The She-wolves of the Tiber

The She-wolves of the Tiber

About the works

The drawing for Triumphs and Laments is referred to as She-wolf (Basualdo 2016: 259) and is adapted from the sculpture of the Capitoline Wolf (usually dated to the fifth century BCE in the Musei Capotolini Rome) The twins were added in the fifteenth century.

Original drawing (Basualdo 2016: 73)           Kentridge charcoal drawing  (reproduced in Basualdo 2016: Plate 5)


The original ink wash drawings have been translated into monumental prints retaining some of the impetus and spirit of Rome frieze: Triumphs and Laments.

The image is drawn across 20 copper plates with a  coffee-lift mixture. The plates are then covered with BIG acrylic ground and submerged in water to ‘lift’ the drawing through washing, leaving a negative image. This is aquatinted with enamel spray paint and immersed and etched in ferric chloride- a non-toxic mordant.

Kentridge painting a second layer of coffee lift washes onto the copper plates for processing


The paper used to print each plate is hand made from raw cotton cloth and sisal fibre that is cooked, pulped and cast into lightweight sheets at the Phumani Papermill at the University of Johannesburg.  The plates have been further etched and dry-pointed adding additional layers of tone and nuance to the images.

Nathi Ndlandla and Bokang Mankoe mountung prints on cotton cloth


The prints are mounted on raw cotton cloth through the etching press assuming the rough texture of the cloth. The cloth is folded in on itself using the format of a folded map that fits modestly into one’s hands, denying the monumentality of a huge framed artwork. This paradox echoes what Guercio, describing the Rome frieze, called “a desire to experience both the unfolding of time and time itself as unfolding”. 


Nathi Ndlandla and Kentridge checking the trial proof                     Kentridge hand-colouring She-wolf with Jugs print


The edition is ten, with each piece individually hand-coloured by William Kentridge using ink washes to join the folds between individual paper panels. The work folds into a hand-made clamshell box.


She-wolf and Jugs:
Dulce et Decorum est pro patria Mori     Skeleton she-wolf : SPQR (Senatus Populus que Romanum)

143x164cm - 2020 - Edition of 10

Background on the works

Text extracted from: Triumphs and Laments by Basualdo from two essays by Salvatore Settis and Gabriele Guercio and a conversation with William Kentridge. Published in 2016 as a guide to the work.

Triumphs and Laments has been described as “paradoxical monumentality”. The aim of Kentridge’s Roman project is “to capture the transient: to bear witness to what is altered and dissolved over time”. It expresses “a desire to experience both the unfolding of time and time itself as unfolding” (Guercio 2016: 135).

Triumphs and Laments consists of erased graffiti drawings on the banks of the Tiber River between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini in the heart of Rome. The project was commissioned by a non-profit organization Tevereterno and Kristin Jones. The project was conceived as a performative projection a decade earlier. Kristin Jones worked on a stretch of the wall in 2005 for her project on the she-wolves on the Tiber using erased graffiti (in which the colour of the travertine stone is a light background and the dirt is left after the wall is washed around the image). This was the beginning of the commission with William Kentridge’s monumental procession. 

For Kentridge, this project became about the space between the Vatican and the site of the original segregated Jewish ghetto that was established during the late Renaissance in Rome from 1555 and lasted until 1870 when the Italian army conquered Rome bringing the enlightened views of Garibaldi, Mazzini and Cavour.


In an interview with Carlos Basualdo, Kentridge reveals that:

the big gap in my head was assuming the Roman ghetto was a product of the Middle Ages, and that the impulse of the Renaissance and subsequently the Enlightenment, was not part of the story of the ghetto.

I didn’t know this shameful piece of history was also a product of the Renaissance. So a moment of glory for the city was also a moment of shame….

The point is that both glory and shame happen together, at the same moment. So at a certain point, I realized that this project had to be about the implication of disaster at the moment of triumph (Kentridge 2016: 51).


Of his rendering of the she-wolf he stated: “I felt it was important to show that this animal was not such a benevolent one. I wanted to depict the wolf of Rome not just suckling the twins, but also nipping at the heels of its people, especially the Jews segregated in the ghetto” (Kentridge, interview with Busualdo 2016: 51)


Kentridge’s technique is carried out in sequential steps, first from drawings made on paper (first in charcoal and then in ink) to their translation on the travertine walls that contain the Tiber river today, … that subtracts the dark layer left on the stone blocks by pollution, vegetation and micro-organisms, through washing around the cut stencils with water. According to Guercio, the figure monumental size (their triumph) is inseparable from their precarious state (their lament) since the frieze will inevitably fade away.


This process is described as an “emotional metamorphosis” urging the viewer to reconstruct the artistic process which takes place in the studio” (Settis in Basualdo 2016: 193)

 Scan of image of Kentridge in front of from Triumphs and Laments, Rome  (Basualdo 2016: 61)

In the original “Capotoline Wolf’ the twins underneath her teats are replaced by two milk jugs as if the wolves of Rome produced bottled milk. The other is a skeleton of a wolf gnawed and ghostly and seen through the lens of lament. The wolf reduced to a skeleton is in contrast to the wolf producing milk… “attitudes to the greed that comes with power” (Settis in Basualdo 2016: 178).


The titles and drypoint text in the etchings

Dulce et Decorum est pro patria Mor is a line from the Roman poet Horace’s Odes, and is translated as” it is sweet and right to die for one’s fatherland” The poem exhorts Roman citizens to develop prowess so that the enemies of Rome will be too terrified to resist the Romans.

SPQR (Senatus Populus que Romanum) or ‘The Senate and the People of Rome’ was engraved on all the triumphal arches, columns and cast on battle standards by the ancient Roman legion and refers to the integrity of the ancient Roman Republic. It has become the motto of the modern city of Rome found on every Roman manhole cover in the city.

(Notes by Kim Berman , Jan 2020)

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