It was Roberto Longhi (1927) who first recognised this painting as an autograph work by Caravaggio, an attribution which led to some controversy but which is now almost universally accepted by critics. Its provenance from the Corsini collection — today it is housed in the gallery of the same name — is established by the entry in the inventory of Prince Bartolomeo, which dates back to 1784: “ un S. Giovanni Battista, stile del Caravaggio ” (“a St John the Baptist, in the style of Caravaggio”). This is the oldest historical reference to the work, which cannot be precisely identified among those of the same subject mentioned in the original sources of Caravaggio’s work. This information is, however, still of great value because it relates it to the marriage between Bartolomeo and Maria Felice Colonna Barberini, and gives credence to the hypothesis that the canvas came from Maria Felice’s dowry, and thus from the Colonna or Barberini families, which were both linked to the great Lombard maestro and his patrons on a number of occasions. Longhi originally suggested a date of 1597–98, but this has recently been moved on by critics, who now place it at the end of the artist’s years in Rome, between 1605 and 1606, at the time of the Madonna with the Serpent (also called Madonna dei Palafrenieri ) and the St John the Baptist in Kansas City. Maurizio Marini (1989) refers to a top-quality 17th-century copy in the National Museum in Stockholm.
The subject of St John the Baptist in the Desert , already very common in the Renaissance and one of Caravaggio’s favourites for private patrons, intensifies the painter’s vocation for an emotionally and psychologically powerful language. From this point of view, the religious message diverges from the dogma of Counter-Reformation orthodoxy and appears in a form of expression which is closer to the earthly and human nature of individuals: so much so that it is instantly and unconsciously assimilated by the viewer.