With its starkly lit figure and pronounced chiaroscuro effect, it is tempting to compare this Saint John the Baptist to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s treatment of the subject in the Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City (fig. 1; inv. no. 52-25). Baglione, in fact, painted the saint on numerous occasions in the course of his career, though the present work is by far the largest and most accomplished. A preparatory drawing (fig. 2) was sold at Sotheby’s London in 1977 and is typically rapid in execution, as was Baglione's style as a draughtsman.1 It maps out the composition very clearly and shows that from an early stage in the creative process Baglione was keen to include both the foreground plants and the background landscape, elements which are more often merely alluded to in his work. This notably disciplined approach runs counter to Caravaggio’s preparatory methods.
The artist produced a substantial body of work as a painter, but was also an accomplished writer, publishing Le nove chiese di Roma in 1639 and his momentous Le Vite de’ Pittori, Scultori & Architetti, in 1642.2 Despite these notable feats, however, Baglione is better remembered today for the scandal surrounding the lawsuit he brought against his brilliant and notoriously hot-headed colleague, Caravaggio. Unlike many of the so-called Caravaggists, Baglione responded to the work of Caravaggio as his direct contemporary.3 The two artists, working concurrently in Rome, were fierce rivals and Caravaggio accused Baglione of imitating his distinct painting style. Soon defamatory poems and writings regarding Baglione’s supposedly depraved paintings and disreputable activities circulated in Rome. These were presumed to have been disseminated by Caravaggio and his circle of friends and resulted in Baglione bringing libel charges against his antagonist in 1603.4 Caravaggio’s close friend and colleague, Orazio Gentileschi (who was thought to have penned some of the defamatory verses) admitted as witness at the trial that Baglione was a “first-class painter.” Yet Caravaggio’s own disparaging comments on the stand, dismissing Baglione as derivative, would unfairly cast a shadow over the artist’s work and reputation for centuries to come. In fact, far from adhering to Caravaggio’s style, Baglione was creatively independent and an inventive artist in his own right.
Professor Antonio Vannuglio proposes that the painting can be identified as the work for which the artist was paid 100 scudi on 3 August 1610 by Cardinal Alessandro Peretti Damasceni di Montalto. If the present painting is indeed the very same Saint John listed in Montalto's account books, then it would also be the work mentioned by Baglione in his autobiography published in 1642. The date of the painting, 1610, and its corresponding entry in Montalto's account books, would suggest a straight match and confirm the Montalto provenance. While there is a discrepancy in the measurements of the canvas (194 cm) and the height given in the 1655 Montalto inventory of 6 palmi (134 cm) this could well be accounted for by the high incidence of incorrect dimensions being recorded in 17th-century inventories. Moreover, the fact that it is listed as a sovrapporta and so would have been hanging high up on a wall when the inventory was drawn up could further account for the inaccuracy in the measurement.
This painting will be included in Michele Nicolaci's forthcoming monograph of the artist.
1. Sale, London, Sotheby’s, 4 July 1977, lot 78, Giovanni Baglione, Saint John the Baptist, pen and brown ink and wash, 170 by 114 mm.
2. G. Baglione, Le vite de’ pittori, scultori & architetti. Dal pontificato di Gregorio XIII del 1572 in fino a’ tempi di Papa Urbano Ottavio nel 1642, (originally published Rome 1642), J. Hess ed., Rome 1995.
3. The style generally referred to as Caravaggism was in fact more dependent on the work of Bartolomeo Manfredi and his Manfrediana Methodus than on Caravaggio himself.
4. For more on the lawsuit see M. O’Neil, Giovanni Baglione, Artistic Reputation in Baroque Rome, Cambridge 2002.
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