• Anonymous collection, France (according to inscription on verso)
• Great Britain, private collection
From the beginning of the Renaissance, the image of Saint John the Baptist preaching in the desert appeared frequently, and in the age of Mannerism, its resonance increased substantially in response to Council of Trente thoughts on the importance of instructive exalted preaching. The last prophet of the Old Testament and first preacher of Christianity, the Baptist, depicted alone by Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Sarto, henceforth appeared in the midst of a more and more heteroclite and dense crowd, until it saturated the space as in the work by Jacopino del Conte (Rome, Oratorio San Giovanni Decollato, 1538).
A more refined and elegant maniera, similar to that of Vasari and Salviati, reigns in our folio. The artist takes advantage of all types of graphic techniques to create a strikingly beautiful effect. The initial phase of drawing, very free and summary, is in sanguine. Only a few lines traverse the luxurious landscape, trace outlines of the rock and the Precursor, and situate the “multitudes” who have come to hear him: “Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region around Jordan.” (Matth. 3, 5). Probably preceded by separate sketches, the pyramidal composition, as well as the essentials of the poses and forms, had already been established, from Saint John’s contrapposto to the turbaned man’s gesture of astonishment as he rests his hand on his companion’s shoulder. Fine light black chalk was added next to suggest a few details: tree trunks, the armor’s leather straps, zones of shadow, drapery folds, and the purse which designates one of the figures on the left as a publican.
The draughtsman pursued his work in pen and wash without hesitating to leave his crayon composition or return to it when he thought better effects could be obtained, even if it meant covering up or erasing lines which he had just drawn. Thus, the two figures on the right, a bearded man seated on the ground and a group of captivated Judeans in the background are hardly changed. On the contrary, the pose of the child held by a young mother seated at the foot of the rock has been considerably modified, as has Saint John’s right arm, hereafter raised higher to the sky. Similarly the man in a pilgrim’s hat at the very right edge of the sheet is found accompanied by two initially unforeseen figures from an engraving by Parmigianino (Young Man Seated on a Rock and Two Old Men Conversing) – undoubtedly this is the only direct borrowing from another artist. The tax receiver’s purse is left out, blurring his identification, even though, along with the superb captain with a serpentine figure, and the beardless man enveloped in a coat, his presence refers to the Gospel of Saint Luke who names soldiers, publicans, and Pharisees (Luke 3, 10-14) as being among those who questioned the Baptist. Finally, the soldier on the far left almost entirely disappears, only to reappear when the artist perfects his oeuvre with a few touches of judiciously placed white.
The unevenness of the hand, sometimes fluid and fine, sometimes attentive and thick, complicates the attribution of our folio, even if the sure touch and easy inspired creation are those of a confirmed master. To understand this point, it suffices to consider the publican’s apprehensive profile, dancing poses of the two exotically clothed men on the right, the soldier’s prominent musculature, and above all, the virtuosity of the pen work with its rigid hatching and cross-hatching which invades the shaded areas.
This manner of handling forms is characteristic of Bartolomeo Passarotti’s art, a Bolognese painter and engraver trained mainly in Rome through contact with the architect Vignole and with Taddeo Zuccaro. Raffaello Borhini thus relates in Il Riposo, which appeared in 1584:
“In Bologna lives Bartolomeo Passerotti, a very famous painter, who, at first, learned his trade from Jacopo Vignola, architect and painter; with him he went to Rome, where he made a great study of drawing. But Vignola, freed from his commitments, went back to France, where he came from, and Passerotti to Bologna; and after not very long, he returned to Rome and started working with Taddeo Zucchero; and they lived together for a long time, until Federigo, Taddeo’s brother came to Rome; Passerotto then went to live on the upper floor.”
Documentary sources which illuminate these initial years of Passarotti’s career are lacking, but it is generally accepted that this collaboration with Taddeo Zuccaro took place between about 1556 and 1560, the date at which the artist bought a studio in Bologna.
Not only does our beautiful sheet perfectly correspond to the style that dominated Rome in the 1550’s, but the influences that can be seen are those which shaped Passarotti’s art. The body language, which comes in part from Raphael, blends with Vasari’s magnificence, Salviati’s dynamism, and the expressivity of Northern painters working in Italy, such as Martin de Vos, while the handling of ochre wash entirely in transparencies is typical of Taddeo Zuccaro’s sketches. Comparison with Zuccaro’s sketches for the decoration of the Villa Giulia (done with Vignole and Vasari), of the Frangipani Chapel, and the altar of Santa Maria dell’Orto, reveal both technical concordance and differences in the handling of the pen. On the contrary, much resemblance can be seen between our work and the Apostle series engraved by Passarotti after Zuccaro’s drawings, especially the Apostle Paul whose figure corresponds to that of the publican in our Preaching of Saint John.
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Angela GHIRARDI, Bartolomeo Passerotti, pittore (1529-1592). Catalogo generale, Rimini, 1990, pp. 260-266, no 84.
Cristina ACIDINI LUCHINAT, Taddeo e Federico Zuccari, fratelli pittori del Cinquecento, 2 vol., Milan et Rome, Jandi Sapi, 1998.