Artist as Thief: Filarete

If I was taught anything about Filarete in school, I don’t remember it. I’ve been reading up on this artist in preparation for an upcoming lecture on self-portraiture. I like that Filarete included portraits of himself and his assistants on one of his best-known works, the bronze doors for St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome (see door on the right of the facade here). This portrait is located on the lowest part of the right valve of the doors, on the back. Filarete identifies himself and his assistants with Latin inscriptions, includes the date of completion (July 30., 1445) and then the statement: “To other artists satisfaction from payment or from pride, but for me – joyfulness.”1

Aww, isn’t that cute? Really, Filarete seems like an interesting character. He changed his real name, Antonio di Pietro Averlino, to “Filarete”, which can be translated from Greek as “lover of virtue.”

But I have to say, the more I read about Filarete, the more I question how much he loved virtue. The artist was expelled from Rome in 1448, after being accused of stealing some relics.2 And it appears that these weren’t just any relics that Filarete wanted to steal – he tried to steal the head of John the Baptist that used to be located in San Giovanni in Laterano.3 I assume this is the same head that is still in Rome, but is now located in San Silvestro in Capite (shown on the right).

Why anyone want to steal the head of John the Baptist is completely outside my realm of comprehension.

And, by the way, did you know that there are several sites which claim to have the relic of John the Baptist’s head? It’s interesting that John the Baptist was important to multiple religions and groups. Amiens Cathedral (Amiens, France) and the Umayyad Mosque (Damascus, Syria) both claim to have the head, and you can read about a few more places/groups here. There is even a palace/museum, the Munich Residenz, which currently displays the (decorated) heads of John the Baptist and his mother (click here to see a picture of the Baptist display). I don’t know if anyone is counting, but that makes a lot of heads. And I’m pretty sure that John the Baptist only had one head. Maybe the Roman officials should have given Filarete a break; if it is supposed that one of the heads is legitimate, then there is a only a one-in-six chance that Filarete actually stole something valuable.4

1 Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods, eds., The Changing Status of the Artist, (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 63.

2 Evelyn S. Welch, “Art and Authority in Milan,” no. 8846 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 152 (page can be accessed online here).

3 John Pope-Hennessey, Italian Renaissance Sculpture (London: Phaidon, 1958), 332.

4 It’s interesting to add that Mormons would find that none of the heads could be legitimate. They would say that the Baptist’s head is back on the resurrected man’s shoulders (see here).

  • heidenkind says:

    Well, if John the Baptist's head had really wanted to be removed, Filarete would have gotten away with it, right? 😉 What I want to know is where was he trying to move it to.

  • M says:

    Ha ha! Good point, heidenkind! 😉

    I don't know much about Filarete's motives for stealing. Richard C. Trexlar mentions in a footnote that Filarete was "seemingly acting as an agent of the commune" (see Public Life in Renaissance Florence, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991, 2; found online here)). If that's the case, then Filarete's motives could have been political, or maybe he just wanted money…

  • e says:

    Well, that's weird. Both the idea of stealing the head and that it is on display (numerous times). It's such an odd concept to think of a head as a piece of art. The sad thing is that it's probably more likely that all these heads laying around are probably the heads of meager servants or something. I wonder if there'd be anyway to do any testing on any of the heads? Perhaps it wouldn't be allowed.

  • joolee says:

    Hm, I've never heard of Filarete! Or of multiple John the Baptist heads. Bizarre…

  • M says:

    e, I think that it is different to see a head artistically decorated with pearls, flowers, etc. (like it is as the Munich Residenz). Most of the time, though, these heads serve as relics that are venerated by the devout. Often, relics are believed to hold miraculous powers. I'm not aware of any miracles that are specifically associated with John that Baptist's head(s), but I wouldn't be surprised if they exist.

  • M says:

    Oh, and I agree, it would be interesting to do testing on the heads! Sometimes religious officials allow for testing on relics, like when the remains of St. Paul were tested earlier this year (I mentioned it briefly in this post). I would imagine, though, that people might be a little hesitant to do testing on the John the Baptist heads, because there are so many examples that claim to be authentic. No one wants to have their head proven to be a fake, right?

  • Mark says:

    I guess, if you're gonna lose your head, it pays to lose several of them, right?

  • M says:

    Ha ha! Good point, Mark. Thanks for your comment.

  • M says:

    I found out more information (or at least a theory) on why Filarete stole John the Baptist's head. Apparently, in 1411 the Florentine Commune was negotiating the purchase of John the Baptist's head from the Antipope John XXIII. Ross King writes, "The deal fell through, however, so some thirty years later the architect Filarete, acting as an agent for the Commune, tried to steal the skull and smuggle it to Florence."

    I realize that King is not an art historian, but his reasoning makes sense to me (and it aligns with what Trexlar wrote).

    Man. What a strange story.

    See Ross King, Brunelleschi's Dome (New York: Walker and Company, 2000), 139.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.