One of the leading painters of Baroque Naples, Bernardo Cavallino was influenced by masters as diverse as Caravaggio and Rubens. He developed a distinctive manner marked by the dramatic play of light and action. The subject of this painting is taken from Livy’s account of the Etruscan siege of Rome. Gaius Mucius, a young Roman nobleman, infiltrated the enemy camp in an attempt to slay the Etruscan king Porsenna, but mistakenly killed the king’s treasurer.
At center stage is Gaius, who defiantly turns his head and dagger toward Porsenna, warning him that he is one of many youths sworn to assassinate him. Demonstrating his resolve, Gaius unflinchingly holds his hand in the hot embers until it is burned away. Porsenna was so impressed by this action that he freed the young hero and concluded peace with Rome. Gaius Mucius was thereafter known as Mucius Scaevola (the left-handed).
The Kimbell painting comes from a Spanish collection that also included The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul by Cavallino (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), and Jonah Preaching to the People at Nineveh by Andrea Vaccaro (Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville). All share narratives in which a king is threatened with death unless he withdraws from warfare against a virtuous people. Another Cavallino, The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow), concerning a warning against taxation by foreign rulers, may also belong to the group. These themes were of topical interest in Naples, which witnessed revolts against Spanish domination during this period.
Cavallino’s Mucius Scaevola Confronting King Porsenna exhibits the characteristic surface of a hammered copper support. Hammering was the usual method of preparing copper sheets before the advent of rolling in the eighteenth century. When properly prepared, paintings on copper sheets have luxurious, enamel-like finishes that can remain virtually free of cracks. Cavallino’s delicate brushwork is enhanced by the smooth surface of the rigid copper support. There is a marked contrast between the figures that are painted using body colors, such as lead white pigment, and those that are thinly painted with more fragile transparent pigments. The central figure of Mucius Scaevola is well preserved, while the bearded man with a staff at the right has become almost ghostlike with time. In restoring the figure, an effort was made to reintegrate it into the composition without falsifying the traces of original paint. Other areas of increased transparency include the tablecloth and the cushion lying on the floor at the left.
Private collection, Madrid;
(sale, Fernando Duran, Madrid, 14 March 1978, no. 76, as “Escena biblica” by Andrea Vaccaro);
(Somerville & Simpson, Ltd., London);
purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1981.