During the war between the Romans and the Sabines in about 290 B.C., Tarquin, king of Rome, challenged Attius Navius, a fortuneteller, to read his mind. When Navius declared that Tarquin's thought would be accomplished, Tarquin revealed that he thought Navius would cut a whetstone in half with a razor, which he did immediately. Sebastiano Ricci took this subject from Livy's History of Rome, first published in A.D. 14, but he showed Navius cutting a column, a more aesthetic object.
Ricci pared the composition down to its dramatic essentials--two large figures making eloquent gestures--and added a recognizable setting and bystanders to create a sense of community. The slightly shadowed mother and child is a typical Ricci motif. Effectively employing the usual Roman Baroque sense of dramatic light and color, he adopted Giovanni Battista Gaulli's strong, rather hot colors for the costumes and the sky. He also adopted the characteristic faces of the child and the man on the extreme left from Gaulli.