In his Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, a relatively early work in the master's long career, Francesco Trevisani captures a moment of great drama and anticipation, arresting the New Testament narrative with an executioner's sword upraised and poised to strike. The principal figure of John the Baptist kneels in the lower foreground along the central axis before a host of jailers and guards whose expressions range from casual indifference to great excitement. The main event is also observed by Salome and her attendants, whose elegant robes contrast with the ragged garb of the executioner and the nude torso of the saint. As Salome gestures for the execution to begin, one maid shields her eyes from the terrifying sight, while another cranes her neck to peer curiously over Salome's shoulder; meanwhile, a black servant boy holds the platter upon which the saint's head will be presented to Herod. Through the cell bars in the background, two other prisoners sit with heads lowered and shoulders hunched in resignation. The nocturnal scene is illuminated by both terrestrial and celestial light sources--from flickering torches in the foreground and hanging lanterns in the prisoners' cell to golden rays of divine light shining from on high (the latter a particularly Caravaggesque device).
In both subject and composition, this painting closely resembles Trevisani's Martyrdom of Saint Lucy (Palazzo Corsini, Rome), possibly a bozzetto for the Saint Lucy altarpiece in Messina. Several figures from The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist are almost direct quotations of the Corsini prototype, particularly the standing guard on the right dressed in a plumed helmet and balancing a tall lance. Trevisani also employs his Caravaggesque vision of the divine--a brilliant cloudburst appearing above the condemned with a host of angels swooping downward to offer the martyr's wreath and palm frond--in both martyrdoms. Based on stylistic similarities to The Martyrdom of the Four Crowned Saints (Cathedral, Siena), Frank R. di Federico dates The Martyrdom of Saint Lucy to c. 1688 (see F. R. di Federico, Francesco Trevisani: Eighteenth-Century Painter in Rome, Washington, D.C., 1977, p. 41). A similar date can thus be suggested for the present work. This situates The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist among Trevisani's early Roman works, which are characterized by strongly modeled chiaroscuro and a palette heightened with vivid blues, yellows and reds. Trevisani's early paintings remained heavily indebted to the Venetian Cinquecento, a striking contrast to his mature works typified by simpler, more classical, and less tumultuously dramatic compositions.
Francesco Trevisani was born in Capodistria but began his training in Venice with Antonio Zanchi and the genre painter Joseph Heintz the Younger. In Venice he also fell under the spell of Veronese, appropriating the Cinquecento master's use of architecture as a theatrical backdrop. In 1678 Trevisani moved permanently to Rome, where his mature style would oscillate between the dramatic power of Veronese, the Roman classicism of Andrea Sacchi and Carlo Maratti and the lively chiaroscuro of Francesco Solimena. Trevisani's earliest Roman patrons included Cardinals Flavio Chigi and Pietro Ottoboni, with whom he lived as 'painter-in-residence' in the Palazzo della Cancelleria. Through Ottoboni the artist developed close ties with the Accademia degli Arcadi, a society of Roman intellectuals founded in 1690 as a forum for aesthetic innovations. Among its members were Ottoboni, Cardinal Giovanni Francesco Albani (later Pope Clement XI), the painter Maratti and the architect Filippo Juvarra. While Trevisani was well known at the Accademia at the turn of the century, he did not obtain full membership until 1712. The 1730s and 1740s saw Trevisani at the height of his success, having been granted such coveted commissions as the decoration of the Baptismal Chapel of Saint Peter's, Rome, and the throne room of La Granja de San Ildefonso, the Bourbon palace and garden complex near Segovia in central Spain. At the time of his death in 1746 at age 91, Trevisani had lived and worked in Rome for over 50 years, ending his life as one of the most celebrated masters of eighteenth-century Roman painting.