An arresting statue of a Winged Victory, made of bronze and almost two metres high, has recently returned to Brescia, where it was originally found in 1826. This homecoming, last November, followed a two-year restoration of the statue by the renowned Florentine workshop, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, using the most advanced and sophisticated techniques to safeguard its fragile body and to show off more of its original splendour. Now the celebrated 2,000-year-old representation of the goddess Victoria, the personification of Victory, will once again be considered the emblem of the north Italian city, standing as a statement of Brescia’s resilience and enduring vitality after it was one of the places worst hit by COVID-19 in its first outbreak in Italy.
The magnificent 1st-century AD Roman bronze has gone on permanent display in a space specially designed by Spanish architect Juan Navarro Baldeweg within the eastern cella (inner chamber) of the Capitolium, the imposing temple built at the heart of the Roman city of Brixia (present-day Brescia). Brixia was an important town in Roman north Italy, thanks to its strategic location on the via Gallica, the road that linked the former Celtic centres north of the river Po with the Alpine valleys, and stretched between the Germanic hinterland to the north and the shores of the lakes and the fertile plains of the Po to the south. Despite the advantages of this location, the city began to decline in importance towards the end of the 3rd century AD. It was eclipsed by the growing power of Mediolanum (Milan), which eventually became a capital of the Western Roman Empire under Diocletian (r. AD 284-305).
The Capitolium, where the Winged Victory now resides, was Brixia’s main temple, dedicated to the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. It was built in the second half of the 1st century AD in what had been the sacred area of the city from the 2nd century BC onwards. In its final form, the ancient temple – with its three halls and protruding central pronaos bordered by six Corinthian columns – takes advantage of its commanding position on a high podium. A well-balanced arrangement with connecting side porticoes unified the temple, the square, and the forum in front of it in a single scenic monumental backdrop.
Archaeological investigations in Brescia began in 1822, when members of the local Ateneo di Scienze, Lettere e Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) sponsored excavations in the ancient city. The starting point was a white stone capital that emerged from the grounds of a private garden in the area of the Capitolium. Work proceeded slowly, as the remains of the temple complex and its surroundings were almost entirely buried by a landslide of the Cidneo Hill that overlooks the ancient city centre. On 20 July 1826, however, a startling and unexpected discovery was made: a large hoard of bronze objects was found hidden between two walls of the temple.
The find included frames, parts of monumental equestrian statues, an arm from a figure of a man, and a large statue of Victory, along with her huge wings. All these objects might have been part of the bronze decorations of the temple. It is possible that the Winged Victory topped the pediment, alone or next to a male figure, most likely commemorating the achievements of Emperor Vespasian (r. AD 69-79). An inscription on the entablature below the pediment, dated to AD 73, mentions his patronage, suggesting that the construction of the Capitolium in its final form was Vespasian’s doing.
In the cache, there were also five outstanding gilded bronze portraits of Roman emperors and one of an aristocratic Roman matron. The bronzes had been collected and hidden intentionally, presumably at the end of the 4th century, when Christianity was adopted as the official religion in the empire and pagan symbols were destroyed and, in the case of bronze artefacts, melted down. Thus the hidden Victory is one of few Roman bronze statues to have survived largely intact.
In view of the importance of the finds, a museum – the Museo Patrio – was created inside the halls of the carefully restored and re-roofed Capitolium. Inaugurated in 1830, the museum was first directed by Luigi Basiletti, an architect, painter, engraver, and talented archaeologist, and by Rodolfo Vantini, a successful architect and engineer, who was responsible for many impressive buildings in Brescia and Milan, especially Brescia’s extraordinary cemetery, a masterpiece of neo-classical architecture. The Museo Patrio was also to contain a great many Latin inscriptions found in and around the city.
After the discovery, a first intervention was carried out on the still wingless statue of Victory, when a support was made for the reattachment of the arms and wings, which were found separately. This consisted of a metal structure, a kind of internal armour, to which the arms and wings were hooked, while a heavy filling of wood, shellac, and sand weighted the whole statue. With her wings in place once more, the Victory stood in the middle of one of the museum’s rooms, with the rest of the bronzes displayed in large showcases, together with medals and coins.
Brescia soon became a magnet for Italian and foreign visitors, and the Winged Victory was much admired by those who came to the city. Emperor Napoleon III saw it in June 1859, when he was staying in Brescia before his own victory over the Austrian army at the Battle of Solferino. The emperor was so impressed by the elegance of the statue on his visit to the Museo Patrio that he asked for a copy of it to be made, which is now on view at the Louvre in Paris. The immensely popular statue continued to be copied worldwide. One version even graced the monstrous folly – made famous by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane – built for tycoon William Randolph Hearst as his very own Xanadu at San Simeon in California.
Over time, celebrated poets composed verses in praise of the Victory’s beauty, and writers detailed it for their readers. Henry James wrote to his mother of his visit to Brescia in 1869, describing the statue with great accuracy and enthusiasm (The Complete Letters of Henry James, 2006): ‘As you sit and look at it, your purified intellect leaves your puny body and soars back to Greece and to the heroic age of art and spurns with light retreating heel the vile abortions of this modern time. I wish I could give you some visible presentment of this magnificent creature… She is of about the size of the Venus of Milo but younger, more slender, prettier, and magnificently winged – her left foot rests on a helmet and on the knee, slightly elevated, is placed a shield, enshrined by the left outstretched hand, on which she is making a record. She is not a panting human Victory, inflated with success, but a calm immortal muse who was in the secrets of the gods and knew beforehand how it would be. Look at her from what side you will, she is equally beautiful, divinely dignified and yet with a certain lightness, to match her great wings.’
