One of the most celebrated sculptures in the world is the Winged Victory of Samothrace (also called the Nike of Samothrace), a marble Hellenistic sculpture created in the 2nd century BC and today prominently displayed on a pedestal at the top of a staircase in the Louvre. There is another Winged Victory, created in the 1st century CE, that has also garnered worldwide praise and attention…a Roman bronze that today stands in an archaeological park in the city of Brescia in Lombardy. As is often the case with Roman statuary, there were Greek originals that initiated or inspired fashionable Roman copies or adaptations.
It was found during excavations of the Capitolium, the main temple of Brixia (as Brescia was called in the 1st century AD), which was dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva. Excavations began in 1822, and in July 1826, a startling discovery was made: a large hoard of bronze objects was found hidden between two walls of the temple, including equestrian statues, the arm of a man, and Victory and her arms and wings. They were most likely the bronze decorations of the temple; the Winged Victory probably topped the pediment possibly commemorating the achievements of Roman Emperor Vespasian who reigned from 69 to 79 AD. Together with gilded bronze portraits of other Roman emperors, the cache was intentionally hidden, probably at the end of the 4th century, when Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the empire and pagan symbols were destroyed or, in the case of bronze artifacts, melted down. Thus, the hidden Winged Victory is one of the few Roman bronze statues to have survived largely intact.
Given the importance of the discovery, Brescia’s first civic museum was opened in 1830 in the rebuilt ruins of the temple. The most important exhibit was the Winged Victory, now with her arms and wings reattached. Brescia soon became a magnet for Italian and foreign visitors. Emperor Napoleon III saw the Winged Victory in 1859 and was so impressed by the elegance of the statue that he asked for a copy to be made, which is now on display at the Louvre. Another version even graced the monstrous built for tycoon William Randolph Hearst in San Simeon, California. Poets and authors, including Giosuè Carducci, Michele D’Annunzio, and Henry James, paid homage to her beauty.
The Winged Victory stands almost 2 meters tall (less than 7 feet) compared to Samothrace, which is 2.44 meters (8 feet) or 2.75 meters (9 feet) with the wings. Brescia’s bronze was cast using the lost-wax technique, in which molten metal is poured into a mold made from a wax model that has been melted away. At least 30 parts were cast separately and later soldered together probably by expert bronze workers in north Italy. The finishing touches were carefully done with pointed tools and, through the technique of damascening (a method of inlaying), silver was woven into her hair. Silver and copper decorations adorned her diadem. Through restoration, additional traces of gilding were recovered on the arms and hands. Missing components are a helmet, probably present under the left foot, and a shield, which would have borne the name of the victor, held up to the gaze of spectators.
Now, 2,000 years later, the goddess Victoria, the personification of Victory, has come to represent Brescia’s resilience and enduring vitality after the city was devastated by coronavirus during the early days of the pandemic of 2020.
I remember the first time I saw the Winged Victory at the Louvre. I was 21, a student, and on my way to Pisa after a week in Paris. A memorable time. Never been to Brescia. Good article! Jean P.
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