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Saint John the Baptist

Agnolo di Cosimo called Bronzino

(Florence 1503 - 1572)

This painting has formed part of the collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese since at least 1610, the year that a payment was made for its frame. Signed in the lower left-hand corner, the work is believed to be a portrait of Giovanni de’ Medici in the guise of John the Baptist; it was commissioned to celebrate the most important stages of his career, namely his nomination as cardinal in 1560 and as archbishop of Pisa the following year.

Object details

c. 1560
oil on panel
cm 120 x 92

18th-century frame with frieze with pierced acanthus leaf motifs, 140.5 x 118 x 7.5 cm


Collection of Scipione Borghese, documented in 1610 (payment for frame); Inv. 1693, room VII, no. 44; Inv. 1700 room XI, no. 9; Inv. 1790, room X, no. 36; Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 20, no. 12; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

  • 1940 Firenze, Palazzo Strozzi
  • 2010-2011 Firenze, Palazzo Strozzi
  • 2021 New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1936 Carlo Matteucci 1992 Istituto Centrale del Restauro (pest control) 2001 INOA (diagnostics) 2001 Paola Mastropasqua


The painting bears the inscription ‘Bro(n)zino Fiore(ntino)’ on the stone in the lower left-hand corner: the work in fact appears with this attribution in the Borghese inventories. The panel has formed part of the Collection since at least 1610, the year that a payment of six scudi was made to ‘Anibale Coradino [...] for the frame for the St John the Baptist by Bronzino’ (document cited in Della Pergola 1959, p. 216, n. 54). It is likely that Cardinal Scipione came into possession of the painting at a slightly earlier date, yet the details of its provenance are not known.

The work appears in the 1693 inventory as ‘a painting on panel of imperial-canvas dimensions, with St John in the desert, no. 470, gilded frame, by Bronzino fiorentino’. It is likewise listed in the inventories of 1700 and 1790 and again in the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario, each time with an attribution to the Tuscan painter.

Critics have attempted to reconstruct the context of the work’s execution. Janet Cox-Rearick (1987, p. 159; see also Brock 2002, p. 175) convincingly proposed that the painting is a portrait of Giovanni de’ Medici, son of Cosimo I, in the guise of the saint after whom he was named. Destined for a career in the Church from boyhood, Giovanni was made cardinal in 1560 and archbishop of Pisa the following year. The portrait was presumably commissioned to Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo) in that period to celebrate those nominations, while at the same time providing the occasion to announce – through a representation of Florence’s patron saint – the new territorial stability under Cosimo’s rule in the wake of the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559). At the time of his nominations, Giovanni was between 16 and 17 years old, which seems to correspond to the age of the young man in the portrait.

This reconstruction contradicts the hypothesis previously put forth by Luisa Becherucci (1944, p. 49) that our painting is ‘Infant Saint John the Baptist’ cited in the Medicean cloakroom in 1553. In that year Giovanni was only 10 years old, too young to match the appearance of the portrayed figure; and in any case the description of the subject does not fit this representation of the saint, who although still young is certainly no longer a child.

The saint is depicted with his typical attributes, including the animal skin on his shoulder, the cross made of reeds and the baptism bowl in his right hand, which he has just filled at a spring shown on the edge of the composition. The scroll with the words ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’ – another typical element of the saint’s traditional iconography – is just visible in the lower portion of the work: its truncated appearance is probably the result of a reduction of the panel at an unknown date. The shaded area behind John is characterised by a tangle of vegetation on walls of rock: while some critics have defined this motif as an allusion to the temptations that tormented the hermit in the desert (Brock, 2002; Tazartes 2003, p. 188), in the view of Angelo Maria Monaco (2010, p. 308) such an intent would conflict with the painter’s usual approach of representing iconography in straightforward, easily readable terms.

In spite of the fact that the saint’s typical attributes are clearly visible, certain features of the figure – his statue-like body, dense curls and reddish lips – seem intended to distance the image from its mystical dimension in order to place it in a more profane setting (Tazartes, 2003; Monaco, 2010).

Critics (McComb 1928, p. 79; Becherucci, 1944; Emiliani 1960, plate 70; Cecchi 1996, p. 58; Baccheschi 1973, p. 99) have frequently commented on John’s pose, which although elegant seems somewhat forced. Some scholars have interpreted this device as a playful way of juxtaposing the arts and of highlighting the plasticity of forms. While Becherucci (1944) read the saint’s depiction as betraying Michelangelo’s influence, Monaco (2010) pointed out that the motif is not a typical one for Bronzino. Faced with the task of portraying a contemporary figure, Bronzino chose to construct an image midway between idealisation and realistic representation, one which tends toward the natural while correcting incidental elements (Monaco, 2010; Falciani 2015, pp. 26-29; Fenech Kroke 2021, p. 234). In this context, the reference to the Belvedere Torso is significant, which is evoked by the figure’s nearly naked body, covered only by a light blue garment.

With regard to the chronology of the work, in the past scholars dated it to the 1550s (Emiliani 1960; and earlier by McComb 1928), noting similarities with the frescoes in the Cappella di Eleonora di Toledo in Palazzo Vecchio, which Bronzino painted in the first half of that decade; yet in the wake of the later interpretation that the subject represents Giovanni de’ Medici, the execution of the panel was post dated.  

Pier Ludovico Puddu

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