The Wallace Collection

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St. John the Baptist in the Desert
  • Probably Jacopo (Jacopo Tatti, called) Sansovino (1486-1570)
  • St. John the Baptist in the Desert
  • Florence, Italy
  • c. 1505 - 1515
  • Statuette
  • Terracotta and paint.
  • Height: 66.1 cm
    Width: 33.6 cm
    Depth: 28.6 cm
  • S55
  • Sixteenth Century Gallery
Images & Media
Further Reading
  • This depiction of the young St John the Baptist in the desert refers directly to descriptions of this phase of his life given in the Gospels. The subject was extremely popular in Florence (St John the Baptist was the patron saint of the city) and numerous sculptures depicting the saint in similar attitude and iconography were produced in Florence between the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century. The marked differences in their quality, facture and detail suggest that more than one workshop was producing them, although it is generally acknowledged that the best surviving example is the one today at the Bargello in Florence.

    Comparison with our sculpture is compelling: the right arm of S55 would have probably originally been stretched outwards like in the Bargello example, although the presence of traces of clay on the chest in our case suggest that the left hand now missing would have once rested on the Saint’s chest, whereas it is placed on the left knee in the Bargello example. The latter, as well as another version in a private collection, has a more extensive rock formation, but like ours presents holes at the top of the rocks which would have presumably served for the insertion of flowers or twigs to enhance the naturalistic effect of the sculpture.

    The three mentioned versions are the generally considered to be of comparable quality. The extension of the rocky background or the introduction of other elements like a tree-trunk or a lamb present in other versions might suggest a conscious attempt at making the arms less vulnerable: this would suggest that our version might represent an earlier stage of the development of the design.

    In addition to the numerous surviving versions of our model, scholars have widely recognised the affinity existing with another group of figures of David or of St Jerome both placed in similar rocky settings.

    The dark paint that once entirely covered S55 has been observed on other examples and might either reflect a taste for more sombre tones popular around 1500 due to the preaching of Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), or reveal an original attempt at simulating the appearance of bronze.

    Scholars have long acknowledged the Florentine origin of these sculptures, although attributions have varied. In more recent years, however, the comparison with the early work of Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570) has been the most convincing, especially when noting the detail of the teeth showing through the slightly parted lips, the columnar style of the neck, and the characteristic handling of facial features and hair.

    Jacopo Tatti began to call himself Sansovino in homage to his master, Andrea Sansovino, with whom he trained in the early 1500s. His work, both as a sculptor and an architect, is a perfect example of the classically-inspired and perfectly measured style of the mature Renaissance. He worked in Florence and Rome, moving to Venice in 1527 where he became the city’s chief architect.