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.