The composition of this painting derives from the work of Jan Breughel II's father, Jan Brueghel I (1568-1625). The latter had travelled to Italy and lived there from 1589-96, working in Rome from 1592-4 for Cardinal Colonna. During that period, he made a number of drawings of ruins in and around the city, elements of which he subsequently employed in his landscape compositions. Two of those drawings, both of 1593, depicted the Tomb of Scipio on the Appian Way (Paris, Louvre, Cabinet des Estamps, inv. no. 364, possibly after a Matthijs Bril prototype; and Paris, Fondation Custodia), an image that Jan I was to employ in a small number of larger coastal landscapes including one of 1605-8 in a private collection, Switzerland (K. Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere, Cologne, 1979, p. 578, no. 125, fig. 196); one of after 1605 in a private collection, Nuremberg (ibid., p. 579, no. 132, fig. 194); another, dated 1608 and depicting The Calling of Saints Peter and Paul, in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden (inv. no. 883); and another, of 1608 and of the same subject, in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg (inv. no. 5311).
The broader context of those landscapes, placing the tomb on a high spur overlooking a harbour, also echo a drawing recorded by Ertz as in the Beck collection, Berlin (ibid., p. 173, fig. 193), possibly cut on the right hand side where only the edge of the tower is now visible. That in turn may have been inspired by Paul Bril, with whom Jan I was in contact during his time in Italy, and by whom there is a drawing of 1606, sketched in Rome, of a harbour landscape with a fortified tower on a spur overlooking a harbour with a closely similar winding natural mole (Amsterdam, Rijksprentenkabinett, inv. no. A42). That similarity is so close as to imply that it must in some way be connected to the present composition. It is interesting to note that whether or not Bril influenced the Beck drawing, his sketch (executed after Jan had left Italy) is, in reverse, much more closely related to the present composition than to any of Jan I's known paintings. There is an additional drawing by Jan I, in the Kuupferstichkabinett, Dresden (1897 inventory, no. 142) that develops Bril's composition, adapting the winding mole to a form that is evidently the basis for the present depiction.
The composition is therefore effectively an adaptation of two distinct, but related, motifs of Jan I: the Scipio tomb on a spur overlooking a harbour, and the tower overlooking a harbour by a winding mole; both of which appear to be influenced to some degree by Bril. It seems remarkable that de Momper was able to merge both motifs so convincingly and seamlessly. Of course, the friendship between Jan Brueghel I and de Momper is well known: as early as 1612-13, Jan Brueghel I claimed to have painted the figures in six paintings by de Momper, in addition to the staffage for a series of The Four Seasons (ibid., p. 470, note 832). In a letter to Ercole Bianchi in 1622, penned on Brueghel's behalf by Rubens, Brueghel specifically referred to de Momper as 'Mio amico Momper', and collaborative works by the two artists were sufficiently common to appear with dual labels in David Teniers II's cabinet pictures. Nonetheless, de Momper's oeuvre would not lead one to suggest that he was likely to adapt and blend Brueghel's different compositional types of Jan I in this way. There is in fact a drawing by de Momper that may well be preparatory for his contribution to this picture (sold, Sotheby's Maak van Waay, Amsterdam, 29 October 1979, lot 128; see fig. 1) and that suggests from its developed and precise style that it was after a specific prototype, not an experimental development of ideas.
Jan II's staffage is similarly linked to his father's prototypes. The group as a whole does not occur in any of Jan's known works, but elements of it do: specifically, the horses and mules and the male figures kneeling and stooping over the basket of fish, as well as, in reverse, the male figure carrying a basket on his back, which all appear, in a different arrangement, in the Dresden and St. Petersburg paintings. Interestingly the minor motif of the mother and child by the tower are also, in reverse, in the latter pictures, although not the charmingly lifelike detail of the woman in the foreground group turning to wave to them. Jan II was able and willing to adapt his father's compositions - for example he was to revisit this general theme in a Coastal landscape with fishermen by a capriccio of Scipio's tomb of 1642 (Dresden, Gemäldegalerie, inv. no. 908) - however the cutting and regrouping of his father's figure types in the fashion of the present picture is unusual (although not unknown), and, together with the peculiarities over the broader compositional development, strongly suggest that this picture derives from a lost prototype (whether drawn or painted) of Jan I seen by both de Momper and Jan II. The present picture is therefore likely to date from relatively shortly after Jan I's death, when such a prototype was more likely to have been to hand for both artists to employ.