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The Baptist preaching

Caliari Paolo called Paolo Veronese

(Verona 1528 - Venice 1588)

The painting is usually placed in relation to a gift, confirmed by a letter of 1607, given by the Patriarch of Aquileia to Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The work captures the viewer's attention both for its carefully studied composition where the figure of the Baptist appears monumental, and the way the perspective functions on three different planes. The choice of a vibrant colour palette and the fluid application of paint make this painting one of Paolo Veronese's most successful mature works, datable to around 1562 for stylistic reasons.

Object details

1562 circa
oil on canvas
cm 205 x 169

Nineteenth-century frame decorated with palmettes.


(?)Francesco Barbaro collection, ante 1607; (?) Rome, Scipione Borghese collection, 1607 (Arch. Gall. Borghese A I/18); mentioned in Francucci (1613); Manilli (1650); Montelatici (1700). Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 7. Purchased by the Italian state, 1902.


In alto al centro, sul cartiglio avvolto alla croce: ECCE [AGNVS DEI, ECCE QVI TOLLIT PECCATUM MVNDI].


  • 1935 Parigi, Petit Palais
  • 1939 Venezia, Ca’ Giustinian
  • 1985 Roma, Palazzo Venezia
  • 1988-1989 Washington, National Gallery of Art
  • 2014 Venezia, Palazzo della Gran Guardia
  • 2014 Londra, National Gallery
  • 2017 Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1951 Decio Podio (lining)
  • 1951 Rocco Ventura (varnishing)
  • 1958 Renato Massi (frame)
  • 1962 Renato Massi (frame)
  • 1996 Carlo Ceccotti (frame)


Studies have so far related the work to a letter that the Patriarch of Aquileia, Francesco Barbaro, sent from Udine to Scipione Borghese on 5 September 1607. The letter reads: “I console myself in the extreme that you liked Paolo Veronese's work. I will endeavour without any intermission to provide something else for the virtuous and worthy delight of Your Excellency”. As Della Pergola (1955) points out, the subject of the painting is not specified and in the current collection there is another work by Caliari, Sermon of St Anthony (inv. 101); however, the literature on Veronese generally connects the reference in the letter to St John the Baptist Preaching and it is believed that the second painting also came into the Borghese collection as a gift from the patriarch himself.

St John the Baptist Preaching is described in verse by Scipione Francucci in the last two stanzas of the fourth canto of the poem in ottava rima, dating from 1613, La galleria dell’ e S. Scipione cardinale Borghese (Francucci 1613). The mention of a “St John, who preaches to the crowds” by Carlo Ridolfi “at Signor Prencipe Ludovisio’s” (Ridolfi 1648) is therefore believed to be a biographer's error (Della Pergola 1955; Salomon 2014) replicated by Bartolomeo Dal Pozzo (1718) seventy years later.

Although the attribution of this painting to Veronese dates back to the 17th century with Francucci (1613) and remained so until the 19th century with Caliari (1888), Morelli (1897) tended to ascribe it to Giovan Battista Zelotti and, Rusconi (1906), Berenson (1907) and Muñoz (1909) did the same. The attribution of the painting was returned to Veronese by Hadeln in the early 20th century (1911), accepted by Berenson himself a few years later (1932), and has remained unchanged ever since.

It has been suggested that the painting, due to its size, was an altarpiece (Rearick 1988; Solomon 2014) and that its execution may have been connected to Francesco Barbaro's uncle, the patriarch and humanist Daniele Barbaro, who had already commissioned work from Veronese on several occasions, including the fresco decoration of the villa in Maser (Rearick 1988; Biferali in Marini, Aikema 2014). Xavier F. Salomon (2014) suggests the hypothesis that the painting was intended for a chapel dedicated to John the Baptist, a dedication perhaps explained by the name of the client. Salomon himself struggles to make a direct connection between the subject of the work and the Barbaro family. He stresses that, if the painting in question is indeed the one sent to Rome in 1607, clarification is needed on how the Patriarch of Aquileia came to own the work.

