The attribution of this most intriguing painting remains as-yet unresolved. Apparently dating from the second half of the sixteenth-century, the fact that it is painted on slate makes it highly likely that it was executed in Italy. Painting on stone had developed there in the second and third decades of the sixteenth-century: Vasari credited Sebastiano del Piombo with inventing a new method of painting on the support, and Sebastiano particularly seems to have favoured slate, for example with the Madonna of the Veil in the Museum of Capodimonte, Naples; his contemporaries, including Michelangelo, similarly employed it on occasion. Its use in northern European painting at this date is, however, almost entirely unknown.
Compositionally, the source is also Italian. Several of the figures are taken from the Battle of Zama, one of a series of scenes of The Life of Scipio the Great from a twenty-two panel tapestry created in 1535 for King François I of France. Most of the models for the tapestry can be attributed to Giulio Romano, whilst Gian Francesco Penni made preliminary cartoons for the artists who painted the full-scale cartoons. In the present painting, the three horsemen on the left and the soldier running between them, the swordsman holding his shield forward and his sword over his head in the lower right, and the figure kneeling at his feet and shielding his head with his hands, are taken from the tapestry's composition, as - in reverse - is the horseman in the right hand centre of the middle plane.
The cartoons for the tapestry were sent to Brussels, where it was woven, almost immediately after their creation, and it is possible that an artist had familiarised himself with them there. A number of Giulio's drawings survive (for example in the collection of the Louvre, Paris), and it is equally plausible that an artist in Italy had access to those - the fact that only individual elements are repeated and not the whole composition makes such a hypothesis entirely possible. That latter theory seems particularly attractive given the sources of some of the other motifs: for example the figure in the right foreground with his sword arm stretched down and behind him, holding out his shield with his left arm, which is taken from Polidoro's façade decoration of the Casino del Bufalo; also the figure alone in the upper right corner, drawing his sword, derives from the so-called standard-bearer, an invention known from engravings by Raimondi and others after Raphael.
A number of attributions have been suggested for the painting in the past, ranging from Girolamo da Treviso to the northern Adriaan de Bie (noting similarities with his work on the St. Sebastian altarpiece in the St. Gummarus church, Lier). It would certainly seem stylistically possible that this is by one of the northern artists working in Italy in the second-half of the sixteenth-century, and the slight touch of Antwerp in, for example, the Sabine woman in the centre forground, does lend itself to the suggestion that the hand may more specifically be Flemish. The attribution may well be discovered in time, but is here left open, awaiting further research.
The high quality of the painting is further underlined by the inventory mark and number on the reverse for the collection of the celebrated statesman and connoisseur, Don Gaspar Méndez de Haro y Guzmán, 7th Marqués del Carpio y Eliche and 5th Conde Duque de Olivares (1629-1687), the nephew of Don Gaspar de Guzmán, Conde Duque de Olivares, the famous valido (prime minister) of King Philip IV of Spain, and of Don Baltasar de Zúñiga, Conde de Monterrey. He was appointed Ambassador to the Holy See and subsequently Viceroy of Naples and formed one of the most important picture collections in Europe in the third quarter of the seventeenth century, including Raphael's Alba Madonna now in the National Gallery, Washington, Correggio's School of Love and Velázquez's Rokeby Venus, both now in the National Gallery, London.
The reverse also bears a seal of the Chute family, and a stamp for 'J.S. Wiggett'. The combination suggests that the painting was in the collection of the Chute family at The Vyne, in Hampshire, which they acquired in 1653 (now National Trust). It may well have been among the works of art acquired in Italy by John Chute (1701-1776), who designed most of the extensive alterations to Strawberry Hill for his friend, Horace Walpole (who wrote that he was 'the genius who presided over our poor Strawberry Hill'). Chute lived abroad, mainly in Italy, between 1738 and 1746 and, after his return, acted as an artistic adviser to his brother Anthony Chute (1691-1754), whose heir he was. The Reverend James Samuel Wiggett was the Rector of Moulton, Norfolk, where he is recorded as having the living in 1831; perhaps because he was an unmarried cleric, his younger brother, William Lyde Wiggett, subsequently Wiggett-Chute (1800-1879), inherited The Vyne in 1827, but it is possible that a few pieces from the collection at the Vyne, including the present painting, passed to his older brother.