This painting, created by Italian artist Sebastiano Ricci (c. 1659 – 1734), brings to life an interesting legend from the history of ancient Rome. Ricci’s chosen scene reportedly occurred during the reign of King Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (or Tarquin the Elder (r. 616-578 BCE)). King Tarquin, as the story goes, clashed with a prominent augur, known as Attus Navius, after the omen reader presented an unfavorable interpretation of omens in regard to the Roman king’s endeavors. Angered by the outcome of the divination, King Tarquin belittled Attus Navius’ craft. Yet, besides mere criticism, the king decided to play a nasty trick on the augur in hopes of humiliating and discrediting the man. According to the legend, however, Attus Navius had the last laugh. The tale was recorded by the Roman historian, Livy (59 BCE- 17 CE):
“Tarquin was very angry. ‘Ho ho!’ he cried with a contemptuous laugh; ‘then I would ask you, holy sir, to declare by your gift of prophecy if what I am thinking of at this moment can be done.’ His object, the story goes, was to ridicule the whole business of omens; but Navius was unperturbed. He took the auspices, and replied that the thought in the king’s mind would, indeed, be realized. ‘Very well,’ said Tarquin, ‘I was thinking that you would cut a whetstone in half with a razor. Get them, and do what those birds of yours declare can be done.’ Believe it or not: without a moment’s delay Navius did it” (Livy, History of Rome, 1.36).
Such is the scene that is occurring in Sebastiano Ricci’s painting. Instead of a whetstone, Ricci gave Attus Navius a tougher challenge of cutting a fallen pillar in half. Nevertheless, Navius has his razor ready to prove disbelieving King Tarquin wrong.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The (Early) History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.