This work on copper – belonging to a series of four paintings – was commissioned by Prince Giovan Battista Borghese who in 1678 bought the entire series from the Bolognese Gian Francesco Grimaldi. The true protagonist of the whole series is the landscape. Here it hosts – on the right – a group of people listening to the words of John the Baptist, whose stories are narrated in the New Testament.
The classical composition, the waterfall on the left and the tree trunks chronologically confirm that the painting was made in 1678. Its subject is modelled on a composition with a similar theme by Annibale Carracci.
Nineteenth-century frame decorated with palmettes, 67 x 89 x 10 cm
Rome, collection of Giovan Battista Borghese, 1678 (Della Pergola 1955, p. 49); Inventario Fidecommissario, 1833, pp. 17 (27, 28), 23 (7, 13); purchased by the Italian State, 1902
In 1678, Giovan Battista Borghese issued a payment to the Bolognese painter Gian Francesco Grimaldi ‘for various paintings made as recorded in note no. 718 filed in Ledger A 926 scudi’ (Della Pergola 1955, p. 49). According to Paola della Pergola, who was the first to discover this note among the Borghese papers in the Vatican Apostolic Archives, the payment concerned other more important works, including, however, the present painting on copper and three other landscapes (inv. nos 38, 47, 296), noted shortly after at the Casino di Porta Pinciana by Domenico Montelatici (1700, p. 302): ‘And the four similar paintings, which portray landscapes with small figures, painted on copper, are by Gio. Francesco Bolognese’. In reality, the artist must have made the four paintings while work as being done at Palazzo Borghese (1672–1678), probably having been commissioned for the apartments on the ground floor. As suggested by Batorska (2012, p. 202, no. 145), the subject of this painting was chosen by the patron, who was unconcerned with the iconographic coherence of the series. This explains why the theme, the preaching of John the Baptist, is unrelated to the other three paintings on copper.
The composition of this painting is similar to that of the fresco of the same subject painted by Grimaldi on the upper floor of the Roman palazzo of the Nunez family (currently known as Palazzo Nunez-Torlonia), which was modelled on a painting by Annibale Carracci depicting the same theme, now in the collection of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble. But, in contrast to Annibale, Grimaldi gave greater importance to the figures, breaking up the sky with the tall trees.
The presence of a few Romantic elements, like the waterfall on the left and the cut trees in the foreground, place the painting in the artist’s late period.