Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Etruscan or not? Content changes -- we have to update what we know and what we teach...

I'm annoyed.  And while I don't usually post this kind of annoyance to the blogosphere, this one touches on the nature of knowledge and search. 

My daughter is taking sophomore Art History in high school.  That's wonderful!  I always enjoyed Art History, enjoying the sweep of styles, time, artistic technology, aesthetics, conceptions of beauty... everything.  

So it was with more than some interest that we reviewed her homework studies of Etruscan art.  (You remember: The predecessors to the Romans, who lived in central Italy between the 9th and 2cnd centuries BCE.)   I throughly enjoy Roman, pre-Roman, post-Roman art.  We saw the usual suspects--funerary sarcophagi, temples, frescoes, and metal statues. 

And that's where it got suddenly dicey.  Her textbook holds up the Capitoline Wolf as a prime example of Etruscan metalworking.  

Thing is, the provenance of this sculpture has been up for debate for a long time (since at least 2005).  

It's now widely believed to have been made in the 1200s, long after the Etruscans were dust in their tombs.  [BBC News.  La Repubblica. Discovery. Spiegel (in Italian). ]

My daughter has a test today in Art History:  What answer should she give when asked about the origin of the Capitoline Wolf?  Etruscan or not?  

Should she write a mini-essay in the margin of the test explaining that the metallurgy is all wrong, and indeed, the style is more Carolingian than Etruscan, and besides, we know the twins were added in 1471.   So the symbolism is a funny composite of messages.  And as a symbol of Rome, it's a much later work than the city itself.  

"The new thesis is that it is a medieval copy of an original Etruscan work," Rome's municipality supervisor for culture, Umberto Broccoli, said.  
He remarked that the Etruscan attribution was first made by 18th-century German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann on the basis of how the wolf's fur was represented.

Perhaps more importantly from our point of view: How often are textbooks updated?  How often are their facts checked?  

In a world where basic notions about truth and ascription change rapidly, shouldn't we be doing a better job than reproducing incorrect assertions?   If Pluto could be demoted from major planet to dwarf planet, maybe we could fix a few other errors in other topics as well. 

Or at least admit a wider range of responses than is admitted by "When was the Capitoline Wolf sculpted?"  

See also: 

Lombardi, G. (2002). "A petrographic study of the casting core of the Lupa Capitolina". Archaeometry 44 (4). (X-ray diffractometry, thermal analyses, chemistry and thin sections identify the casting site as being in the lower Tiber valley.)


  1. Dan, your daughter is a most fortunate student to have such an engaged parent! Reviewing her art history homework and noting discrepancies in date attributions to artworks is commendable.
    Also, teaching her the value of the "artful answer" will stand her in good stead as she moves forward; since you know how the academic game is played. While her answer could rightfully point toward your post today, she will be better off to say that while the example given is not Etruscan, based on recent metallurgical studies, it epitomizes the powerful mythology and reality of ancient Rome and may capture the spirit of she wolf sculptures
    referenced by Marcus Tullius Cicero and possibly produced by the Etruscans or Magna Graecia workshops of the lower Tiber valley, but those examples have been lost. However, it is a testament to the power of the myth and iconography, that 18 centuries later the example given is put forward and maintained to demonstrate the uniqueness of the development of Rome, its antecedents and descendants.
    riding the fence
    plausible bronze skills
    modern example of the persistent power of the she wolf
    fwiw - you might want her to explore more recent sculptural examples before their history - or even names - are muddied in the swirling eddies of time: Andy, Mike(y), Bug Droid?? -
    many reiterations
    perhaps twin Andys should replace Romulus and Remus as the Valley becomes the Neuvo Rome… Jeff Koons perhaps? Sounds like Mills or Bryn Mawr are already in the offing.
    Instead of "When was the Capitoline Wolf sculpted?" maybe the question should be: When wasn't the Capitoline Wolf sculpted? ;)

  2. late 1480s woodcut with twins, the suggestion is that early bronze examples (Etruscan?) of the she wolf sculpture may have been sans twins…
    see cmacq
    Wolf on!
    (one of many possible approaches…the textbook publishing business is big biz? e textbooks)

  3. Good question; Suggest she discuss with the prof - although a little late now - so determine what approach is wanted. In the meantime the "official" response as you say with her update.

    ...there's her best response: Because my Daddy says this is the right answer !


  4. Dr. Russell is this a paper (hard) textbook rather than an electronic text? My hope is that as school systems move to online or e-texts that the hassle of updating wrong information. We have similar problems in education with maps and globes. Those are costly items to put in each and every classroom but the world doesn't stand still. We were stuck with maps showing East and West Germany for several years after the unification primarily due to lack of funds for replacements. As teachers have moved toward incorporating Google Maps and Google Earth those funds are now used for other things. Students had access to maps showing the new country of South Sudan shortly after they became official.

    With e-texts becoming more readily available through Google Play and iOS Bookstore as well as apps like Inkling and Kno, I hope that as errors are found or facts change our textbooks for students will be able to provide them better information. Avoiding the fiasco we had in Virginia a few years ago.



    1. This is a great question--should e-texts replace hardcopy *primarily* because we can update them more quickly?

      I am of two minds about this. Remember that Amazon proactively deleted Kindle copies of Orwell's 1984 from their owners devices when they discovered that they had a copyright problem. (Oh, the irony!) You can argue that was just good housekeeping on their part, but more seriously, I worry that e-books can be updated in ways that aren't quite as benign. Imagine a e-text company pushing an update of US history textbooks that changes the teachings about major political events. Say, the way the US-Iraq war began... Political boundaries are always a problem, but I want to be sure that underlying (historical) texts are maintained as well. The changes in understanding are just as important to know as the currently accepted boundary of South Sudan.

    2. I have being thinking a lot about hardcopy and digital. The best could be that books works as apps. Once you buy a book in any format, then you have access to updates in a digital format.

      I agree with Dr. Russell, both kind of books are useful and that e-books have disadvantages too.

      In the topic of tests, I am sure that students like Dr. Russell's daughter will have more knowledge and more tools in life, even if in the test they have the "wrong" answer because they search and verify the answer. That, improve brain connections and gives lessons for life. At the end, she can teach the teachers about the right answer.

  5. Hello Dr. Russell.

    How your daughter did in the test? What answer she gave?

    Did her teachers said something?

  6. Your comments regarding outdated textbooks is I'm sure a frustrating issue for all educators. When I wanted to refresh my knowledge I decided to go online and I found that Khan Academy offered the most interactive, uptodate, free and easy to use online program.

    Now I'm not an educator so there are likely other online services. I like the philosophy of Khan Academy to make education available to everyone. You will see the Art History site which appears very comprehensive.

    So outdated textbooks are just one more reason to go online. This website made it easy to "go back to school" for anyone with online access.



  7. I'm of two minds. First mind: She should give the answer she would have given before talking to you! If your general search teaching have inspired to discover this herself, then she should absolutely give the full answer (with an explanation that she knows what the book says). But if she only learned this as a result of talking about this particular problem with you, then she should give her original answer.

    2nd mind: I know that I, as a teacher, want to understand what the student is capable of knowing and thinking. But since her thinking is influenced by the entire world around her (including her parents), then all that knowledge is fair game.

    Nevertheless, parents are special and prone to overly influencing their kids, so I probably go with mind #1.

  8. Update: I STILL don't know what my daughter put for her answer to that question. (I suspect she's waiting until she gets the test back before she tells me. Don't get me started on why tests take weeks to return to students...)