The present composition, a copy after the original version now in the collection of the Louvre, Paris (see Arisi, Gian Paolo Panini, Rome, 1986, p. 361, no. 258, illustrated), represents a dramatic scene from Roman history: Marcus Curtius riding into the chasm of fire. According to Livy 7:6, a fiery chasm appeared suddenly in the Roman Forum, and soothsayers prophesied that the chasm could only be closed when into it was thrown 'Rome's greatest treasure'. Marcus Curtius, a heroic republican soldier, understood this to mean the city's brave youth, and sacrificed himself by riding in full armor into the chasm, which immediately closed above him.
Another autograph canvas by Panini, this one in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (ibid., p. 326, no. 191, illustrated), represents a reinterpretation of the same theme. In this version, Marcus Curtius is again poised on horseback on the brink of the fiery chasm, which spews out even heavier plumes of black smoke. His brave actions are, as in the present composition, watched by a fearful and emotional crowd. Most of the differences between the two works are confined to the architectural elements. In the present work, Marcus Curtius is nearly centered in the composition, between two majestic Roman structures, with a round temple and a triumphal column in the distance. In the Fitzwilliam painting, however, the temple and column have been relocated to the foreground, with a ruined Colosseum in the distance.