The painting, signed “Ticianus” on the stone in the lower portion, where the saint places his left foot, was in the Venetian church of Santa Maria Maggiore, in the chapel to the right of the presbytery dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, for which the Polani family maintained giuspatronato until the late sixteenth century. The work was extremely well-received by critics and scholars – as early as 1557, Ludovico Dolce affirmed that “never has a more beautiful or better thing been seen, not in terms of design nor in terms of colour” – until the early nineteenth century when, under Napoleonic siege, members of the Accademia in Venice vociferously protested and thus avoided its being transferred to Brera.
Unlike the traditional iconography of John the Baptist, where he is depicted as an ascete emaciated by his fasting, Titian portrays the Baptist as a preacher in full physical force, anatomically sound and robust, painted in an oratorial pose typical of Ancient Imperial statues (see, for example, Lucius Verus and Augustus in the Vatican Museums). The work is characterised by a compressed spatiality that exalts the plastic presence of the figure in the foreground, communicated through the use of “visual signs” typical of the Mannerist repertoire, which he had discovered thanks to the mediation of Francesco Salviati, who arrived in Venice in 1539 along with his student Giuseppe Porta. The painting is traditionally dated to the early 1540s, which would also give further credence to the Salviati-like connotations, but has recently been brought forward to 1530–1532, to before the Latinisation of Titian’s signature (Titanius) which was usually adopted after the painter was nominated Palatine Count in 1533.