The dramatic battle scene on this cassone front depicts a company of knights, bearing Roman standards, laying siege to a city. Typically, the cofanaio (cassone painter) invests a sumptuous degree of attention to detail, taking pains to depict the arms and armour of the men, the trappings of the horses and the heraldic devices on the shields.
Although the subject has not been conclusively identified, the panel probably depicts the Fall of Carthage in 146 B.C., one of the most famous sieges of the ancient period. It was with this battle that the armies of the Roman Republic dealt Carthage its final defeat, ending the lengthy Punic Wars and absorbing the Carthaginian Empire into its own, at that stage still only a de facto entity. The Roman armies were commanded by Scipio Aemilianus, adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus, who had defeated the Carthaginians at New Carthage (Cartagena) in Spain in 209 B.C. The mercy of Scipio Africanus in the aftermath of that battle became legend as 'The Continence of Scipio', and was a favourite subject of Italian artists, especially for cassone decoration - an example from this period is The Siege of New Carthage and the Continence of Scipio by the Master of the Santa Croce Tournament, circa 1450 (London, The Courtauld Gallery). The present panel may indeed represent Scipio Africanus during the Siege of New Carthage, but the absence of the Continence suggests that it is likelier to be the great triumph of Scipio Aemilianus, perhaps painted as a juxtaposition to another cassone panel depicting the feats of his august grandfather. That the setting is Carthaginian Africa rather than Roman Hispania is also supported by the rows of monoliths in the background, which may represent Punic stelae, the most celebrated of Carthaginian monuments.
When the picture was sold as by The Master of Anghiari in 1991, a saleroom notice proposed an attribution to Bernardo di Stefano Rosselli (1450-1526); however, recent re-evaluation of this masters corpus suggests that the present lot, as well as other pictures formerly given to Bernardo, are by another, as yet unidentified, hand. Some of the coats-of-arms are of a specificity that suggests they may be the contemporary arms of real Italian cities or families, as opposed to fanciful inventions on the part of the artist.
We are grateful to Mr. Jan van Helmont, who has proposed an alternative reading of the battle as one between Papal forces and those of the Holy Roman Empire, perhaps during the Investiture Controversy between Emperor Henry IV (1050-1106) and Pope Clement (c. 1015/29-1085). This reading would identify the equestrian figure on the extreme right as Henry IV, being welcomed to take refuge in the city walls by the figure in the city gate, a representative of its inhabitants, while the letters SBQR (a corruption of SPQR) would refer to the Papal Curia as successor of the Roman Senate.