wolf looking generally hungry and unkempt. Despite the ethical question of the treatment of the wolf and its forced captivity, this tradition would continue for nearly a century, and it in fact gained some significant popularity.

The “living wolf” inside her enclosure on the Campidogli from (above) L’Illustrazione Italiana no. 49 December 1902; (below) postcard (ca. 1910). In May 1931, the massive umbrella pine pictured in the lower image toppled over and almost crushed both cages and their inhabitants together.

Even British and American newspapers reported on the caged wolf, first on its establishment on the Campidoglio, and later various lupine events as they happened. These included an escape (already in January 1873), an attempted theft, a long series of reproductions—male wolves would periodically be brought in to mate with the she-wolf to produce a new generation of wolves—and replacements for the animals that became too old to be caged or died. Indeed, By the time of Mussolini’s regime, a superstition evidently had taken hold that to leave the wolf cage empty was ill-omened for the city.

The Sacramento Star, 24 July 1923 p4

This news coverage continued for decades, and articles about the caged Roman wolf appeared sporadically all the way through the early 1970s. The fact that these stories were printed at all, and continued to be printed, suggests that the stories were interesting to an international public despite their inconsequentiality. Clearly the live wolf served as a very effective reminder of Roman power and the eternal relevance of Rome.

The Pomona Progress, 27 January 1926 p2 (excerpt from article)

Once Benito Mussolini came into power in October 1922 with the Fascist regime, he used the tradition of the caged wolf for his own purposes, to strengthen his propaganda and ideals to the Roman public. Something that he stressed greatly during his time as Il Duce was the concept of romanità, or “Roman-ness”, which he created in order to link present-day Italy to the past glory of the Roman Empire. He consistently attempted to create parallels to ancient Rome. Perhaps the most extravagant expression of this plan was the grand, one-year celebration of the bimillennium of the emperor Augustus’ birthday (23 September 1937-23 September 1938) known as the Mostra Augustea della Romanità. Mussolini wanted to appear to the Italian public as a kind of modern Augustus who was a powerful and fearless leader.

In addition to his other efforts to invoke romanità, Mussolini also leveraged the symbol of the she-wolf as a symbol of Rome.  The most junior members of the Fascist youth group known as the Balilla were named the “Figli della Lupa“—”sons of the wolf”. He sent several replicas of the Capitoline she-wolf around the world (including the United States) to serve as a diplomatic gift, but also as a reminder of the strength of Italy.

Similarly, Mussolini saw the caged wolf as another opportunity to remind the world of Roman power. One major development that occurred was that a live eagle was added to the display in addition to the wolf. It is unclear exactly when it was added, but it must have been sometime before 1930, and perhaps was a Fascist innovation. There was a second cage in which the eagle was kept, right next to the wolf’s cage.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 7 March 1930 p28 (excerpts from article)

Still, for all their imperial symbolism, the spectacle of wildlife cooped up in cages in a space adjoining Michelangelo’s magnificent Campidoglio complex, that houses Rome’s Palazzo Senatorio (i.e., city hall) and Capitoline Museums, struck some as incongruent and unseemly. In early 1930 readers of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (7 March 1930) learned of an open split on policy in Rome, in which “some of the Fascist papers demand the removal of these animals, others are violently opposed to their removal.”

Finally, in 1935, Mussolini had the display moved from the Campidoglio to an alcove on the Via del Mare (now named Via del Teatro di Marcello), a major road that also happens to lead from the Campidoglio. This transfer made it so that the architectural dignity of the Campidoglio would be preserved, but also so that the wolf would be viewed by more people, as it would be seen by anyone walking down that major concourse. As such, the wolf and its companion eagle would serve as a constant reminder of citizens’ romanità, which Mussolini likely hoped would increase their zeal for the Fascist regime and for Italy. Through this movement of the wolf display, Mussolini attempted to further establish himself in the minds of Romans through the symbols of ancient Rome.

La Domenica del Corriere XXXVII no. 19 (12 May 1935)

Interestingly, the wolf and eagle survived the fall of Fascism (1943), the liberation of Rome (1944), and Mussolini’s demise (1945). In regard to public perception about the wolf display, we sense rising concerns not over the ideological message, but rather over the practicality and ethics of keeping a wolf captive. In the post-war period some argued that Rome did not have the budget to be maintaining wolves, while others asserted that it was wrong to imprison an animal like that for entertainment or symbolic purposes.

A 1954 L.U.C.E. newsreel titled “Tornerà la lupa?” (“Shall the Wolf Return?”) addresses uncertainty over the wolf’s return to its display after the previous one died, as there was rising advocacy for animal rights.  However, the wolf and the eagle eventually came back (in April 1957), and the tradition would still continue for over a dozen years more.

By the late 1960s, the cage held two wolves. However, sometime around spring 1971, the display disappeared, with no replacement: one wolf had died and the other was removed to the Rome Zoo. The caged eagle lasted another year or so, at least until April 1972.

Associated Press report in The Newark Advocate (Newark, Ohio) 21 April 1972 p7

There are several likely explanations for the removal of the she-wolf from her cage. Already in the 1950s, as we have seen, there were growing concerns or complaints over the ethics of displaying a captive wolf. Other factors may have been budgetary concerns for the cost of upkeep for the wolf—the Comune of Rome in the early 70s faced staggering debt—and even changed attitudes toward the importance of this aspect of Rome’s heritage.

Google Streetview (August 2014) of former second site (1935-1971) of “living wolf” and eagle on Via del Teatro di Marcello

In any case, the site of the post-1935 cage is still visible today beneath the Tarpeian Rock on the Via del Teatro di Marcello. After nearly a century of serving as a reminder of Roman power and heritage, the space now stands empty and neglected, with no indication of its history as the previous home of many live wolves.

Michael McGillicuddy is a rising senior at the Honors College of Rutgers University-New Brunswick, with a major in Computer Science and a minor in Economics.  This is his first published research project, and he hopes to continue his research in Roman/Italian history alongside his computer science studies. He thanks Professor T. Corey Brennan for suggestions on the topic and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi for generously making her family archive open to Rutgers research.

Postcard of “the living she-wolf in the Campidoglio”, Edizioni Roanzan (Rome), perhaps 1930s

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