This painting is a splendid example of Domenico Corvi’s predilection for glowing ‘nocturnal’ scenes; indeed Luigi Lanzi, the 18th-century art historian, tells us that his astonishing skill in rendering such themes caused him to be known as a latter-day Honthorst. Illuminated by torchlight, these types of paintings reveal the artist’s legendary mastery of the technique in his rendering of textured color, vibrant chiaroscuro and dramatic effect, echoing a tradition dating back to the 16th century and the art of Raphael in the Vatican Stanze and of the Carracci and Caravaggio’s followers in Rome.
Corvi’s love of color—evident here in the acid green of Salome’s moiré silk gown (the compositional and thematic linchpin of the painting) lit up by a torch hidden from the observer’s eye by the hand of a jailer—and his skill in portraying the academic nude are manifest in this painting. These characteristics were recognized early on by the Pisan critic, Abbot Ranieri Tempesti who wrote in 1785: ‘His singular skill lies in the correctness, the accuracy and the elegance of his drawing […]. His coloring is sweet, textured, fresh, exquisite, in his own manner and cursive in taste, midway between Mengs and Maratti. His nocturnal scenes in particular are unparalleled. He lights his canvases adopting a technique so new and so unique that it can deceive even the most expert in Art’.
The dramatic nocturnal lighting would have been a significant element in this painting, whose existance in the 1911 inventory was only recently discovered. It had a companion piece in the Barberini collection, a Liberation of Saint Peter, also a nocturnal scene. That Saint Peter may have been associated in its conception with two large paintings depicting St. Peter Baptizes Processus and Martinianus in the Mamertine Prison and The Liberation of Saint Peter which Corvi painted ca. 1770 for the Orsini Chapel in the church of San Salvatore in Lauro. The classicizing astringency in the painting under discussion here—in which Corvi demonstrates how decisively he has moved from the influence of his master Marco Benefial towards Neoclassicism—and the fact that it was intended as a companion piece for the Liberation of St. Peter, prompt us to date this Beheading of St. John the Baptist to the second half of the 1760s, when Corvi was working on the larger canvases of St. Peter for San Salvatore in Lauro.
This painting and a Liberation of St. Peter has a documented Barberini provenance and was almost certainly painted for Principessa Costanza Barberini Colonna di Sciarra for whom Corvi painted scenes from lives of earlier members of the Colonna family as well as a series of illusionistic statues for the Stanza di Chiaroscuro in the Palazzo Barberini in 1770.
Domenico Corvi’s career took off relatively late in life in 1762 with the unveiling of his canvases for S. Marcello a Corso. The success of these paintings led to the patronage of Pope Clement XIII Rezzonico for whom he designed tapestries for the Sala del Trono in the Capitoline Palazzo dei Conservatori, a frescoed ceiling in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj and the great Sacrifice of Iphigenia painted for the Palazzo Borghese in 1772 which Stella Rudolph describes as ‘a nocturne of almost surreal elegance in its silvery tones and sculptural figures’. The apogee of his success was reached when Corvi was commissioned by Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany, to paint a majestic self-portrait of the artist drawing a Hercules surrounded by books on anatomy and casts of antique sculptures (Galleria degli Uffizi, 2086/1890). This self-conscious reference to Maratti’s own self portrait announces Corvi as the last major exponent in an eminent line of Roman masters.❖