The Sack of Rome and the Flight of the Vestal Virgins
Biagio di Antonio Tucci
(Florence, 1446-1516)

Italian Renaissance Paintings Gallery, Gallery 29, First Floor


Focus on the Object

Content and Display

This colourful painting shows a scene from ancient history (390BC): the Gauls are attacking Rome while the Vestal Virgins, charged with watching over the sacred fire in the temple of Vesta, escape. Their escape is shown rather like a comic strip, in that they appear at least three times: getting into a chariot in the foreground, being transported away on the right, and arriving and praying at the Temple of Caere at the top and top right. They were helped by a Roman nobleman, who is indicated by his large and distinctive hat and who appears in each section of the story. Also fleeing are regular townsfolk who use donkeys to carry their possessions.

This work, along with a companion panel (The Battle of Allia, now in the Italian Embassy, London), comprises a panorama of the buildings and monuments of ancient Rome. In the top left corner you can see the column of Marcus Aurelius, the Pantheon and Hadrian’s mausoleum (now the Castel Sant’Angelo). These panels may have formed the decorative scheme around a room or could have been spalliera panels (spalla meaning shoulder) which were originally backboards to chests and later came to be inserted into walls. The perspective in this painting suggests it was meant to be seen at eye-level. Livy is likely to have been the literary source for this picture.


This painting was conserved in 1999/2000 as part of a programme funded by the Designation Challenge Fund. Like many paintings of the same period the wooden planks of this panel have left it vulnerable to atmospheric changes and consequent splitting and bowing. Conservation has allowed for close examination of the painting using modern techniques as well as for repairs and cleaning. The stunning gold decoration is now clearly visible and shines brightly. For more detailed information on the conservation process please consult the hand list available in the gallery.