(ca. 1566 – Rome - 1643[?])
Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness
Signed and dated, center left: EQ IO. / BALGIONVS / .R.P.1610
Oil on canvas; 76 3/8 x 59 ½ in. (194 x 151 cm)
Private collection, Italy; sale, London, Sotheby’s, 5 December 2012, no. 19.
This unpublished work is a welcome addition to the oeuvre of Giovanni Baglione, an artist more well-known for his lawsuit against Caravaggio than the publication of his vastly important Lives of the Artists[i] or his impressive body of works.[ii]
It has long been recognized by art historians that the majority of paintings by the so-called Caravaggisti are more dependent on the precedent of Bartolomeo Manfredi than any inventions by Caravaggio himself. Two painters, who - above all others - can be regarded as noteworthy exceptions to this observation are Orazio Gentilleschi and Giovanni Baglione. Both of these artists knew Caravaggio well, one as a personal friend and the other as a colleague and rival. Unfortunately for Baglione, he fell into the latter camp. His emulation of the painterly style and inventive subject matter of Caravaggio’s works greatly annoyed and frustrated the Lombard master, to the point that Caravaggio put up his friends, including Gentilleschi, to write scandalous verses about Baglione’s supposed scurrilous activities and depraved paintings. Baglione fought back with a lawsuit. The two painters eventually became bitter enemies for the remainder of Caravaggio’s short life (He died in 1610, the year our painting was executed.).
When this painting recently appeared on the market, it was speculated that it had been executed around the same time as the notorious lawsuit of 1603,[iii] but Maryvelma Smith O’Neil, author of the standard monograph on Baglione, dated the painting to the mid 1620s.[iv] Although one can draw parallels between our work and several later canvases,[v] the brute strength of our picture, its monumentality, as well as its solid application of paint, speak for an earlier period. Sure enough, when the heavy varnish layer was removed, the bold signature and date was revealed, center left:
EQ [for EQUES, or knight][vi]
R[OMA]. P[INXIT or PICTOR]. 1610.
If one was to look into Caravaggio’s oeuvre for Baglione’s source of inspiration, one would conclude that Caravaggio’s magisterial St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness of 1602 in Kansas City (fig. 1)[vii] would be the obvious source. But this comparison, as interesting as it may be, is insufficient to explain Baglione’s creative process. As early as 1600, our artist explored the subject of Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness. Another recently discovered painting of precisely this theme bears this date (fig. 2). [viii] It is a three-quarter length treatment, showing the young Saint John with similar, heavily lidded eyes, boney hands, wearing the woolly fleece and holding the cross made of two sticks and sporting a banderole.
Baglione’s preparatory drawing (fig. 3)[ix] indicates that he was the sole inventor of the composition in our painting. In fact, the artist might have experimented with several poses for the saint, as another drawn study (fig. 4)[x] would suggest. The artist continued to paint images of Saint John the Baptist throughout his long and productive career.
[i] Le vite de’ pittori, scultori & architetti. Dal pontificato di Gregoprio XIII del 1572 in fino a’ tempi di Papa Urbano Ottavio nel 1643, Rome, 1642; facs. Ed. With marginal notes by Bellori, ed. V. Mariani, Rome, 1935.
[ii] See now Maryvelma Smith O’Neil, Giovanni Baglione. Artistic Reputation in Baroque Rome, Cambridge,
[iii] See provenance above.
[iv] Salesroom notice, Sotheby’s London, 5 December 2012, no. 19.
[v] There are some similarities to the series of Apollo and the Muses that Baglione executed for Ferdinando Gonzaga around 1620, but this is a second version of the series. The first was painted ca. 1610-12, which would explain the parallels to our painting of 1610. See Peintures italiennes du XVIIe siècle du muse du Louvre, ed.Stephane Loire, Paris, 2006, pp.427-430
[vi] Baglione was knighted in 1606.
[vii]Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. See E. W. Rowlands, Italian Paintings 1600-1630, 1966, pp. 215-226, repr. In color p. 217; regarding the dating and commission of this painting see now Sebastian Schutze, Caravaggio. The Complete Works, Cologne, 2009, p. 268, cat. No. 35. One is tempted to compare Caravaggio’s late St. John in the Borghese Collection to our painting, but this painting did not enter Scipione Borghese’s collection until August 1611 (See Schutz, op. cit., p. 285, no. 66), and our painting was completed in the previous year, as the inscription would indicate.
[viii] Exhibited Caravaggio’s Rome 1600-1630, Rome, Palazzo Venezia, 2011, no. VI.1 (English ed., 2012, p. 140).
[ix] Sale, Sotheby’s London, 4 July 1977, no. 78. Pen and brown ink and wash, 170 x 114 mm.
[x] Sale, Sotheby’s London 25 June 1970, no. 44. Pena and brown ink over red chalk, 210 x 131 mm.