The Young St. John the Baptist

The Young St. John the Baptist

Benedetto da Maiano

c. 1470–80
40 x 31 x 18.5 cm
source of the artwork

1546: Faenza, Commenda di Santa Maria Maddalena della Magione, private study of Fra’ Sabba da Castiglione; until the late 18th century: Faenza, Commenda di Santa Maria Maddalena della Magione, library; 1866: Faenza, purchased by a priest named Domenico Valenti; c. 1866: Faenza, Biblioteca Comunale; February 1871: Pinacoteca civica.

short description

This bust of St. John, portraying him as a boy in accordance with an iconographic type that was extremely popular in 15th century Florence, belonged to Fra’ Sabba da Castiglione (Milan c. 1480 – Faenza 1554), a collector and man of letters who lived in Faenza and furnished his private study with this and other important works of art, some of which are now on display in the Pinacoteca. An old tradition assigned the bust to Donatello, whereas its attribution now vacillates between the great Florentine sculptors of the second half of the 15th century: Desiderio da Settignano, Antonio Rossellino and Benedetto da Maiano. The latter’s style is reflected in the “luminous vibration of the cheeks” and the curls whose “thickness rests in full yet vibrant forms” (Ferretti 2011, p. 115-116). The echo of the faces of the angels that Desiderio da Settignano carved on the Marsuppini Tomb (Florence, Santa Croce) may have been mediated through the presence of terracotta models customarily used in artists’ workshops.

inventary n°

St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner of Christ, is portrayed here as a boy or an adolescent, rather than the more common depiction of him as a penitent young adult. This variant, though of ancient origin, was frequently replicated in Quattrocento Florence. The saint, the city’s patron, was portrayed in a vast number of images through which artists were able to turn their hand to a genre popular in classicising sculpture while also revealing an interest in natural portraiture designed to capture aspects of daily life such as, for example, the world of childhood and children. The Pinacoteca’s Bust of St. John, which comes from Florence, was acquired in Faenza by Fra Sabba da Castiglione (Milan, c. 1480 – Faenza, 1554), a collector and man of letters, in the 1540s. The sources tell us nothing about the manner in which he acquired it, but they do reveal that it was one of his dearest possessions. A knight of the Order of St. John of Rhodes (later of Malta) who was appointed Master of the Commenda di Santa Maria Maddalena della Magione in Faenza in 1515, placed the bust in his private study alongside other important works, several of which are now on display in the Pinacoteca, including an ancient oriental alabaster urn, a table top with inlay work by Damiano Zambelli and a terracotta relief of St. Jerome at Prayer by Alfonso Lombardi. Sabba himself thought that the Young St. John the Baptist was by Donatello, starting a long tradition that assigned it to the great Florentine sculptor (a position also seemingly borne out by a passage in Vasari when he says that “in the city of Faenza [Donatello] fashioned a St. John and a St. Jerome in wood”, cited in Casadei 1991, p. 37). The notary who drafted Fra’ Sabba’s will in 1546 reiterated his client’s opinion: “opus quidam divinum, et ut idem testator credit, dixit, manu propria Donatelli” [a divine work, as he says, and by the hand of the sculptor Donatello, as he believes], and in the 1554 version of his popular work Ricordi, Sabba himself wrote that “I have adorned my small study with a head of St. John the Baptist aged about fourteen, in the round, in Carrara marble, very fine, by the hand of Donato, which is such that if no other work by his hand were to be found, this one alone would suffice to make him eternal and immortal in the world”. Yet Leopoldo Cicognara (1823–4) sparked a debate regarding the bust’s attribution early on by assigning it to Desiderio da Settignano, who was the first sculptor to introduce this specific type to Florence, along with a bust of the Baby Jesus: their popularity was probably inspired by the Regola del Governo di Cura Familiare composed c. 1401–3 by the Blessed Giovanni Dominici, a Dominican from Florence, who urged mothers to keep (painted) images of the Young St. John the Baptist and Jesus in their homes as models of conduct for their sons and to prompt pious thoughts in their youngsters (see L. Pisani, San Giovanni Battista nei Busti del Rinascimento fiorentino, in Kopf/Bild: die Büste in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit, ed. J. Kohl, R. Müller, Munich 2007, pp. 212-214). Scholars subsequently put forward as alternatives the names of Antonio Rossellino (for example Planiscig in 1942) who is responsible for another work of art in Faenza, the Tomb of San Savino in the Cathedral, and, more recently, that of Benedetto da Maiano (Venturi 1908; Ferretti 1996, 2004; Carl 2006). Desiderio’s name has, however, resurfaced again in the Faenza bust’s attribution history. Caglioti (2004) considers it to be the work of an unidentified pupil who, he argues, completed the bust on his master’s death in 1464, while others, in an attempt to explain the very striking similarities between St. John’s face and the shield-bearing angels on the Marsuppini Tomb in Santa Croce in Florence, have suggested that it may be derived – a common practice in artists’ workshops – from a terracotta model by the Settignano master that continued to be used even after his death (for a summary of the bust’s critical history, see Viroli 1989 and Ferretti 2011). The Faenza bust, which shows several signs of breakage in the shoulders and nose, the parts most exposed to shocks, is comparable in the “luminous vibration of the cheeks” and the natural handling of the curls whose “thickness rests in full yet vibrant forms” (Ferretti 2011, pp. 114-115) with other work by Benedetto da Maiano such as the St. John carved on the door of the Sala dei Gigli in the Palazzo dei Priori (now Palazzo Vecchio) in Florence. Writing in 1960, Dino Campana was fascinated by the psychological acumen of this “delicate bust of an adolescent that seems to harbour within it the joyous light of the Italian spirit” (cited in Casadei 1991).

