According to Roman mythology, an earthquake in 362 BC caused a deep pit to open up in the Roman Forum. The citizens of Rome tried in vain to fill it and were advised by the oracle that the gods demanded Rome’s most precious possession. A young soldier named Marcus Curtius knew that this was youth and the courage of the Romans. He rode his horse into the chasm, which closed over them both, so saving Rome.
In this panel, Marcus Curtius raises his dagger as he urges his rearing horse towards the flaming chasm. The small size of the painting and its decorative quality suggest that it may have been made to embellish a piece of furniture, possibly a chest, in a domestic interior. Bacchiacca, who may have painted the panel, was involved in the decorations for the Borgherini Bedchamber, illustrating the life of Joseph (also in the National Gallery’s collection), which was probably the most important commission for a Florentine interior at the time.
This small panel painting appears to depict the heroic self-sacrifice of an ancient Roman soldier. When a chasm opened in the Forum in Rome, he plunged into it on horseback in order to save the city.
According to Roman mythology recorded by Livy, an earthquake in 362 BC caused a deep pit to open up in the Roman Forum. The citizens of Rome tried in vain to fill it and were advised by the oracle that the gods demanded Rome’s most precious possession. The Romans could not work out what that was, but a young soldier named Marcus Curtius replied that it was youth and the courage of the Romans. Fully armed, he rode his horse into the chasm, which miraculously closed over them both, so saving Rome. The Lacus Curtius (‘Lake of Curtius’) in the Forum was built over the legendary site of the pit and is named after the young hero.
Here the young Roman soldier with flowing blond hair raises his dagger as he urges his rearing horse towards a flaming chasm. The horse’s harness and trappings and the ornamentation of the armour are picked out in gold paint. The horse’s tail and the soldier’s cloak have also been depicted with a decorative scrolling flutter. The scene is not set in an ancient city but in a mountainous landscape beside a river, perhaps intended to represent the Tiber and the hills of Rome. There is a town on the hill at the left. A small bridge crosses the river and a white swan drifts along in the distance.
The small size of the panel and its decorative quality suggest that it may have been made to embellish wooden panelling or a piece of furniture in a domestic interior, perhaps as the side panel of a cassone, or marriage chest. The exploits of Roman heroes were popular for such decorative schemes in wealthy Italian Renaissance households, as for example Licinio’s Scenes from Ancient Roman History. The attribution of this panel to the Florentine Mannerist painter Bacchiacca is based on similarly rearing horses in panels by him in the Uffizi, Florence. Bacchiacca was involved in the decorations for the Borgherini Bedchamber, illustrating the life of Joseph, which was probably the most sophisticated decorative commission for a Florentine interior at the time.
This may be the painting listed in the 1627 Mantua inventory as ‘a little painting with Quintus Curtius on horseback who jumps into the chasm’. There is a nineteenth-century copy of this composition in the Brera, Milan, which an inscription says was made from a painting by Raphael in the collection of the Count of Sommariva. The Count, who died in 1827, was an Italian politician who at one stage lived in Paris and was a notable patron of the arts. The National Gallery’s painting was acquired from the Beaucousin Collection in Paris in 1860, so may have been the picture once owned by the Count, which was then believed to be by Raphael.
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