LIONELLO SPADA (Bologna 1576- Parma 1622)

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

Oil on canvas, 165 x 156 cm

Probably Malvezzi Collection, Bologna. 

A. G. De Marchi, November 2015.

Comparative Literature

F. Frisoni in La scuola dei Carracci, dall’Accademia alla Scuola di Ludovico, ed. by E. Negro and M. Pirondini, Modena 1994, pp. 265-273;
E. Monducci, Leonello Spada: 1576-1622, Reggio Emilia, 2002;
N. Roio, Bartolomeo Schedoni e Leonello Spada, alcune opere sconosciute di due "caravaggisti" padani, in Valori tattili, 1, 2013, pp. 48-65, 160.


Bold, provocative and apparently rebellious, Leonello Spada is the only Bolognese artist, who after working in Rome, Malta and possibly Naples, returned to Bologna and created Caravaggesque paintings in the city, contrasting the dominance of Caracci and his followers during the second decade of the seventeenth century. Spada’s unique style enabled him to stand out among his contemporaries, leading him to become a court painter for Ranuccio Farnese, Cardinal of Santa Lucia in Selci from 1545 until his death in 1565.

Despite his change in artistic direction, Spada had started his career working under the guidance of Ludovico Caracci for the completion of the cloister of San Michele in Bosco, and collaborating with Francesco Brizio and Lucio Massari in the Pieve di Cento. He had even taken part in the ceremony to mark the death of Agostino Carraci. Nevertheless, his rupture with Caracci and their artistic milieu must have happened before 1609, once he left his hometown for Rome and Naples, probably together with his patron Commendatore Zambeccari, and later embarking to Malta - a route possibly influenced by Caravaggio’s very own, who had recently fled from Malta for criminal charges. On his return to Bologna in 1611, aware of his opportunities, he decided to exhibit his Caravaggesque paintings at the piazza, awaiting critical response from his artistic rivals. Less reckless than his model painter Caravaggio, Leonello had powerful patrons who could sustain this departure from the dominant Bolognese style.

Leonelle Spada was close in age to Caravaggio, as they were born in 1576 and 1571 respectively. Their artistic and personal relationship has not been thoroughly researched, yet it must have been close. According to one source, namely Carlo Cesare Malvasia’s The Lives of Bolognese Painters,published in 1678, Leonello was one of Mersi’s companions, so he must have been in Rome at the end of the sixteenth century.

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist is a remarkable and yet unpublished painting by Spada, datable probably to the most active phase in his career in around 1610, the same years of The Concert at the Borghese Gallery, The Wife of Pompeo or Judith in the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna. Similar to Bartolomeo Manfredi, Spada applies the lessons of Caravaggio from this period in his own manner by remaining faithful to his Bolognese heritage.

It is immediately evident on studying the artist’s oeuvre that Spada took pleasure in panting decorative details such as fringes, feathers, ribbons, jewels and ribbons with careful consideration to their texture and light effects. For example, the luminous white drapery of the executioner is enlivened by fringes and fraying in an incredible variety of white and gray tones. Similarly attentive is the depiction of jewelry decorating Salomé waistband, or even the translucent quality of her headdress. In another vein, the artist is capable in this panting to accentuate the expressive qualities of his characters, without the grotesque manner of late works, as shown by the old woman extending a golden plate to Salomé, whose physiognomy is well-defined by Spada’s virtuoso brushwork and applications of white lead.

Particularly impressive is the artist’s masterly technique of colour to define shapes in a synthetic way, sometimes schematically, as in the case of the executioner's face or by using shadows alone to reveal individual characteristics. His broad approach is balanced by focused attention on anatomical details, which are carefully observed in the muscular arms and robust hands of John the Baptist and his executioner whose veins and muscles swell as a result of his strenuous efforts. Careful attention to the way light falls on the draperies, as in the mantle that twists across the old woman’s head, serving as a testament to the artist’s virtuoso skill in colour and detail.