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Saint John the Baptist

Merisi Michelangelo called Caravaggio

(Milan 1571 - Porto Ercole 1610)

The painting was one of the group of paintings that the artist took with him on the return journey by sea from Naples to Rome. The painter took the trip in 1610, hoping to be pardoned from the death sentence passed on him in 1606 by Paul V. His intention was to obtain the intercession of the pope, making a gift of the works to his nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who had previously owned the Madonna dei Palafrenieri (inv. 110), The Boy with a Basket of Fruit (inv. 136) and the Self-portrait as Bacchus (inv. 534). But, as some missives claim, near Palo, on the coast north of Rome, Caravaggio was unjustly imprisoned, failing to board the ship that carried his precious baggage.

The work depicts John the Baptist, son of Elizabeth and cousin of Jesus. He is captured here deep in thought in a shadowy setting next to a ram, symbol of man’s redemption through the sacrifice of Christ. The saint is shown seated on a long cloth in red, a colour that alludes to the blood shed during his martyrdom. His left hand holds a slender reed, a reference to the life of penance and prayer that the man lived in the desert.

Object details

oil on canvas
cm 152 x 125

Seventeenth-century frame embellished with spirals and rosettes on a dark ground, 154.5 x 130 x 8 cm


Naples, Marchesa Costanza Colonna, 1610; Rome, collection of Scipione Borghese, 1611 (Pacelli 1991); Rome, Borghese Collection, 1613 (Francucci 1613); Inv. 1693, room VII, no. 46; Inv. 1790, room X, no. 40; Inventario Fidecommissario, 1833, p. 19; purchased by the Italian State, 1902

  • 1914 Roma, Palazzo Corsini;
  • 1951 Milano, Palazzo Reale;
  • 1985 Roma, Palazzo Venezia;
  • 1986-1987 Roma, Palazzo Barberini;
  • 1991-1992 Firenze, Palazzo Pitti;
  • 1992 Roma, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica;
  • 1992 Roma, Palazzo Ruspoli;
  • 1999 Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado;
  • 1999-2000 Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes;
  • 2000 Bergamo, Accademia Carrara;
  • 2004-2005 Napoli, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte;
  • 2005 Londra, National Gallery;
  • 2009 Kyoto, The National Museum of Modern Art;
  • 2010 Tokyo, Metropolitan Art Museum;
  • 2015 Montpellier, Musée Fabre;
  • 2019 Napoli, Museo di Capodimonte.
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1913 Tito Venturini Papari (pulitura, rifoderatura);
  • 1936 Carlo Matteucci (sostituzione vecchio telaio, rifoderatura);
  • 1941 Carlo Matteucci;
  • 1947 Carlo Matteucci (rimozione vecchi restauri, rifoderatura);
  • 1980 Gianluigi Colalucci (rintelaiatura);
  • 1981-1982 Gianluigi Colalucci (radiografie);
  • 1988 EDITECH (indagini diagnostiche);
  • 2000 Giantomassi-Zari (restauro completo).


