Museum Home Current Exhibitions Lion Attacking a Horse
from the Capitoline Museums, Rome

August 10, 2012–May 6, 2013 at the Getty Villa

Lion Attacking a Horse, from the Capitoline Museums, Rome
Lion Attacking a Horse, Greek, 325–300 B.C.; restored in Rome in 1594. Sovraintendenza ai Beni Culturali di Roma Capitale— Musei Capitolini

On view outside Rome for the first time in over two millennia, the sublime Lion Attacking a Horse is one of the most storied works of art to survive from antiquity. One of the earliest recorded works of ancient art on the Capitoline Hill, the sculpture formed the nucleus of Europe's oldest public museum of antiquities. Presented in a special installation at the Getty Villa, the extraordinary loan of this recently conserved marble group signals a new partnership between the J. Paul Getty Museum and the civic museums of Rome. The display also features several related sixteenth- and seventeenth-century bronze statuettes and prints that illustrate the reception of the Capitoline sculpture in Renaissance Rome.

Watch the dramatic arrival of the Lion Attacking a Horse to the Getty Villa in this short video.

Floor Mosaic with a Lion Attacking an Onager, Unknown
Floor Mosaic with a Lion Attacking an Onager, Unknown, Roman, about A.D. 150. The J. Paul Getty Museum

From Greek Monument to Roman Trophy

The Lion Attacking a Horse is a resilient emblem of triumph and defeat. Representing a terrified stallion mauled by a savage feline, the marble sculpture is dated to the early Hellenistic period (late fourth century B.C.), when Greek sculptors began to produce naturalistic portrayals of intense emotion and physical exertion.

To judge from the subject matter and style, the animal group was probably made in northern Greece or Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) following Alexander the Great's conquest of the Persian Empire. Alexander's exploits were emulated by his companions and successors, inspiring a proliferation of lion-slaying scenes in mosaics and sarcophagus reliefs. Perhaps created as a commemorative monument, the sculpture would have resonated in the former Persian territories, where leonine predation had been a traditional motif for over a millennium. Greek and Roman artists adopted the potent theme of noble animal opponents as an allegory of political authority and battlefield ruthlessness.

Over the course of the second and first centuries B.C., Rome extended its imperial dominion over the regions conquered by Alexander, plundering towns and seizing valuable art as the spoils of victory. The Lion Attacking a Horse was likely transported to Rome as war booty. Its reported findspot in a streambed below the Palatine Hill suggests that it was displayed in the Circus Maximus, where chariot races and mock hunts took place. Installed in the grand stadium, it would have occupied a highly visible location until the Circus Maximus was abandoned soon after A.D. 550.

1585 image showing the Lion Attacking a Horse in its fragmentary state
Engraving in Giovanni Battista de' Cavalieri, Antiquarum statuarum urbis Romae (detail), (On the Ancient Statues of the City of Rome), Rome, 1585–94. The Getty Research Institute

An Icon of Rome

It is not known when the Lion Attacking a Horse—reduced to a battered fragment with only the equine torso and feline foreparts—was brought up to the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Its presence in the Piazza del Campidoglio, the courtyard of Rome's municipal center, was noted in an archival document of 1300. By 1347 the sculpture was situated on the staircase of the Palazzo Senatorio, an area used for the administration of justice and capital punishment. Here the work symbolized Rome's citizen government and served as a direct link to the city's glorious classical past.

Much admired by Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564), who pronounced it "most marvelous," the Lion Attacking a Horse was featured in several guidebooks to the artistic treasures of the Eternal City. In 1594 Michelangelo's student Ruggero Bascapè (Italian, active 1580–1599) restored the horse's head, legs, and tail, as well as the lion's rear parts. Numerous Renaissance and Neoclassical artists were attracted to the expressive image of animal combat to the death, and pursued various approaches to reconstructing the missing elements.

Speculum Romanae magnificentiae
Etching with engraving in Antoine Lafréry, Speculum Romanae magnificentiae (Mirror of the Magnificence of Rome), Rome, about 1544–1602. Created by Etienne Dupérac, the print dates to 1583. The Getty Research Institute

The Lion Attacking a Horse stood in different locations on the Capitoline after the bronze she-wolf replaced it as the icon of Rome. Since 1925 it has occupied a fountain in the Caffarelli Garden behind the Palazzo dei Conservatori. In 2012 the Capitoline Museums undertook an analysis of its ancient manufacture and modern interventions, repaired breaks, and cleaned the stone, as shown in this video. The inaugural presentation at the Getty Villa reveals the result of this conservation and marks the sculpture's sole journey outside Rome in more than two thousand years.

View of the Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome.
View of the Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome. Courtesy of the Sovraintendenza ai Beni Culturali di Roma Capitale - Musei Capitolini

About the Capitoline Museums

The Capitoline Museums are a complex of buildings on the Capitoline Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome. Overlooking the Roman Forum, the Capitoline was the city's religious and political center in antiquity. During the medieval period, palaces were erected over the ruins: the Palazzo Senatorio (1200–1300s) and the Palazzo dei Conservatori (1400s). Michelangelo undertook a commission to renovate the Campidoglio and surrounding palaces.

Throughout the 1500s, the Capitoline art collection developed rapidly with the addition of excavated objects and donations. Since then, the Capitoline Museums have continuously expanded their holdings, assembling one of the finest collections of classical antiquities in the world.

The special installation of the Lion Attacking a Horse at the Getty Villa is part of The Dream of Rome, a project initiated by the mayor of Rome, Giovanni Alemanno, to display classical masterpieces in the United States from 2011 to 2013.

More information about the Capitoline Museums is available on the website.

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