After 500 years, an ancient bronze hand is rejoined to a finger

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After 500 years, an ancient bronze hand is rejoined to a finger
In this file photo taken on October 14, 2020 visitors wearing face masks look at statues in The Louvre Museum, deserted by tourists due to the Covid-19 pandemic, in Paris. Ludovic MARIN / AFP.

by Elisabetta Povoledo

ROME (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The Louvre Museum in Paris had a gigantic ancient bronze finger that had, at some point in time, been detached from its hand.

And the Capitoline Museums in Rome had a gigantic ancient bronze hand — belonging to a fourth-century colossal statue of the Roman Emperor Constantine — that was missing parts of some digits.

This week, some five centuries after it was detached, the long-lost finger from France was rejoined to the hand (the left) in Rome and exhibited at the main municipal museum in the Italian capital.

Mayor Virginia Raggi of Rome called the reunion an example of “collaboration and synergy” between the two cities, celebrating it in a video posted to Twitter on Thursday that showed the finger being removed from a bright blue crate marked “Fragile” and “Keep Dry.”

The return, the mayor noted, coincided with the 550th anniversary of the Capitoline Museums. They were created in 1471 when Pope Sixtus IV “donated a group of bronze statues of great symbolic value to the People of Rome,” as the museum notes on its site.

In the video, the finger (which at 38 centimeters, or 14 inches, looks more like a forearm) is gingerly lifted from the crate by a white-gloved workman.

The uncrating unfolded in a glass-enclosed hall at the Capitoline Museums that also houses two other elements, apart from the hand, that were once part of the colossal statue of Constantine: the head and a large globe once held by the hand.

Other pieces of the colossal statue have never been found.

Drawings from the 16th century show that the index finger was missing even then.

“No one imagined or ever thought that we would ever find the missing pieces,” Claudio Parisi Presicce, the director of the Capitoline Museums, said in a telephone interview.

In fact, the finger had been considered irreparably lost. But in 2010 Aurélia Azéma, a French Ph.D. student researching welding techniques used in making ancient large bronzes, hypothesized that the Louvre digit might belong to the Constantine at the Capitoline. The theory was confirmed eight years later when a French team of scholars and a curator from the Louvre made a resin reproduction of the finger from a 3D model and went to the Capitoline to see if it fit.

“It was perfect,” Azéma said in an email. “Like two pieces of a puzzle.”

Parisi Presicce said that at the time, Jean-Luc Martinez, president-director of the Musée du Louvre, “immediately decided it was right” for the finger to be returned to its hand, he said.

The finger had found its way to the Louvre in 1863, where for a brief time (1913-15) it had been cataloged as a toe. It arrived via a large group of artworks that had once belonged to Giampietro Campana, a Roman art collector and archaeologist who had amassed one of the great collections of the 19th century.

He was accused of embezzlement in 1857, and his collection was confiscated and put up for sale in 1861. Napoleon III acquired one large lot, which was exhibited at the Louvre, and another lot was acquired by Emperor Alexander II for the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The finger and the hand were brought together for the first time in 2018, for an exhibition featuring the Campana collection at the Louvre that in 2019 traveled to the Hermitage.

Finally, the Louvre finger arrived at the Capitoline this week for a “renewable loan,” the French museum said in a statement. It was affixed to the hand “though an almost invisible, noninvasive and reversible system,” Parisi Presicce said.

The newly rejoined hand is exhibited next to the other pieces that made up the original nucleus of statues donated to the public by Sixtus IV, which includes the “She-wolf,” the famed symbol of Rome.

Scholars know that the finger had detached from the hand by the 16th century, “but we still don’t know how it ended up in the Campana collection,” Parisi Presicce said.

“Research continues,” he added.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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