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The invited work: The young Saint John the Baptist, Michelangelo

Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid 3/31/2015 - 9/20/2015

The biographies of Michelangelo by Vasari (1550) and Condivi (1553) recount that following the artist’s return to Florence from Bologna in 1495, his first commission was for a marble sculpture of a “San Giovannino” for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici (cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent), now identified as the present work. Rather than following the model of Donatello’s Saint John the Baptist (Florence, Museo del Bargello) as other Florentine sculptors had done, Michelangelo depicted the Baptist as much younger, no more than a boy of six or seven. Looking to the example of Hellenistic Greek sculpture, he supported the left leg against a rock, creating elegant oblique lines through its slight bend, an aesthetic resource that he would deploy in other works. The bent arms, slightly tilted head and emphasis on the nude body all recall models from the classical sculpture so admired by the artist. There are evident compositional similarities between this figure and other works by Michelangelo, including the small Saint John the Baptist in the unfinished painting known as The Manchester Madonna (London, National Gallery, ca.1496) and the sculpture of Bacchus with a Satyr in the Museo del Bargello (1497-98).

Sponsored by:
Amigos del Museo del Prado
In collaboration with:
Fundación Casa Ducal de Medinaceli




The young Saint John the Baptist
Michelangelo Buonarroti
Original pieces in marble and reconstruction in resin, 140 x 40 x 43 cm.
ca. 1495 - 1496
Fundación Casa Ducal de Medinaceli

In 1498/99 this Young Saint John the Baptist was in the Florentine palace of Lorenzo de Pierfrancesco de’Medici, the patron of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). Its next owner was Cosimo I de’Medici, who assumed power in Florence in 1537 with the support of Charles V. After acquiring the Palazzo Vecchio and Pierfrancesco’s collections, Cosimo honoured Francisco de los Cobos with the gift of this statue by Michelangelo. According to a letter from Cosimo, that same autumn the sculpture was sent directly to Spain, to Cobos’s villa in Sabiote. After his death it adorned the funerary chapel that he had built in his native city of Úbeda, a large construction completed in 1568. It is described as housing “A free-standing alabaster Saint John the Baptist”. The sculpture remained on display there until 1936, in a niche beside the gilt-wood high altar by Alonso de Berruguete (ca.1488-1561), which was also seriously damaged that year.


The young Saint John the Baptist
Michelangelo Buonarroti, (detail)

In an act of vandalism that took place at the start of the Civil War, in July 1936 the sculpture was smashed into pieces and the head burned. Only fourteen fragments could be salvaged, equivalent to 40% of its original volume. The delicate and complex project of restoring the work began in 1994 at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure e Laboratori di Restauro. Innovative methods were employed, including laser to clean the burned and blackened surface of the head, and a virtual 3-D reconstruction of the sculpture based on photographs taken shortly before its destruction. Once it had been reassembled using the original fragments of marble, the lost areas were reconstructed using fibreglass then coated with stucco, toned with tempera and sealed with wax and varnish. The restored work went on display in Florence in 2013.

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