«The she-wolf as shape of time» (redux) in the context of Roman street art
Anyone that spends time in Rome walking or running along the Tiber in recent years has probably noticed a number of stenciled she-wolf forms made of tinfoil on Ponte Sisto & along the banks of the river north. We first noticed these ghostly she-wolves in trips we made to Rome in 2008 & 2009. I could never figure out who was behind these wolf images & attempts at googling were fruitless.
But the other day i stumbled across an interesting short movie (Parnassus) by Roman artist Francesca Fini & exploring further i not only discovered that she took part in Low Lives (an exhibition organized by my friend Jorge Rojas, who i went to high school with in Mexico), but Fini had a hand in the making of these wolves, or at least in the rendering of them.
The idea was conceived by American artist Kristin Jones as part of a 3-part exhibit back around 2007 called the The She-Wolf as Shape of Time. Jones worked with archaeologists and the director of the Capitoline museum (where we just went last weekend to see the Lux in Arcana exhibit)—sorting through hundreds of wolf-images from different epochs. And out of these, 80 she-wolfs were re-rendered by Fini in foil, faithful to the their original forms from various sources in the Roman era.
The image of the she-wolf & Remus & Romulus, and the story behind it, has always been of particular interest to me, especially lately as the new book i'm working on is in part inspired by the Remus & Romulus story.
I had originally thought to do something for Sleeping Fish with these wolf images & had contacted Francesca & then Kristin. And while they were receptive at first, i think once Kristin found out Sleeping Fish was just a hack literary magazine with no credentials to speak of, she started to question my legitimacy, or she didn't like the loud music in the video that i put together.
Which is telling, because one of the questions i wanted to ask her had to do with the public nature of his project—how it is essentially graffiti or street art, but was legitimized & approved by the powers that be in the current Roman empire. I can only imagine the bureaucracy she had to go through to take on such a project.
The idea of city or government sanctioned or legitimized street art is ludicrous. Art made for the streets, belongs to the streets. It doesn't even belong to the artist who made it, but belongs to the people viewing it, the people that have to live with it as their wallpaper. If people like it, they keep it. If they don't like it, they destroy it.
One street artist that has the right attitude (& that also has been fairly prolific in Rome) is the Parisian artist C215, a.k.a. Christian Guemy, who says basically that any art made for the streets (or published on the internet for that matter) belongs in the public domain & the idea of copyright gets thrown out the window.
More than a few people in the past have told me they think Rome is a 'dirty' city & often it seems this perception is related to the amount of graffiti (as compared to anti-septic towns like Florence or Assisi). In the past few years it seems the city of Rome has stepped up efforts to keep the city clean, which unfortunately they equate to the removal of graffiti & street art, not to mention the wild cats which it used to be famous for.
I've seen some interesting street art go up in Rome & then a week later the wall will be scrubbed clean or painted over by those AMA guys in those maroon & orange jumpsuits, with their high-powered steam-cleaners & jugs of paint. But for the most part the she-wolfs have been spared (except for the ones on Ponte Sisto).
And often graffiti in the proximity of the she-wolves is also spared as a consequence (interesting to think about from a meme survival p.o.v.).
A lot of C215's work has been spared or partially spared, but this is probably out of respect from the people, not because he is an artist that was given the thumbs up from the powers that be in S.P.Q.R.
In 2005, Kristin originally had made some huge wolf-forms on the Trastevere side of the river, that i've been running along for years & never noticed. These ones were created by washing the travertine walls, which is an interesting idea—art made by cleaning. It was only when i specifically looked for them (now, in 2012) that i could see (with a little bit of imagination) the very faint traces of one of them that hasn't quite been dirtied back up.
Part of what makes these interesting, just like in all street art, is how they have weathered in time. Below on the left is a photo taken back in 2008 & on the right is the same she-wolf in 2012.
Since i've been here, there have been at least two floods that would have completely covered the she-wolves along the banks (here's pictures from the flood in 2010). What these silvery wolf images must've looked like to fishes swimming by in the muddy river during the flood!
You can't walk by the Tiber & not think about its timelessness. 2000 years worth of water may have flowed between the banks, but it's the same river the ancient Romans laid eyes on (by the definition of «river», whose etymology, from the Italian «rive», literally means banks). It's been flowing continuously since before Cesar's time—it's essentially the same river though the city around it has changed (& the fortified banks have since been built).
Like the river, and the city of Rome, the image of the wolf is also eternal. It's a meme that has been propagated from statue, to fresco, to tapestry, to painting. It evolves some just like a living organism. The physical embodiment of the image might change, but not the meaning behind it—it keeps enduring as essentially the same species (though the real wolf has long since more or less been eradicated from Italy).
Street art is also interesting, through a quantum physics lens, in that the more the art is observed, the more it decays, the less we are certain of its original form. As it evolves we trade in the original static image for it's change in time, in all the hypocrisy of trying to capture it.
Instead of saying «break a leg» here, they say «in bocca al lupo» or «in the mouth of the wolf». It might sound funny, but saying break a leg isn't? Both are basically ways of saying that the act of saying good luck is in itself bad luck.
The interesting thing about the Italian version is that when someone tells you «in bocca al lupo» you need reply with «crepi il lupo» or «the wolf dies». If you don't reply back, then you are cursed with bad luck.
The origins of the saying apparently go back to the time of shepherds, when the wolf was a feared predator.
Though another interpretation, in the context of the she-wolf of Remus & Romulus, is she-wolf as savior, so to go into the mouth (or the cave where the she-wolf nursed them back to health) is actually not a sarcastic reverse-psychology, but truly a heartfelt proclamation of best wishes.
That's about all i have to say about the she-wolf. While the actual wolf may be going extinct, the ever-evolving myth lives on through art.