The painting depicts the exact moment, narrated in the Gospels (John 1:29), when John the Baptist preaches to the crowds and points to Jesus Christ, saying “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world”, words inscribed in Latin on the scroll surrounding the cruciform staff (ECCE [AGNVS DEI]). The composition of the scene was conceived by the painter in such a way as to focus attention on the Baptist, whose figure stands out in the centre for almost the entire length of the painting in a contrasting position that seems to be the outcome of the same reflections that inform the Baptism of Christ and Two Patrons in the Redentore church in Venice (Arslan 1936; Marini 1968). The shift in the barycentre of the preacher's body - which in Adolfo Venturi's eyes appeared as though leaning against the tree (Venturi 1893) - and the emphatic gesture of indigitation, all built on foreshortening, create a diagonal that, passing from the faces of the Levites in the upper right to Christ in the background, accentuates the sense of spatial depth already rendered by the superimposition of different planes, marked by the alternation of the tree trunks (Pallucchini 1939) and the woman in the lower right. The scene, therefore, is pervaded by a restless and investigative movement, provoked by the words just uttered by the Baptist, which arouse curiosity among the onlookers: the female figure turns suddenly to listen; among the priests, one is absorbed in thought about what has just been announced, the other two are intent on seeking confrontation or, with a watchful attitude, maintaining eye contact with the preacher who in the meantime is walking towards the observer. The brighter atmosphere and emptiness created around the appearance of Christ make the group in the foreground stand out even more: the dramatic intonation already woven through the gestures of the figures is intensified by the colour contrast, as well as by the difference in pictorial rendering, which becomes less controlled the more the background is affected. The colour, perhaps subdued by the yellowed paint, is explored by Caliari in the most intense and brilliant ranges, rendered with a fluid material approach and rapid, vibrant brushstrokes that illuminate and make the most of the variety of the colour palette: in the description of the eastern clothing, for example, there is a clear inclination towards ornamentation, the painter's pretext for employing rich chromatic solutions, to the extent that Adolfo Venturi (1929) judged this work to be “one of Paolo's greatest creations in terms of boldness of colour”. For these reasons, most studies place this painting in the early 1660s, not far from his experience as a fresco painter in Maser.

According to Rearick (1988), the death of the presumed patron Daniele Barbaro in 1570 would constitute the painting's ante quem and it is possible that his nephew Francesco, having inherited part of his uncle's collection, decided to side with Scipione Borghese by donating the two Veronese paintings that are currently housed in the museum. Cocke (1989), on the other hand, pushes the dating of the work to the late 1580s because he sees the St John the Baptist Preaching as close to the San Pantalon altarpiece, commissioned in 1587. He then hypothesises that Francesco Barbaro got his hands on the painting thanks to his father Marcantonio and not his uncle Daniele. However, Cocke's proposal conflicts with the formal evidence pertaining to the Borghese painting, in which the colour is not yet as liquid and frayed as it is in the painter's later works.

Osmond (1927), on the other hand, dated the work to 1570; Pignatti and Pedrocco (1995), followed by Salomon (2014), set a chronology around the middle of the same decade, on the basis of a comparison with the landscape of the Burial of Christ in Geneva; Biferali (in Marini, Aikema 2014) placed the work between 1565 and 1570. Pallucchini (1984) proposed a date around 1562, immediately after the decoration of Villa Barbaro, which shares the same chromatic freshness with the painting. Pallucchini's thesis, moreover, sits well with the comparison between the figure of John the Baptist in the Galleria Borghese and that of the altarpiece in the Redentore church in Venice, as the latter is generally dated around 1561, the year in which the chapel was dedicated to Saint John the Baptist by Bartolomeo Stravazino (Arslan 1936; Marini 1968). Moreover, stylistic affinities can be found between the Borghese canvas and works dated with certainty around the same time: note the similarities in the rendering of the robes and in particular the turbans with the The Wedding at Cana in the Musée du Louvre in Paris, commissioned in 1562 and finished in 1563 (Marini, Aikema 2014, p. 372), as well as the similarity to paintings made in 1562 for the abbey of San Benedetto Po, near Mantua. The description of the tree foliage in the foreground and background can also be seen in the Virgin and Child with Angels Appearing to Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit in the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk and in the Consecration of Saint Nicholas in the National Gallery in London. Pallucchini (1984) has also pointed out that the turbaned figure on the far left in the London painting is identical, but the reverse of the one on the right in St John the Baptist Preaching. The same could be said of the similarities between the genuflected female figure in the Borghese painting and the servant with the amphora on the left side in The Wedding at Cana. All these elements favour Pallucchini's idea, which seems to be the most reasonable and which we intend to accept here.

Emiliano Riccobono

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