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The last time the celebrated Roman sculpture known as “The Dying Gaul” left Italy was in 1797, when Napoleonic forces carted it off as a war prize with every intention of keeping it in France.

Since it was repatriated in the early 19th century, the figure of a Gallic warrior in his final moments has become a focal point of the collection of the Capitoline Museum in Rome and a must-see for visitors including Lord Byron, Mark Twain and Henry James. Thomas Jefferson included it on a list of antiquities he hoped to house in a never-realized art gallery he planned for Monticello. And dramatist Craig Lucas borrowed the name for the title of his 1998 play about Hollywood intrigues that he later adapted into a feature film.

Washingtonians can now get an up-close look at the marble masterwork, “Galata Morente” in Italian, in the rotunda of the National Gallery of Art’s West Building, where it’s on exhibit through March 16 as part of the 2013 Year of Italian Culture in the United States. It’s the most celebrated sculpture to be brought to town since Michelangelo’s “David-Apollo” went on display a year ago as part of the same cultural observance.

“The Dying Gaul” is thought to be a Roman copy of a Greek bronze sculpture commissioned in the late 3rd century BC to celebrate the victory of the king of Pergamon over invading Gauls. Discovered during excavations for a Roman villa in the 1620s, it became one of the most widely reproduced objects of its time thanks to an engraving by French artist Francois Perrier that was published in 1638. Reproductions were ordered by the likes of King Philip IV of Spain and Louis XIV of France and can be found today in institutions including the Hermitage Museum in Russia, the Museum of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge University and the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma.

The figure, its face contorted in pain, was long thought to portray a gladiator mortally wounded in the chest. However, the mustache, neck ring and spiky hairstyle suggest either a member of one of the Germanic tribes that the Greeks and Romans considered barbarians or a Gallic warrior, known for bravery and ferocity, according to a prospectus prepared for the exhibit. (A curved, Celtic trumpet rests at the figure’s feet.)

The sculpture likely reminded ancient Romans of their own victory of Gaul, which they equated with the triumph of civilization over savages. However, the idealized form today is viewed as a moving tribute to a conquered enemy displaying “courage in defeat, composure in the face of death and dignity,” National Gallery Director Earl A. Powell III said in a statement.

The exhibit is part of a cultural exchange in which the National Gallery has loaned Impressionist paintings that are being shown at the Museum of the Ara Pacis in Rome through February. Fittingly, the rotunda that will house “The Dying Gaul” until March 16 is itself modeled on the Pantheon in Rome.

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