The Rape of the Sabine Women was a popular subject in art, particularly in the baroque period, because it gave artists the opportunity to depict complex scenes with numerous figures in action. It recalls the story, recounted by Livy and Plutarch, of the early days of Rome when, to ensure the survival of the community, Romulus organised a festival to which he invited inhabitants of neighbouring settlements including the Sabines. At a pre-arranged signal, given by the seated figure to the right of the relief, the Roman soldiers carried off the unmarried Sabine women. Although the Sabine men were later to attack Rome for this treachery, the Sabine women themselves came running to the scene of battle, many holding their new-born children, begging the two sides to call a truce and thus establishing peace.
The complexity of the composition and the number of figures which have been included suggest that the present relief may have been inspired by a painting or print source. Although, to date, no source has been identified, an artist such as Pietro da Cortona is a likely candidate. His own version of the Rape of the Sabine Women (for an illustration see G. Briganti, Pietro da Cortona o della Pittura Barocca, Florence, 1972, fig. 115) is similarly set in a landscape with classical architecture, and the central group of a soldier carrying off a Sabine woman is reminiscent of the central group here, with its emphasis on conflicting sideways motion.
The identity of the sculptor of the relief also remains elusive, but he would appear to have been familiar with the work of Francesco Bertos, who was active in Venice until at least 1733. Bertos' work in marble and bronze is highly idiosyncratic, and usually involves multiple figures in very open compositions, unlike the densely arranged image here. In addition, the proportions of his figures are generally more attenuated than the substantial figures of this marble relief. However, if one compares some of the smaller motifs not dictated by the composition, they are highly reminiscent of Bertos' distinctive style. The most obvious one is the round facial type, with the exagerrated upper and lower eyelids, the angular nose, and the tiny mouth, as seen in the marble group of a Female Centaur attacked by Male Figures in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Pope-Hennessy, op. cit., fig. 700). In addition, the rather linear, illogical patterns of drapery can be compared to the drapery of the signed marble group of Spring offered by Sotheby's, London, in 1998 (8 July, lot 87).