The shield and the helmet mentioned by Henry James were not among the original objects found in the cache. They were additions, perhaps made of plaster, incorporated into the statue in the 19th century, probably around 1838. They were, however, later lost, probably when the Winged Victory was transferred in 1940 to a villa south of Brescia to be protected from air raids during the Second World War. The integrations were perhaps suggested by the antiquarian Giovanni Labus to correspond to the well-documented iconography of winged Victories in Roman art, especially those carved in relief on coins or in stone. On Trajan’s Column in Rome, for example, a winged Victory records the military successes of Emperor Trajan (r. AD 98-117) on to a shield and serves as a dividing stop in the continuous spiral of sculpted narrative panels that celebrates his victories in Dacia.
It is often the case with Roman statuary that there is a Greek original that initiates a fashionable Roman typology, copied over and over again. Scholars believe winged Victories are a Roman elaboration of a type of representation of Venus, best known from a 2nd-century AD example found in 1750 at the amphitheatre of Capua, and now one of the masterpieces of the Archaeological Museum in Naples. The Capuan Venus is a copy of a famous 4th-century BC Greek statue of Aphrodite (Venus) attributed to the celebrated sculptor Lysippos. The upper part of the body and the head of the goddess of love turn slightly to the left, while her arms rise to hold, almost certainly, the shield – now missing – of the warrior god Mars. She uses the shield to look at herself as if it were a mirror in an allegory of her victory over the god, a victory of love over war. The image of Aphrodite/Venus was transformed into that of Victory by adding clothes and wings to the female deity, who still turns, though no longer to look at herself in the shield she holds with one hand, but instead to carve the name and achievements of a famous victor. This variation was particularly appreciated and copied from the 1st century AD onwards.
It was in the 1st century, during this period of popularity, that Brixia’s Victory was made. The statue was cast using the lost-wax technique, in which molten metal is poured into a mould made from a wax model that has been melted away. At least 30 parts were cast separately and later soldered together. The finishing touches were carefully done with pointed tools and, through the technique of damascening (a method of inlaying), silver was woven into the Victory’s hair. Thanks to the recent conservation, these details can be admired once more, as cleaning eliminated the various substances accumulated over time on the surface of the statue. This delicate work has brought out the softness of the drapery, as well as the details of the head: the eyebrows, the diadem, and the hairstyle. Additional traces of gilding were recovered on the arms and hands. The conservators also removed the internal filling of the originally hollow statue, inserted almost two hundred years ago for stability. Almost 100kg of different types of material was removed from inside the statue, as this 19th-century filling carried a risk of dangerously altering the statue and the iron support was slowly causing structural damage.
Scholars now agree that the statue was made by a professional workshop, specialising in bronze art, in the north of Italy. Such workshops might have later been responsible for the superb and rare gilded Roman bronze portraits found together with the Victory. One of them represents a stern lady of the Flavian dynasty, while the others have been identified from their beards and hairstyles as 3rd-century portraits of emperors Hadrian (r. AD 117- 138), Antoninus Pius (r. AD 138-161), Septimius Severus (r. AD 193- 211), Claudius II ‘Gothicus’ (r. AD 268-270), and Aurelius Probus (r. AD 276-282). They are all outstanding examples of the distinctive skill of those Roman sculptors who chose a more naturalistic approach to portraiture, evoking their subjects’ individual characters, warts and all. They are now on display in the Santa Giulia (City) Museum, a former convent that makes up part of a UNESCO World Heritage site along with the archaeological park of Brixia, where the Capitolium and the remains of other buildings are found.
Among these other ancient buildings is the theatre, right next to the Capitolium, where visitors may enter the cavea, the spacious seating area built directly on the slope of Cidneo Hill. Nearby is the forum, as well as the pavement of Brixia’s decumanus maximus, the main east–west road, 5m below the present street level of the via dei Musei above it. In addition to these structures from the Roman period, the area includes medieval and Renaissance palaces, affording an unbroken urban stratigraphy that extends from the 2nd century BC to the 19th century. There is also the Republican sanctuary, a remarkable 1st-century BC religious building whose spaces were magnificently decorated. The sanctuary’s miraculously surviving and extensive wall-paintings echo the first Pompeian style, characterised by trompe-l’oeil simulations of wall-hangings suspended from silver rings, festoons, and imitation precious marbles. Shadows were painted in to enhance the light effect coming from the door of the rooms, and bees’ wax and olive oil were used over the painted surfaces to give them a more marble-like sheen. In the heart of the town’s historic centre, these remains of Brixia’s principal monuments make up one of the most spectacular and extensive archaeological complexes in the north of Italy, where visitors may enter a variety of buildings dating from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD and experience directly the sophistication of their architecture and their lavish decoration: mosaics, marble flooring, wall-paintings, and relief carvings. And then there is the additional lure of one of the most beautiful ancient sculptures in the world, visible once again.
It is to be hoped that the return of the Winged Victory will bring health and renewed prosperity to Brescia, and that visitors will be able to continue admiring its wholesome beauty in its majestic new setting.
Further information The Winged Victory is now on display in the Capitolium, while the other bronzes are in the Museo di Santa Giulia–Brescia. As we go to press, both are closed. For information about visiting the museums, see www.bresciamusei.com. A programme of exhibitions and events is scheduled to celebrate the new presentation of the Winged Victory; see www.vittorialatabrescia.it for details. A new guidebook to the site is available (in Italian only): F Morandini (ed.) Brixia: Parco Archeologico di Brescia Romana is published by Skira (ISBN 885-724545; price €9.50).