A Roman soldier pulls back his sword to stab the Empress Messalina, Emperor Claudius's spectacularly unfaithful wife, fending off her mother's attempts to intercede. A guard, who was in on the murder plot, observes calmly from the shadows in the background. A bright, theatrical spotlight emphasizes the intersection of arms and the drama of the life-and-death conflict.
This may be the only painted representation of the death of Messalina, a story from the Annals of Tacitus. Why Francesco Solimena took or was given this subject is unknown, yet its inherent drama and potential for passion suited the Baroque taste. Characteristically, Solimena heightened the moment's intensity by creating monumental figures on an already huge canvas and presenting only the essentials of a setting. According to his eighteenth-century biographer, Solimena painted this subject for a series of five canvases of historical and mythological subjects for the state attorney in Venice.