Although little scholarship has been devoted to Virgilio Mattoni, he is deserving of further attention as a central figure in the modern Andalusian school of painters. Born in Sevilla in 1842, he received his artistic training from 1856-68 at the Escuela de Bellas Artes under the tutelage of Joaquín Becquer and Eduardo Cano. Shortly after his graduation, he took a two-year sabbatical in Rome from, a trip that would prove influential to the rest of his career. Upon his return in 1874, he settled in a studio near the Alcazar in Seville and in 1886 he was made a member of the San Fernando Academy. He taught drawing locally until about 1906 and was made Director of the Academy of the Applied Arts in 1917. In addition to a successful artistic career where his subject matter embraced historical and religious scenes as well as genre and portraiture, Mattoni was also recognized as a gifted writer and poet.
In stark contrast to the depictions of crumbling ruins of ancient Greece and Rome which were en vogue in the late 18th and early 19th Century, in the latter half of the 19th Century, artists aspired to visually recreate and revive the world of ancient Greece and Rome - the British painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema being among one of the most recognized advocates. The sumptuous interior of the present work is the realization of this objective and the work stands without a doubt as Mattoni's most important work. Although painted many years after his return from Rome, the present composition was no doubt inspired by his earlier Italian stage. The recent appearance on the market of an oil sketch of the present work, dated 1902, helps to place the dating of this work around the same period (sold Sotheby's, New York, 18 March 1998, lot 192).
Although efforts have been made to reconstruct the interior of the Baths of Caracalla based on floor plans and contemporary description, the information in Mattoni's day was, at best, fragmentary, and his view cannot be matched with any archeological data from the existing ruins. Nevertheless, the scene offers a perspective, albeit a highly embellished one, into one of the most significant structures of Roman Imperial architecture. Built at the end of the short and turbulent reign of Emporer Caracalla in AD 217 that ended with his assassination, the Baths of Caracalla or Thermae Antoninianae was a sumptuously decorated complex, enclosed by gardens and open-air gymnasia and featuring an art collection that included the famous Belvedere Torso and the Farnese Hercules. Under its huge domes and massive vaults it could accommodate sixteen hundred bathers. Ancient sources comment that while the baths, with its combination of Caldarium, Tepidarium and Frigidareum were the main attraction, bathing was just one of many activities a visitor could engage in. The complex doubled as an intellectual center with its library and gardens, but also functioned as an entertainment hall hosting theatrical, musical and often sporting events.
Although it is not clear exactly what activity Mattoni has chosen to explore in the present work, it seems likely that the central figures who have attracted the attention of a curious audience are either engaging in a lively debate or acting out roles in a dramatic play. Although the majority of the characters are dressed liked upper class patricians, they are for all intensive purposes "fictional" and do not make reference to any known individuals. Yet the actions and the identities of the figures seem altogether secondary when compared to Mattoni's architectural recreation of the interior which, although fantastical, is no less than astounding. The commanding size of the cavernous hall, with its mosaic floor and lined with giant statues from which Minerva and Flora, can be recognized is further emphasized by the addition of the long barrel vault that leads down another corridor to the right of the composition. Apart from his visits to the ruins and ancient monuments of Rome, it is not clear what specific archeological sources he consulted, although as was the case with other artists, he probably had access to numerous publications, prints and possibly photographs.