The original statue as it appears in the Palazzo dei Conservatori (Image: Public domain/Wikimedia)

The Capitoline Wolf, a famous emblem of Rome, Italy, is a rather strange piece of art. It’s a bronze statue of a wolf, with a bear-like and mournful face and an octet of very prominent teats, from which two cherubic children are suckling. It’s supposed to represent the foundation story of the city of Rome, in which a she-wolf kept abandoned twins Romulus and Remus alive by nursing them, until a human family found and adopted them. It was considered to be an ancient piece of Etruscan art for many years, but now it’s thought that the wolf was cast in the 11th century and the twins added about 400 years later.

The original is still in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, on Capitoline Hill, one of the seven hills of the Italian capital, but there are copies of this statue in cities around the world. This is because Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had a habit of sending them abroad in the 1920s and ‘30s to sympathetic countries or groups. (There may be more in Romania than in Italy.) There are a handful in the United States, including one in Rome, Georgia, and one in Rome, New York, and a certain mythos and pride has grown up around these statues.

“Everyone loves the wolf,” says Debbie Galloway, a local historian in Rome, Ga., who works at the visitors center.

In both of these American Romes, though, the stories of how this Italian symbol came to be a point of pride are full of surprising turns and details. Neither city was sure they wanted the statue, at first. And, in both cases, it seems like there may have been a bit of deception involved.

Rome, Ga., as depicted in a 1930s WPA mural (Image: Peter Blume/Library of Congress)

Outside the entrance of the Municipal Building of Rome, Ga., there’s a 1,500-pound copy of the Capitoline Wolf statue. On the marble base below, a plaque announces, in Latin, that in 1929 the statue of wolf “as a forecast of prosperity and glory, has been sent from Ancient Rome to New Rome, during the consulship of Benito Mussolini.”

“It’s an exact copy of the one that stands in Rome, Italy,” says Galloway. “He sent it to us, from old Rome, to new Rome.”

But it’s not totally clear that Mussolini did send this particular statue. The U.S., after all, was not a sympathetic friend to fascist Italy. 

Rome, Ga., was founded in 1834, and the city’s name was inspired by the area’s rolling hills, in the northwest of the state, closer to the border with Alabama. By the 1920s, Rome was a textile town, with several large mills humming along and employing thousands. One of the companies, Tubize Chatillon Corporation, happened to be Italian.

In her book, The Politics of Whiteness, Michelle Brattain tells the story of how the wolf came to reside in the center of the town, through the maneuvering of that corporation. In Italy, Chatillon had long used the Capitoline wolf as a trademark, and when the mill in Rome, Ga., opened, they sent a copy of the statue to be displayed at the mill. But the mill managers did not think that the wolf and babies, exposed as they were, would play well in the American South. Instead, Brittain writes, they hid it in a storage room and asked to send it back to Italy.

The company wouldn’t it take it back, though: the shipping would cost too much. The Georgia mill was stuck with it.

The company devised what a local historian told Brittain was “a clever ‘hocus-pocus.’” They added the marble base and in 1929 told the local leaders that the statue was a gift from Benito Mussolini, from one Rome to another—which the city was happy to have.

Although it’s widely said that Mussolini gave the statue to Rome, there’s not much evidence that the Italian prime minister, who had by then imposed one-party control over Italy, had anything to do with it. “My impression is that this was organized by the company,” says Brittain, who is also the chair of Georgia State University’s history department. “And I don’t know if it had anything to do with Mussolini. It was the mill that was really the agent to make that happen.”

The Capitoline Wolf in Rome, Ga. (Image: Public domain/Wikimedia)

The wolf was somewhat controversial in town from the very beginning, although not because of its connection to an Italian dictator. “They always thought it was a work of art,” says Galloway. “But some people were offended by Romulus and Remus because they’re naked, and you can tell they’re little boys.” From time to time, during elections or other events, the city would diaper the babies so they would appear more modest. The wolf’s teats were also an object of interest: they were often covered during public events, but someone, Brittain reports, also kept painting the statue’s teats red.

When World War II started, though, the statue’s association with Mussolini became a problem: the town wanted nothing to do with a gift from an enemy of America. The town should “melt it down and shoot it back,” one local car salesman said, in an old news article Brittain turned up in her research. The city decided to spirit the statue away: for twelve years, it sat hiding in the basement of the city’s municipal building.

The copy of the statue in Eden Park, Cincinnati (Photo: Daderot/Wikimedia)

In the meantime, other copies of the Capitoline wolf were appearing across the country. In 1931, the Italian government sent one to Cincinnati through the Order of the Sons of Italy. And in 1956 Rome, N.Y., was offered one by a World War II hero, originally in exchange for a snowplow.

In February of 1956, the Italian capital was covered in 20 inches of snow, and a local man, Alfonso Felici, wrote to Rome, N.Y., with a proposal: if the American city would send a snowplow, the Italian city would send back a copy of the Capitoline wolf statue in exchange. As the Daily Sentinel would later report, Rome, N.Y.’s mayor, Joseph Herbst, and the city council didn’t really think it was practical to send over a snowplow, and declined.

But Felici and his compatriots said they wanted to send the statue over, anyway. Rome, N.Y., treated the whole thing as joke, until Felici and his Italian Friends for Eisenhower Club announced that they were ready to ship the two-and-a-half-ton statue—and could the city provide $3,000 for shipping and transport for both the wolf and the delegation that would deliver it?

“Mayor Joseph C. Herbst said the unrequested gift sounded like a gimmick to get Felici and other members of the committee wined and dined in America at his city’s expense,” the Sentinel reported.

Apparently it was customary in Italy for the recipient of the gift to cover the cost of transportation. But Felici was also something of a character. A fan of all things American, he had been recruited by the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, as an clandestine agent during World War II and trained at Fort Dix. After the war, he formed the Eisenhower club “to spread the principles of peace of President Eisenhower.” And while the government and citizens of Rome, N.Y., debated whether to accept the gift Felici wanted to send, it came out that he wouldn’t be allowed to visit the U.S. anyway, because he had twice entered illegally.

Although Mayor Herbst was not interested in the statue, his citizens were divided. Some thought a nursing wolf and naked babies were not the type of art that should be displayed in a public place. But others thought it was an embarrassment to the city to refuse the gift. They organized a Roman Wolf Committee to start raising money to ship the statue over. While they worked, the statue was put on display, for months, in downtown Rome, Italy, waiting to go to America. Eventually, in June 1958, Felici actually rescinded his offer to the city and extended it to the club. On November 2, 1958, at 3 p.m., the statue was unveiled, on private property, at the Beeches Inn..

“There were two locations in Rome which would accept it,” says Frank Destito, one of the owners of the Beeches, whose father was on the Roman Wolf Committee. “The most private was our restaurant. You’d have to drive on our property to see the wolf. It wouldn’t just be out there for anyone to see.” Anyone who didn’t want to see wolf teats, in other words, would be spared.

The wolf is still there today. “It’s in front of our restaurant,” says Desitto. “There’s a grass circle in front, where the wolf is located.”

Eventually, both cities learned to love their Capitoline wolf. Rome, Ga., restored the wolf to its place of honor in 1952. And these days, at least some people in Rome, N.Y., are proud of the wolf: last year, one local argued that it should be moved to public property.