These complex groups are among the largest bronzes executed by the Venetian sculptor Francesco Bertos, and the recent discovery of the identity of the family who originally commissioned them makes them a great rarity in the artist's oeuvre. They represent two scenes from classical literature: Livy's legend of the Heroism of Marcus Curtius and Pliny's tale of the Fable of Dirce.
The former story relates how a chasm opened in the Roman forum, and the oracles said that only by offering Rome's greatest treasure would it be closed again. The people of the city attempted to fill it, throwing various offerings into the abyss, but to no avail. Eventually, a young cavalryman named Marcus Curtius realised that Rome's greatest treasure was the courage and strength of its soldiers. He donned all his armour and leapt, with his horse, into the chasm, which closed over him. The Fable of Dirce depicts the story of Dirce, wife of Licus, King of Thebes. For her mistreatment of Licus' niece, Antiope, the sons of Antiope tied Dirce to a rampant bull, which killed her.
There is no obvious symbolic link between these two tales, and it may be that the two stories were chosen only because they allowed the sculptor to produce visually complementary groups. In fact, the two groups are of marginally different sizes, and it is possible that one group was commissioned first, and the second narrative was then chosen to become a pendant to it.
The coats of arms have been identified as belonging to the Paduan family Dondi Orologio which was raised to the Venetian nobility in perpetuity after the brothers Giovanni Antonio, Gerolamo and Franco donated 100,000 ducats to the cause of the Venetian war against the Turks in Crete. The commissioning of two such impressive bronzes from one of the leading sculptors of the day, would have served to enhance the reputation of the family as members of the Venetian cultural elite.
For further information on Bertos and his critical reception, see also the note to lot 205.