The Prenestine Fibula

Dec 18, 2023 | Art Word, Authentications & attributions, Fakes


A long debate followed the discovery of the so-called Prenestine Fibula, found in Palestrina, ancient Praeneste, since its official presentation in 1887 by the German archaeologist Wolfgang Helbig.

The 10.7 cm long golden jewel bears the Latin inscription “Manios med fhefhaked Numasioi,” in classical Latin, meaning ‘Manius made me for Numerius.’

In 1979, it was declared a forgery by the renowned scholar Margherita Guarducci, who, during a conference at the Accademia del Lincei in Rome, strongly criticized the archaeologist and attributed the inscription to Helbig himself.

The first chemical analyses of the artifact were conducted by restorers Pico Cellini and chemist Giulio Devoto. Microscopic and x-ray fluorescence analyses confirmed the forgery, according to Cellini. He claimed to have found traces of nitric acid used to age the metal and observed alterations in the mercury gilding. Additionally, he argued that the gold was ductile and “fresh,” not flaky and fragile like that of other artifacts typically found in tombs.

Etruscologist Giovanni Colonna, however, defended the authenticity of the piece. His argument was based on the idea that:

“(…) the forgery of an inscription from the 7th century B.C. was unthinkable before the discovery of the stele of the Forum, made only in 1899. Therefore, a skilled forger would never have created such an imprecise and uncertain inscription.”

In 2009, glottologists Massimo Poetto and Giulio Facchetti, with a new philological investigation, confirmed the authenticity of the inscription. They noted its similarity to an inscription on a Corinthian vase bearing the name Numasiana, reminiscent of the Numaisoi of the fibula.

The final word seems to come from the CNR, which conducted in-depth analyses in 2011.

The scientific investigations performed made it possible to verify methodologies and chemical composition compatible with the dating attributed to the brooch in the 7th century B.C., despite the cleaning and polishing interventions performed in the 19th century. The inscription also proved to be ancient, based on microstructural investigations of the areas involved in the grooves, confirming it as the oldest testimony in the Latin language.

“The brooch is a high-quality goldsmith’s artifact, made using gold alloys of different composition according to the intended function of the various components,” states the CNR. “An original repair has also been identified, confirming the prolonged use of the object in ancient times. It is unlikely that a forger would reconstruct such details without knowledge of ancient goldsmithing procedures, which, moreover, could not have been detected without sophisticated technological instruments available only in our day.”

Therefore, the Prenestine Fibula is considered authentic and, dating back to the mid-7th century B.C., bears the oldest surviving Latin inscription.