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Sermon of Saint John the Baptist

flemish school

The painting, in a poor state of preservation, has been ascribed to Jan Bruegel the Elder, but is probably attributable to a painter of his circle who tended to paint with luminist touches, less sharply defined than the works of the Master.

Object details

oil on panel
cm 11,5 x 16

Inv. 1790, Room VIII, no. 49; Inventario Fidecommissario 1833, p. 29. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1907, Luigi Bartolucci
  • 2022, Matilde Migliorini


The small panel, in a poor state of preservation, shows a scene from the life of John the Baptist taken from the Gospel of Luke (3:1-18): the sermon. The holy forerunner of Christ stands high on a rock on the left, in oratorical pose, with his right arm raised in the direction of the crowd below, who listen to and ponder his words.

This painting came to the collection very late, and was first recorded in 1790 as “S. Gio. Battista, Simon da Pesaro”, thus believed to be by Cantarini (also known as da Pesaro). The misattribution, made both in the fideicommissum inventory and by Piancastelli, was later reconsidered by Adolfo Venturi (1893), who imputed it, perhaps on account of the artist's exquisite miniaturist skill with the figures, to the Frenchman Jacques Callot. Longhi (1928) did not agree with any of the earlier suggested attributions but did not put forward any new ones. Paola Della Pergola (1959) was the first to recognise features that were more reminiscent of the Flemish milieu, more specifically the circle of Jan Brueghel the Elder, or the time of Martin de Vos’ early visit to Rome, albeit with strong reservations due to the problematic condition of the paint surface.

It might be more appropriate, if we accept the suggestion of the Flemish context, to tie this composition with the circle of another remarkable painter, Denijs Calvaert, who was able to perfectly combine landscape and northern European minutiae with the teachings of the Carracci Academy.

The layout and gestures of the protagonist recall Raphael’s Paul Preaching at Athens, both in its preparatory cartoon version, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. Royal Loans. 7), as well as in the tapestry for the Sistine Chapel made in Brussels at the workshop of Pieter van Aelst and now in Vatican Museums (inv. MV.43876.0.0). The Antwerp artist would undoubtedly have had the opportunity to study this and introduce it to his workshop when he worked with Sabbatini on the Vatican decorations around 1560. The rarefied, almost ectoplasmic figures closely resemble the techniques employed by Calvaert in compositions such as the Annunciation in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (inv. 2010.36), the Last Judgement in the Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie (inv. MNK XII-A-174), The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine of Alexandria in the National Trust Collections in Stourhead, Wiltshire (inv. 732108) and, particularly,  The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist in a Landscape in the National Gallery of Scotland (inv. NG 2447).

Lara Scanu

  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 208
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 215
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle gallerie italiane. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 223
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, p. 157, n. 225
  • K. Hermann Fiore, Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla Pinacoteca ai depositi, un museo che non ha più segreti, Roma 2006, p. 154