G. Viroli, Il San Giovannino della Pinacoteca di Faenza, in Il monumento a Barbara Manfredi e la scultura del Rinascimento in Romagna, ed. A. Colombi Ferretti, L. Prati, Bologna 1989, pp. 153-156 WITH PREVIOUS BIBLIOGRAPHY

S. Casadei, Pinacoteca di Faenza, Bologna 1991, p. 37, entry no. 66

F. Caglioti, in In the light of Apollo: Italian Renaissance and Greece. Exhibition catalogue (Athens, 22 December 2003 – 31 March 2004) ed. M. Gregori, Cinisello Balsamo – Athens 2003, volume I, p. 208 entry no. II.19

M. Ferretti, in M. Ferretti, A. Colombi Ferretti, Due amici di Fra Sabba. Damiano da Bergamo e Francesco Menzocchi, in Sabba da Castiglione, 1480 – 1554, Dalle corti rinascimentali alla commenda di Faenza, conference proceedings, Faenza, 19 – 20 May 2000, ed. A. R. Gentilini. Florence 2004, pp. 389-390, no. 32

D. Thornton, “Le mie cose”: Fra Sabba da Castiglione e i suoi oggetti, in Sabba da Castiglione, 1480 – 1554. Dalle corti rinascimentali alla commenda di Faenza, conference proceedings, Faenza, 19 – 20 May 2000, ed. A. R. Gentilini, Florence 2004, pp. 318-319

CARL 2006
D. Carl, Benedetto da Maiano: a Florentine Sculptor at the Threshold of the High Renaissance, Turnhout 2006, pp. 42-45

M. Ferretti, La scultura nel Quattrocento. Storia delle arti figurative a Faenza. Faenza 2011, pp. 112-122

KOHL 2011
J. Kohl, Morals, Males, and Mirrors. Some thoughts on busts of boys in the Renaissance, in Desiderio da Settignano, ed. J. Connors, A. Nova, B. Paolozzi Strozzi and G. Wolf, Venice 2011, pp. 90, 98 no. 16.

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written by
Alice Festi