As Richard Fisher, who once owned this impression, stated in his Introduction to a Catalogue of the Early Italian Prints in the British Museum (London, 1886), 'Saint John the Baptis is the most important of Giulio Campagnola's engravings' (ibid. p. 276).
What makes this print so intriguing and striking is the combination of two seemingly disparate styles - the 'marriage' of two towering artistic personalities in Italy around 1500: Andrea Mantegna and Giorgione da Castelfranco. The majestic figure of John the Baptist is undoubtedly based on a composition by Mantegna, now lost, but known to us from a slightly earlier engraving by Girolamo Mocetto (B. 5).
The landscape on the other hand was possibly directly transferred from a drawing in the Louvre, Paris, which is attributed to Giorgione, and pricked for tranfer. While the outlines of the figure and the folds of the saint's cloak are described with clear, hard lines, which lend it a monumental, sculptural quality, the landscape and the shading is rendered in a system of tiny dots of varying strength and density, created by little flecks with the burin or needle into the copper plate.
It seems that Campagnola invented this 'stipple technique' in direct cooperation with Giorgione, in order to translate the painter's own invention, the sfumato-technique, and his lyrical painting style into the medium of engraving. In fact, the collaboration between the two artists was such that, while both artists's oeuvre is extremely small, some of Giorgione's lost compositions have only survived in a handful of prints by Campagnola.
Beautiful as it may be, the 'stipple technique' proved unpractical: very few good impressions could be taken before the plates wore out and couldn't be reworked. Campagnola's prints are hence extremely rare, and 'stipple engraving' was forgotten until the rise of the reproductive print in the 18th century.
It seems that only very few - if any - impressions were taken during Campagnola's lifetime. Campagnola must have taken some proof impressions, but none appear to have survived: all known examples are posthumous, although Nicolo Nelli's address has often been trimmed off in an attempt to make the prints pass for early impressions. Only about thirty examples are known, most in public collections, and the last Saint John the Baptist to come to the market was offered in these rooms in 1979.
The British Musem holds two examples of this print, one fine and early, but trimmed and damaged, and a later, weak one, neither of which retain Nelli's address. The present impression, which was sold by Christie's before in 1854, compares favourably to the finer of the two.