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Marcus Curtius Throws Himself into the Chasm

Roman art

Attributed to Bernini Pietro

(Sesto Fiorentino 1562 - Rome 1629)

In the 18th century, this imposing group was placed in a highly visible position in the Entrance Hall. It depicts the young hero Marcus Curtius as he throws himself with his horse into the chasm that had opened up in the Forum; his sacrifice would save the city of Rome. The work is the result of an integrative restoration operation conducted in the early 17th century on an ancient marble horse that was unearthed during an archaeological excavation. Careful examination of the documentation revealed that the artist who carried out the bold enterprise was the sculptor Pietro Bernini. The result of his efforts resulted in a sculptural group characterised by marked dynamism.

The ancient relief depicting a horse came from excavations carried out at Villa Adriana in Tivoli in the mid-16th century, as reported by Pirro Ligorio and Ulisse Aldrovandi. The presence of traces of a second animal, which came to light during restoration of the slab, led critics to hypothesise that the horse originally formed part of a larger composition.

Object details

2nd century AD; 1617
white Carrara marble; pentelic marble (horse)
height 220 cm; horse: height 120 cm; width 240 cm

Relief with horse unearthed in mid-16th century in Vale of Tempe near Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli; rider executed by Pietro Bernini in 1617 (Vatican Secret Archive, Borghese Archive, 6085, ‘Registro dei Mandati, 1616-1618’, f. 134, no. 178, in Martinelli 1962, p. 283); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C, p. 43, no. 34; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 2017 Roma, Galleria Borghese
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1997 C.B.C. Coop. a r.l.


This group is composed of two parts of different provenance and epochs: while the horse is an ancient relic, its rider was realised in the 17th century in the framework of an integrative restoration operation which allowed the former to be reused in the creation of a new work.

The ancient relief, partially conserved, is a slab depicting the figure of a horse. The work came to light during excavations performed in the mid-16th century in the Vale of Tempe near Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli (Baldassarri 1989, pp. 85-7, no. 37; Paribeni 1994, pp. 25-6). In 1909, Rodolfo Lanciani attributed the discovery to Marcantonio Palosi (or Paloso), a magistrate of great reputation who worked under Pope Paul III and his successor Julius III (Lanciani 1909, pp. 136-9, fig. on p. 140). In an earlier publication (1903, p. 112), Lanciani drew on reports contemporary with the find: Pirro Ligorio, who was in the service of Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este, governor of Tivoli from 1549 to 1572, affirmed – in Lanciani’s words – that ‘certain fragments of horses were found among other marbles. One of these was almost whole, with the yoke around its neck and in the act of falling. It was brought to Rome and placed on the porch of the house of Marcoantonio Paloso at the Dogana’ (Ligorio 1556-1569, Cod. Vat. Lat. 5295, f.30). Ulisse Aldrovandi, an antiques dealer in Bologna, reported that ‘in the house of M. Antonio Paloso in the Dogana, on the wall of the loggia of the courtyard, one can see a half relief with a beautiful horse, which seems to be tripping and falling. It is a marvellous, praiseworthy work which was found only several days ago in Tibur’ (Aldrovandi 1556, p. 189).

In 1836, Agostino Penna was the first scholar to connect these reports with the Borghese sculpture (Penna 1836, plate XXXIX). Most of the figure of the horse is preserved in the relief: in the lower portion, the forearm, barrel and legs, with the details of the straps, buckle and reins on its neck; in the upper portion, the neck and the head (except the muzzle). Close observation reveals traces of three couplings next to the legs, which do not form part of the current group, as well as a small section of slab above the back: these elements have led scholars to hypothesise the existence of a second figure of a horse in the original relief. These extraneous features had probably already been identified by Ennio Quirino Visconti, who in 1796 noted ‘the traces of another overturned horse which were present in the field of the monument but which were erased during the restoration. They demonstrate that this bas relief must be a fragment of some grandiose composition’ (Visconti, Lamberti 1796, pp. 29-30, no. 18). Adolfo Venturi was of the same opinion: in 1893 he claimed that the fragment belonged to the representation of an ancient biga. Following the major restoration operation of the 17th century, the figure of the animal was rotated by almost 90 degrees, forgoing its original rampant position to convey the visual perception of a fall. If we accept the plausible hypothesis that the slab once depicted a more complex composition, a useful comparison can be made with the relief representing a biga held today at the Uffizi Gallery (Mansuelli 1958, p. 38, no. 12).

