This is also the first time the masterpiece has left Italy in 200 years.
Created during the first or second century A.D., "The Dying Gaul" is a warrior in the agony and dignity of a heroic death.
The magnificent life-sized marble statue epitomizes a description of Gallic fighters by second century Greek historian Polybius: "...wearing nothing but their weapons ... the naked warriors ... all in the prime of life ... finely built men."
And Lord Byron, who saw the work during his 1816-1818 tour of Italy, extolled it in "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage":
I see before me the gladiator lie
He leans upon his hand -- his manly brow
consents to death, but conquers agony...
It's a Roman copy of an original Greek bronze created in the third century B.C. to commemorate the ancient Greek kingdom Pergamum's victory over the invading Gauls.
For Pergamum (in modern-day Turkey) and for Romans, who made their own conquest of Gaul, "the subject also held larger significance: the triumph of civilization over barbarism," the National Gallery noted.
"The Dying Gaul" was unearthed in the early 1620s in Rome during an excavation to build the Villa Ludovisi. The earliest record of the statue was in a 1623 inventory of the villa's collection.
Replicas of the sculpture were commissioned by 17th century rulers King Philip IV of Spain and Louis XIV of France. The original inspired works by Diego Velázquez and Jacques-Louis David, among other major artists.
The sculpture had not left Italy since 1797, when Napoleon's forces took the statue to Paris, where it was displayed at the Louvre until its return to Rome in 1816.
Also coveting a "Dying Gaul" was Thomas Jefferson. He had included it on a 1771 list of antiquities he hoped to acquire for a planned art gallery at Monticello, the museum said.
Although Jefferson did not succeed, you can see this majestic artwork at the National Gallery, free, now through Mar. 16.
The National Gallery's "The Dying Gaul: An Ancient Roman Masterpiece from the Capitoline Museum, Rome" is a continuation of "2013 The Year of Italian Culture in the United States". It began early, in December 2012, with Italy's similarly rare loan of Michelangelo's masterpiece "David-Apollo" to the National Gallery.
For more info: "The Dying Gaul: An Ancient Roman Masterpiece from the Capitoline Museum, Rome", National Gallery of Art, www.nga.gov, on the National Mall, Constitution Avenue between 7th and 4th Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C. Free. On view through Mar. 16, 2014. Organized by Roma Capitale, Sovrintendenza Capitolina – Musei Capitolini, and the National Gallery of Art, with the Embassy of Italy, Washington.