The scene is Rome, 23 BC, at the court of Augustus. Octavia, the Emperor’s sister, faints as she listens to the verses that evoke the death of her son Marcellus; her brother Augustus supports her and with an imperious gesture hushes the poet, who stands at the far left of the composition. On the right, Maecenas – whose features are recognizable as those of the patron Sommariva – reaches out towards the woman, while at his side, in a soldier-like pose, General Agrippa, whose traits reveal him to resemble Napoleon.
The canvas is quite theatrical, and the painter manages the composition in groups of figures, linked together by intentionally heightened gestures.
In 1821 the work was shown in Brera and did not arrive at its final destination until the exhibition closed, when it left for Sommariva’s home in Tremezzo. Initially the canvas was not placed where we now see it, but in the Sala di Palamede, next to Canova’s masterpiece.