Guest Post, Part II: John the Baptist Preaching to a Levite and a Pharisee

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

Here we go with Part II! Once again, I am going to include Kellin's awesome resume just in case there are some people just joining us :)

Kellin Barlow-Wilcox is a great friend of mine who I was lucky enough to meet while studying abroad in Florence last year. Her credentials are legion 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 II

If we take a closer look at our protagonists and compare them to some of Leonardo’s drawings and paintings, we find some uncanny similarities.

“Right: Study for the Last Supper, c. 1495 Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna”

“Various sketches from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks”

The facial structures of both the Pharisee and, in particular, the Levite, bear a striking resemblance to works by the older artist. The Pharisee’s scowl, pointed nose and beard could be a three-dimensional adaptation of this drawing of an apostle from one of Leonardo’s preparatory studies. Even more compelling is the face of a wizened, old warrior with the “nutcracker” nose who appears repeatedly in Leonardo’s notebooks and whose features seems to be the blue print for the Levite’s cavernous face.

“Left: St John the Baptist, 1513-16 Musée du Louvre, Paris; right: Baccio Bandinelli, Annunciate Angel (after Leonardo da Vinci)”

The powerful gesture of St John is also famously associated with Leonardo as seen in his painting of Saint John in the Louvre and his Annunciate Angel (now lost but know to us through copies…no it is seriously lost, I don’t know where the hell this thing is).

Then we reach the unavoidable fact that this work was Rustici’s most successful by far. He would never surpass its beauty, originality or technical skill. It is as if the sculptures themselves confirm the story. What may have seemed a clever anecdote, added by Vasari for dramatic affect, has some remarkably convincing visual evidence. It is even easy for us to imagine the scene: the younger artist struggling under the pressure of the most important commission of his life, and the older, more seasoned mentor who shows up in just the nick of time (cue dramatic music).
However, a more careful look at the documents (i.e. facts) proves that Vasari is, ever so carefully, bending the truth. Vasari’s claim that Leonardo provided unwavering support to the young artist is simply not possible when we learn that Leonardo may have been physically present in Florence for as little as eight out of the thirty-three months Rustici spent completing the terracotta moulds. It is also not definite that he spent more than one of these months in the same house as Rustici. In fact, Rustici asked for an extension on his original two-year deadline and the models were not ready for casting until September 18th 1509, almost seventeen months after Leonardo’s final departure from Florence.
Ok. So what is it? Is it a Leonardo? Is it a Rustici? It’s difficult to say. The question is further complicated by the fact that if we could definitively say that it is a Leonardo, it would be the only remaining work in sculpture by the genius that gave us some of the most famous paintings in the world. Damn you art history and your inexplicable mysteries!

The topic of Leonardo the sculptor, an admittedly frustrating one, is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Getty (originally at Atlanta High Museum, http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/leonardo/). The show features a collection of important drawings that shed some much-needed light on this under-researched facet of Leonardo’s career. Many of these pages are based on Leonardo’s known sculptural projects (either never completed or never even begun) as well as various sketches that betray Leonardo’s often three-dimensional thinking. The show’s big finale? The three looming figures of St John, the Pharisee and the Levite.

While we will probably never be able to definitively say one way or the other, in this case I am persuaded to agree with Sir Kenneth Clark; even if it isn’t a Leonardo, it is probably the closest we will ever get. However, until the day that a document surfaces that tells us the definitive truth, put Giovanni Francesco Rustici’s name in the old memory bank. I think he’s earned it.


  1. Wow, I'm so glad that you cast your vote with Rustici! He certainly deserves it. Thanks so much for sharing your research!

  2. Davinci, the man, the legend,the genius.