The painting is documented for the first time in the Borghese Collection in 1613, when it was mentioned by Scipione Francucci in his long poem on the collection of Cardinal Scipione kept at Palazzo di Ripetta, where it was seen a few years later by Francesco Scannelli (1657), who wrote in his volume Microcosmo della Pittura of ‘a nude St John the Baptist’ and mentioned ‘un altro simile a tutti d'ogni parte di apparente verità’ (another similar likeness true tolife in all its parts), which has, however, never been identified. The presence of Caravaggio’s painting at the Campo Marzio residence explains its absence from the inventories of the items in the Villa Pinciana, as well as its omission by Iacomo Manilli (1650) and Domenico Montelatici (1700), neither of whom would have failed to note this valuable work when visiting the villa. In fact, at that time the painting was kept in the antechamber ‘of the Lord Prince towards the Garden’, where it was described in the 1693 Palazzo Borghese inventory as ‘a large painting on canvas of St John the Baptist in the desert sitting on red drapery del N. (sic) gilt frame by Mechel.o Caravaggi’. The attribution, clearly indicated in the inventory, was changed in 1790 to Valentin de Boulogne and remained such (Vasi 1794; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833; Piancastelli 1891) until the catalogue by Adolfo Venturi (1893). The first scholar to re-attribute the painting to Caravaggio, using Francucci’s poem as his starting point, was Lionello Venturi (1909; 1910), whose argument was unanimously accepted by scholars (Longhi 1913; Rouchés 1920; Marangoni 1922; Voss 1925; Pevsner 1928; Longhi 1928; Id. 1943; Id. 1951; Della Pergola 1951; Mahon 1951; id. 1952; Friedländer 1955), with the sole exceptions of Zahn (1928) and Schudt (1942), who considered the painting to be a good copy. Published in 1959 by Paola della Pergola as an autograph work, she also believed it to be ‘contemporary’ to the David (inv. 455), with 1605 as the terminus post quem. Pushing back the date proposed by Sir Denis Mahon (1952), according to whom the painting was made between 1602 and 1604, Della Paola, director of the Borghese Gallery, aligned herself with Lionello Venturi and Roberto Longhi (1928; 1951; 1952; 1957), the latter of whom held that this St John the Baptist, ‘sad and insolent beneath the branches of a sulphured grape vine’, was painted by Caravaggio at the end of his Roman sojourn, and so between 1605 and 1606. This argument, accepted by Hinks (1953), (1955) and, with some reservations, Friedländer (1955), Berne Joffroy (1959) and Juallian (1961), was questioned by the scholar himself first in 1959, leaning instead towards the Palermo period, which also seemed convincing to Bottari (1966), and then in 1968, when he dated the painting to the second Neapolitan sojourn, a theory supported by Angela Ottino Della Chiesa (1967), Maurizio Marini (1974; idem, 1987), Howard Hibbard (1983), Maurizio Calvesi (1990), Mia Cinotti (1991), Gianni Papi (1991) and Mina Gregori (1994); but not Raffaello Causa (1966), according to whom the painting dates to the first Neapolitan period. This long-debated issue was finally resolved in 1991 by Vincenzo Pacelli, who fixed the execution of the work to 1610, thanks to the discovery of unpublished correspondence, dating from 29 July 1610 to 26 August 1611, between the apostolic nuncio Deodato Gentile and Cardinal Scipione. From the five letters brought to light by Pacelli, we know that the artist painted two versions of the St John the Baptist and one Mary Magdalene for the Borghese cardinal, presumably as a gift in exchange for the pardon he received from Paul V; paintings that Caravaggio brought with him on the felucca he was meant to take to Porto Ercole, where the artist arrived, however, without his precious cargo, which had remained on the boat after his arrest in Palo. 

Brought back to Naples, the paintings were taken to Marchesa Costanza Colonna’s Palazzo Cellammare, where Caravaggio had stayed on his return from Sicily, and were seized there by order of the representative of the Order of Malta, which claimed ownership of them since Caravaggio had been a member of the powerful group. But the sequester was blocked by the viceroy of Naples, Pedro Fernández de Castro, count of Lemos, who, having set his sights on the paintings, secured one St John the Baptist, having a copy made of the other and possibly the David, meant for Scipione Borghese, by Baldassarre Alvisi, who has been identified as Baldassarre Aloisi, called Galanino (Coliva 1999; Crespi 2004). The matter thus resolved, on 29 August 1611, our St John the Baptist set out for Rome, arriving safely in the hands of Scipione Borghese, who kept it for his city residence, where it remained for almost two centuries.

The painting, one of the last by Caravaggio, treats a subject explored by the artist at multiple points in his short career, for such patrons as Ciriaco Mattei (Rome, Musei Capitolini) and Ottavio Costa (Kansas City, Nelson Atkins Museum), among others. As with his other paintings, in this work the artist diverges from the iconographic tradition, leaving out the young martyr’s usual attributes (the bowl, the lamb, the staff topped by a cross and the inscription Ecce Agnus Dei), creating a lack of detail that leaves the image at once both stripped down and powerful and rich in meaning. The iconography of the work has been interpreted in various ways by scholars, starting with the ram, which is shown nibbling at grape leaves and with its back facing the viewer. This detail has been read to evoke the sacrifice of Christ (Moir 1982), as underlined by the choice of animal, a ram rather than a lamb, the beast sacrificed by Abraham in place of his son Isaac, referenced by Caravaggio through a play on the translation of the Greek word ‘arnion’, which stands equally for lamb, ram and sheep (Schütze 2017). Whereas Maurizio Calvesi (1990), looking at Pierio Valeriano’s Hierogliphica, has argued that the ram, in place of the sheep, is linked to the redemption, since that animal is the hieroglyph for the cross and the cross is the hieroglyph for the redemption. Lastly, according to Eberhard König (1997), this St John the Baptist – ‘frozen in the vague melancholy of he who stays silent and meditates while awaiting the Word’ (Cinotti 1991) – seems more like a shepherd resting in the woods than the prophet saint reported in the Gospels, an iconographic development rendered in a stripped down, essential manner that is unquestionably linked to painter’s late period. 

Antonio Iommelli

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