Giulia Ciccarello


The young horseman wears a cuirass that culminates in pteruges formed of fabric strips and slivers. His upper arms are covered by fringed sleeves and his lower legs by long boots which leave his toes bare. His head is protected by a helmet that reproduces the form of a morion with a crest, similar to that worn by Swiss guards. His arms are extended in front of him, emphasising his fall. The subject of the work is Marcus Curtius throwing himself into the chasm, an episode which according to Roman tradition occurred in 362 BC: the fearless youth hurled himself into a rift in the ground that had opened up in the Forum, sacrificing himself to save the city. The chasm presaged misfortune, which could only be warded off by throwing the most cherished belonging of the Roman citizens into it. The fearless soldier Marcus offered his valour, riding his horse into the abyss. The episode came to symbolise the celebration of courage as well as the spirit of sacrifice. The incorporation of the ancient horse into the sculpture depicting the legend was meant to commemorate the same virtues in Scipione Borghese: in 1606, he rode through the streets of Rome on a mule, distributing goods and comfort to the population of the city, which had been struck by the flooding of the Tiber. The parallel between Marcus and Scipione was also the subject of verses written several years earlier in honour of the cardinal by the poet Scipione Francucci.

Raymond (pp. 94-5) mentioned the work for the first time in 1648, noting that it was displayed on the exterior of Villa Pinciana. Two years later, Manilli gave a more precise indication of its location, namely at the centre of the southern façade between the second and third floors (1650, p. 48). The sculpture remained here until 1777, when the architect Antonio Asprucci had it moved during the renovation of the interior spaces of the Villa, placing it on the wall opposite the door of the Entrance Hall, where it was certainly seen in September 1779 (Herbert 1939, p. 276). The choice to position it here formed part of a decorative programme celebrating the family: the work was to serve the function of a speculum principis for the heir Camillo, who was born in 1775. The artist Mariano Rossi, meanwhile, had painted another Roman hero, Marcus Furius Camillus, on the vault of the hall, which was meant to complement the sculpture (Paul 1992, pp. 317-18).

Frequently mentioned in 17th- and 18th-century guidebooks, Marcus Curtius was believed by some writers to be an entirely ancient work (de’ Ficoroni 1744, p. 73, wrote that the integration had taken place in the imperial era), which probably came to light in the same place where the legendary episode occurred (Northall 1766, p. 352). In 1793 Bottari noted the work among the ancient pieces of the Borghese Collection (Titi 1987, I, p. 229), while three years later Visconti maintained that the rider was added in modern times to the ancient horse (I, pp. 28-9, no. 18), an opinion later espoused by Nibby (1832, p. 38).

In 1967, D’Onofrio identified the work with the ancient horse for whose restoration Pietro Bernini was paid 150 scudi in 1617 (pp. 255-8).

The integration executed by the sculptor stands out for its revolutionary character: not only does the figure take on a volume which places it halfway between a high relief and a free-standing sculpture, but in the act of falling downwards the rider stretches out away from the wall, creating an effect of movement that represented a complete innovation in the context of the restoration of ancient works (Pierguidi 2015, p. 62).

In the 18th century, the work underwent two restoration operations. The first was performed in 1763 by Cosimo Fancelli, who was evidently paid just a few baiocchi for his efforts (Acetelli 2011, p. 418). In 1777, when the sculpture was moved inside the Villa, Agostino Penna was paid 270 scudi for a second restoration – consisting mostly of cleaning, removing residue and adding missing fragments – to return the piece to its original appearance after long exposure to atmospheric elements (Pierguidi 2015, p. 62, Guerrieri Borsoi 2001, pp. 146-147).

Sonja Felici

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