An ancient Roman bronze statue lost since World War II has been rediscovered at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The gilded bronze statue of Nike, goddess of Victory, was created in the second century A.D. to commemorate the victory of co-emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus against the Parthians in the war of 161-166.
The Victory was found in four pieces: the body, torso, right hand and the sphere. The head was discovered first, churned up in February 1836 by farmers working the fields of a private estate near the town of Calvatone outside Cremona in Lombardy, northern Italy. The estate’s owner, Luigi Alovisi, was fascinated by the golden head and had people keep looking for more parts. On March 14th, 1836, they found the body, missing the left arm and leg, and a sphere with both of her dainty feet perched upon it. The inscription on the sphere — VICTORIAE AVG. / ANTONINI ET VERI / M. SATRIUS MAIOR — identified its age and that it was dedicated by local dignitary Marcus Satrius Maior to the emperors.
Italian restorers put the existing pieces back together, revealing a statue 170 cm (5’7″) in height. Even though it was incomplete, its size, quality and the elegant balancing of the winged Victory atop a sphere immediately classified it among the masterpieces of antiquity. Very few ancient bronzes survived melting down, and the Calvatone Victory not only managed to avoid the forge, it kept a large proportion of its gilding.
In December of 1841, Luigi Alovisi sold the Victory to King Frederick William IV of Prussia for 12,000 Austrian lire and a noble title. German restorers picked up where the Italian ones left off and all the statue’s missing parts — left arm, left leg, wings — were recreated and attached. Now complete, it became a favorite subject for artists to draw and sculptors to copy. A plaster cast of the sculpture was created in 1871 and another eight made after the turn of the century. Some of the copies are in museums in Berlin, Rome, Cremona and Moscow even today.
Up until 1939, the Calvatone Victory was on display in the Altes Museum in Berlin. Along with many other precious works, it was moved to the cellar of the new Royal Mint building for its protection when World War II broke out. It remained (relatively) safe there while its former home at the Altes Museum was destroyed by Allied bombs. It was in the chaotic aftermath of the Battle of Berlin in 1945 that the Victory disappeared, one of thousands of artifacts lost to looting by German Army deserters and Red Army troops.
Its whereabouts were unknown for the next 70 years. Recent research by Hermitage staff into declassified Soviet files and newly discovered documents found that the Victory was specifically targeted for removal from the mint cellar by a Russian expert in ancient art. The cellar had flooded in the waning days of the war, and the Calvatone Victory was one of many pieces stored there to suffer damage. Packed into one of 40,000 cases full of art, the Victory wasn’t assigned an inventory number. By the time it arrived at the Hermitage in 1946 and was entered into inventory there, its real identity was lost and it was mistakenly assessed to be a 17th century French sculpture.
The statue is not in great condition. The heavy gilded iron wings attached by the Berlin restorers in the 19th century fell off during its wartime service in the cellar, and there is evidence of damage from bombs and water.
Hermann Parzinger, the director of the SPK, and Michail Piotrowkij, the general director of the Hermitage, have agreed to collaborate on the sculpture’s restoration.
Parzinger thanked the Hermitage for its transparent handling of the research, and for a history of successful collaborations on exhibitions surrounding works displaced from German museums during World War II. “With the Victoria of Calvatone sculpture, our successful and mutually trusting scholarly collaboration has gained another milestone to mark.”