Guest Post: John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Phariseee

Guest Post, Part I: Giovanni Francesco Rustici (and/or?) Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee (1506-1511).

Hey Everyone! Lydia here, I am so happy (and proud) to introduce my great friend Kellin Barlow-Wilcox who is posting today and tomorrow and who I was lucky enough to meet while studying abroad in Florence last year. Kellin was diligently working away to obtain her Master's degree while I gallivanted around Europe so you can guess how annoying I probably was :) Her credentials are longer than I care to know (makes me realize what I need to get done) but here is a bit of an introduction. Kellin graduated Magna Cum Laude from New York University in 2004 with a joint degree in Art History, Religious Studies, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and Italian. She also recently finished her Master's at Syracuse University in Florence with research on the history of gesture in art and she currently resides in Los Angeles and works as the Executive Assistant to the Director of the Hammer Museum.

Part I

Giovanni Francesco Rustici (and/or?) Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee (1506-1511).

“John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee, 1506-11”

“The sculptures in situ on the Baptistery of Florence.”

Leonardo da Vinci is one of the first names likely to pop into someone’s head during any discussion of Renaissance art (or Dan Brown novels, for that matter). What about the name Giovanni Francesco Rustici? Chances are you’ve never heard of Leonardo’s younger contemporary, and it’s no surprise. Thanks to a complicated history, some juicy gossip, and a long tradition, Rustici’s most famous work (John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee (1506-1511), pictured above) is mentioned more frequently in relation to Leonardo.

Once again we must turn to our good friend Giorgio Vasari (the man who gave us as much useful information as misleading). Thanks to Vasari’s knack for flattery and his, well, “relaxed” viewpoint on precise attributions, this sculpture appears to be by two different people. Basically, if you’re reading Rustici’s biography in Vasari’s Lives, the work is described as being predominantly by Rustici, however if you’re reading Leonardo’s biography, then it’s the work of Leonardo. Gee. Thanks Vasari.

Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?

Between the years 1501 and 1503, Leonardo was in and out of Florence. He had only just returned from Milan in 1500 where he spent the previous seventeen years. In the fall of 1503 Leonardo was commissioned by the Florentine government to begin one of his most important projects to date, The Battle of Anghiari in the Palazzo Vecchio (now lost…or is it? Look for my upcoming post). In May of 1506, at the request of the French King, Leonardo returned to Milan, leaving the battle scene unfinished.

In December of that same year, Rustici, twenty-three years Leonardo’s junior, received what would be the most important commission of his career: a three figure group in bronze to be placed over the north doors of the Baptistery of Florence. This building was not only one of Florence’s oldest, but also one of its most revered; it was the symbol of the city’s Patron Saint, John the Baptist. Fittingly, the scene to be depicted referenced biblical accounts of the Baptist’s ministry where he lived in the wilderness preaching to his followers. In the books of Matthew and John, Pharisees (members of a strict Jewish sect) and Jewish priests (usually referred to as Levites) are mentioned as also being among his audience.

In 1507, over a year after Rustici had received the commission, Leonardo returned to Florence. On March 22nd of that same year, Leonardo noted in one of his journals that he was living in the house of a man named Martelli. This date corresponds to the exact time Rustici was also living in Martelli’s house and, more importantly, executing the baptistery sculptures. Though Rustici and Leonardo could have met prior to Leonardo’s 1508 return, it was at this time, according to Vasari, that their friendship grew. Adding a bit of drama to our tale, Vasari claims that while Rustici worked on the figures he would have no one near him except Leonardo. Vasari’s story inspired a tradition so well known among Florentines that a plaque now marks the house where these two artists once lived and, perhaps worked, together.

All joking aside, it is hard to ignore the astonishing beauty of the finished product. Each figure stands over life size (St John, the tallest of the three, stands at 107.5 inches or almost 9 feet). The texture of the Baptist’s hair, which is made of thick, coiling locks, and the swirling pattern of his hair shirt, betray the original terracotta medium. The faces are so profoundly unique that they appear to have been observed directly from nature. The Levite, with his sunken eyes and prominent nose, bows his head, deep in thought. Opposite, the Pharisee, his flatter features obscured in facial hair, twists his massive fingers through his beard while he scrutinizes the Saint with a furrowed brow.

St John looks down toward the viewer in the piazza with a piercing gaze and an open mouth. He appears untroubled by his companion’s questioning looks, turning instead to makes eye contact with the audience below. His gesture, a single finger pointing dramatically upwards, conveys to the viewer the words of his most famous pronouncement: “After me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry.” (Mt 3:11)

To be continued…


  1. OK. I'm partial since KBW, the energetic and well informed author of this post is in fact my daughter. But that should not detract from the fact that she has made this story readable and relevant. Thank you for giving her ideas some additional light!

  2. an interesting article (read in my mind by Tom Hanks) that makes these artists as human as their sculptures. I want more! Nicely done KBW!

  3. thalassa schollMay 7, 2010 at 8:25 AM

    More, more!!
    In this day and age it's good to read the work of such a passionate scholar of the Renaissance.
    Is this person going to write a book, perhaps?

  4. Wow, I think this commentary was absolutely extraordinaire!!! Can't wait for the second installment. Been to Florence several times but never took much notice of these three figures. Now I want to return with Kellin as my guide. Thanks so much for sharing.