Another ancient masterpiece from Italy is about to reach the Getty Villa in Malibu. On loan from the Capitoline Museums in Rome, the spectacular Lion Attacking a Horse will be on view from August 10, 2012 to February 4, 2013, thanks to the collaboration of the J. Paul Getty Museum with the Sovrintendenza ai Beni Culturali di Roma Capitale — Musei Capitolini, and the support of the Knights of Columbus and the Getty Museum’s Villa Council.
Presented for the first time outside Rome, where it has not been on public view since 1925, the sculpture will be the centerpiece of a special installation that traces its history from antiquity to the modern era and showcases recent conservation work undertaken in Rome. Part of “The Dream of Rome,” a project initiated by the Mayor of Rome Giovanni Alemanno to exhibit timeless masterpieces from the city of Rome in the United States, the installation will also include related works from the Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute’s collections.
“We are thrilled to have on view at the Getty Villa the celebrated Lion Attacking a Horse, which is one of the most storied sculptures to have survived from antiquity,” says Claire Lyons, Acting Senior Curator of Antiquities. “As the earliest work of ancient art recorded on the Capitoline Hill, it marks the beginning of the world’s oldest public art museum.” Depicting the figure of a fallen horse succumbing to the claws and fangs of a ferocious lion, the monumental group dates to the early Hellenistic period (the late 4th century B.C.), when Greek sculptors began to produce naturalistic portrayals of intense emotion and physical exertion.
Although the original location of the sculpture is unknown, its massive scale and dramatic carving suggest that it embellished a monument in northern Greece or Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). Created in the era of Alexander the Great’s conquest of Asia, the sculpture may have formed part of a larger composition with a melee of wild beasts and mounted hunters, which commemorated the young king’s famous lion-hunting exploits at Sidon (present-day Lebanon) in 332 B.C. and a royal game preserve in Basista (present-day Uzbekistan) in 328–327 B.C.
The sculpture was eventually brought to Rome, most likely as war booty seized by a victorious general for display in the imperial capital. It was ultimately discovered in the stream bed near the Circus Maximus, a stadium used for chariot races, gladiatorial games, and animal combats.
By 1347, the sculpture was prominently displayed on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the seat of the city’s civic administration. During this time, Renaissance Rome was experiencing a great rebirth of interest in its glorious ancient past, which served as a model for the present.
Remains of antiquity, such as Lion Attacking a Horse, were among the earliest expressions of the Renaissance spirit. The work was initially installed on the staircase of the Palazzo Senatorio in the Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill. Presiding over an area used for pronouncing judicial sentences since antiquity, this powerful image of domination and retribution served as a symbol of Rome for over a century.
In 1471 Pope Sixtus IV transferred a group of ancient bronze sculptures, including the famous statue of a she-wolf suckling the twins Romulus and Remus, from the Lateran Palace to the Piazza del Campidoglio, as reminders of “ancient excellence and virtue.” Mounted on the facade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, the she-wolf replaced the lion-and-horse image as the emblem of Rome. Lion Attacking a Horse was moved to various places on the Capitoline until it was eventually installed in the center of a fountain in the Caffarelli Garden in 1925.
Throughout the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, the sculpture was a battered fragment consisted only of an equine torso and feline foreparts. In 1594, Michelangelo’s student Ruggero Bascapé, replaced the horse’s head and both animals’ missing limbs and tails. Much admired by Michelangelo, who praised the colossal fragment as “most marvelous,” Lion Attacking a Horse was a compelling model for generations of artists who studied in Rome. It features in several 16th-century illustrations which show the work before and after restoration, and became the prototype for numerous small and large scale replicas.
The installation at the Getty Villa will include a 1585 engraving by Giovanni Battista de’ Cavalieri from the Getty Research Institute, illustrating the sculpture prior to Bascapé’s additions. A 17th-century bronze statuette by Antonio Susini from the Department of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Getty Museum renders the horse’s head turned back toward the lion, a dynamic solution that reflects the likely composition of the original Greek sculpture.
Also on view at the Getty Villa, but not part of the special installation, is a Roman mosaic of a lion attacking an onager, a scene that helps viewers visualize the original appearance of the Capitoline sculpture.
Lion combats also appear on a set of Parthian silver horse-trappings, demonstrating the popularity of the theme in various media, including vase-painting, coins, and gems. The sculpture will return to the Capitoline Museums in Rome after its exhibition at the Getty Villa.