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Saint John the Baptist

copy after Sanzio, Raphael

(Urbino 1483 - Rome 1520)

The work is cited in Scipione Francucci’s short poem on Cardinal Borghese’s collection, a detail which tells us that it was already in his possession by 1613. It is one of the numerous copies of an original by Raphael, which many critics believe to be the one held in the Uffizi. The Borghese version is attributed to Raphael’s immediate circle.


Object details

Inventory
420
Location
Date
second quarter of the 16th century
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on canvas
Dimensions
172 x 153 cm
Frame

Salvator Rosa, 196.4 x 177 x 9 cm

Provenance

Rome, collection of Scipione Borghese, 1613; Inv. 1790, room IV, no. 19; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 11, no. 29. Purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Exhibitions
  • 1984 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 1985 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 2019 Roma, Villa Farnesina, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1903-1905 Luigi Bartolucci
  • 2001 Paola Mastropasqua

Commentary

This Saint John the Baptist is one of many existing copies of a popular prototype by Raphael. For years, the original was believed to be the version conserved in the Uffizi in Florence; yet not all critics agree today that that work is autograph, although it is the highest-quality exemplar of the roughly 40 known works of that subject in Italian and foreign collections (for an overview of the copies, see Meyer zur Capellen 2005, II, p. 238). 

Saint John is here depicted in an atypical guise, that is, as a beardless young man, naked except for the leopard’s skin, which takes the place of the usual camel-skin robe. He is seated in front of a wall of rock, from which flows a spring; on the other side of the composition, the landscape opens into the distance, leading the viewer’s eye to mountains and lush vegetation against a bright blue sky. Otherwise, the saint’s attributes are taken from his traditional iconography: the cross placed at the top of a reed, to which John points with his right hand, and the scroll with the words Ecce Agnus Dei, of which only the final part is visible.

Many critics have equated the Uffizi work with the Saint John the Baptist which Vasari says was executed for Pompeo Colonna, presumably after 1517. Some scholars have noted an echo of Leonardo in the protagonist’s gestures, giving rise to the suggestion Da Vinci’s years in Rome and his own treatments of the subject had an impact on Raphael’s development of the theme (see Forcellino 2019, pp. 361-364).

The first mention of this copy of Saint John the Baptist in connection with the Borghese Collection dates to 1613, when the work appears in Scipione Francucci’s verses on Cardinal Scipione’s picture gallery, evidence that the canvas was already in the family’s possession at that date. The next certain references to the work appear in a ‘Note on the paintings in the ground-floor apartment of His Excellency Prince Borghese’ and in the late 18th-century inventory: in both cases, the painting is described as a copy after Raphael by Giulio Romano. The canvas is then ascribed to the same artist in the entry of the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario which reads, ‘Saint John the Baptist, by Giulio Romano, 6 spans 11 inches wide, 7 spans 9 inches high’. The first critic to call that attribution into question was Giovanni Cavalcaselle, who rather suggested a painter of the school of Ferrara on the basis of the colours used in the work. Subsequent critics, however, revived the name of Romano, ascribing the work either directly to him or to his circle (Piancastelli 1891, p. 316; Venturi 1893, p. 199; Longhi 1928, p. 218; Della Pergola 1959; Forcellino 2019). A conspicuous exception was Giulia Barberini (1984, pp. 59-60), who connected the Borghese Saint John the Baptist with Emilian circles, given the treatment of the background landscape and the rendering of certain details, such as John’s curls, which are reminiscent of the style of Agostino Carracci (see also Paesaggio con figura 1985, n. 22).

Critics have in fact noted that the definition of the landscape, together with slight iconographic discrepancies and differences in the chromatic qualities of the work in question with respect to the Uffizi original, point away from an attribution to Giulio Romano and his circle. On the other hand, the plastic rendering of the saint’s body and the overall design of the canvas seem to rather confirm the name of Pippi (Forcellino, 2019).

Pier Ludovico Puddu




Bibliography
  • S. Francucci, La Galleria dell’Illustrissimo e Reverendissimo Signor Scipione Cardinale Borghese cantata in versi [1613], Arezzo 1647, St. 264-265;
  • F. Scannelli, Il Microcosmo della Pittura, Cesena 1657, p. 78;
  • F. W. B. von Ramdhor, Ueber Malherei und Bildhauerarbeit in Rom für Liebhaber des Schönen in der Kunst, Leipzig 1787, p. 292;
  • M. Vasi, Itinerario istruttivo di Roma…, Roma 1794, p. 39;
  • G. C. Braun, Raphael’s Leben und Werke, Wiesbaden 1815, p. 131;
  • J. Reynolds, The Life of Raffaello Sanzio, London 1816, p. 205;
  • A. Manazzale, Itinerario di Roma [1794], Roma 1817, I, p. 242; Tauriscus Euboeus Catalogue des Estampes gravées d’après Rafaël, Francfort sur le Main 1819, pp. 131-133;
  • A. Nibby, Roma nell’anno MDCCCXXXVIII. Parte seconda moderna, Roma 1841, p. 931;
  • E. C. Platner, Beschreibung der Stadt Rom, III, Stuttgart 1842, p. 291;
  • J. D. Passavant, Raphaël d’Urbin et son père Giovanni Santi, II, Paris 1860, I, p. 289;
  • X. Barbier de Montault, Les Musées et Galeries de Rome, Rome 1870, p. 350;
  • G. B. Cavalcaselle, J. A. Crowe, Raffaello, la sua vita e le sue opere, II, Firenze 1890, p. 241;
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 316;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 199;
  • T. Rosselli del Turco, San Giovanni nel deserto di Raffaello Sanzio, Firenze 1925, p. 37;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 218;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, pp. 122-123, n. 173;
  • G. Barberini, in Raffaello nelle raccolte Borghese, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Galleria Borghese, 1984), a cura di Roma 1984, pp. 59-60;
  • A. Lo Bianco, in Aspetti dell’Arte a Roma prima e dopo Raffaello, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Museo di Palazzo Venezia, 1984), a cura di D. Bernini, Roma 1984;
  • G. Chiarini, in Raffaello a Firenze. Dipinti e disegni dalle collezioni fiorentine, catalogo della mostra (Firenze Palazzo Pitti, 1984), Firenze 1984, pp. 226;
  • Paesaggio con figura: 57 dipinti della Galleria Borghese esposti temporaneamente a Palazzo Venezia, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Museo di Palazzo Venezia, 1985), Roma 1985, n. 22;
  • J. Meyer zur Capellen, Raphael. A Critical Catalogue of his Paintings, II, The Roman Religious Paintings, ca. 1508-1520, Landshut 2005, p. 238;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Galleria Borghese Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi un museo che non ha più segreti, San Giuliano Milanese 2006, p. 138;
  • M. Minozzi, Note sui dipinti di Raffaello nella collezione Borghese, in Raffaello da Firenze a Roma, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Galleria Borghese, 2006), a cura di A. Coliva, Milano 2006, pp. 104, 106-107;
  • M. Forcellino, in Leonardo a Roma. Influenze ed eredità, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Villa Farnesina, 2019-2020), a cura di R. Antonelli et alii, Roma 2019, pp. 361-364, n. 5.4.