This and the following lot both depict scenes of heroism from the siege of Rome by the Etruscans. Although the story of Horatius defending the Sublician Bridge against the Etruscan army of Lars Porsena is of great antiquity, going back beyond the days of Livy, it rarely appears on 16th Century Maiolica. Livy A.U.C II (like Thomas Babington Macaulay 1,500 years later) tells of how Horatius, on foot, held the wooden bridge against the Etruscans while his fellow Romans demolished it behind him, holding off the enemy by himself until he finally jumped into the Tiber.
The present lot is unique in depicting Horatius on a wooden bridge, as described by Livy. All other representations of this subject are depicted with stone bridges, which would have proved very difficult to demolish quickly.
Despite the quite clear historical record that Horatius fought on foot, all the other examples of this subject show him on horseback. Apart from the present lot, the prime example by Francesco Xanto Avelli da Rovigo, dated 1538, is in the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge (no. C55. 1927); See Julia Poole, 'Italian Maiolica and incised slipware in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge', Catalogue (Cambridge, 1995), no. 396. As in the present example, Horatius is depicted on horseback. This image is reminiscent of St George slaying the Dragon or Marcus Curtius leaping into the chasm in the Roman Forum, a popular subject with the maiolicari of the day. As is the case with most major pieces of istoriato maiolica, the composition of the present dish was made up of elements from the contemporary graphic sources available. The closest iconographically is the Crespina in the Louvre: see J. Giacomotti, Les majoliques des musées, Nationaux Francais (Paris, 1974), no. 1008, where not merely is the subject in the same sense as the present lot, but significant features would appear to derive from the same graphic sources.
The maiolicari used existing wood engravings from the school of Marcantonio Raimondi as a source of inspiration for their compositions. However, instead of using entire engravings they combined elements from several graphic sources to create new compositions. Thus the figure of Horatius on the dish is derived from the same graphic source as the two horsemen on the Fitzwilliam dish mentioned above. Other elements of the composition come from the Massacre of the Innocents by Marcantonio after Raphael from I Modi by the same after Guilio Romano.
Interestingly this dish, and two others arguably from the same workshop, have curious figures swimming in the foreground. See J. Lessmann Italienische maiolica (Braunschweig, 1979), nos. 150-151, where the Brunswick dishes are both confidently attributed to the workshop of Guido da Merlino (or Merlingo) which appears to be the source of the present lot.