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In 2018, Aurélia Azéma, a doctoral student in Paris, observed something peculiar about a massive bronze toe held in the collection of the Louvre Museum: namely, that it was not a toe but an index finger. And not just any finger, she argued, but that of a colossal, early 4th-century statue of Roman emperor Constantine held in fragments at the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
After 500 years, and thanks to Azéma’s research, Constantine’s left hand has now been restored to its five-finger glory in a collaboration between the two institutions.
The bronze digit, part of a trove of ancient Greek and Roman art amassed by collector Marquis Giampietro Campana and acquired by the Louvre in the 1860s, had long been classified as a toe by the museum’s experts. Louvre archaeologist Nicolas Melard created a 3D model of the piece that was then taken to Rome by curators Françoise Gaultier and Sophie Descamps to confirm Azéma’s hunch.
The recomposed hand is now on view at the Palazzo dei Conservatori Museum along with the other remain parts of the originally 39-foot-statue, including a giant bust of the emperor’s, his left forearm, and a sphere once held in his palm.
In a Facebook post, Rome mayor Virginia Raggi celebrated the restitution, noting that it comes on the 550th anniversary of Pope Sixtus IV’s donation of core works that led to the creation of the Capitolini Museums, the oldest public collection of art in the world.
“Culture has no boundaries and I’m very happy that Romans and tourists will be able to admire and learn this incredible story,” she added.
As the old saying goes: If the finger fits, please return it to its respective brutal Roman emperor.
Correction 5/10/2021 6:30pm EST: An earlier version of this article misstated that the statue was created in the 14th century.