The painting depicts an apostle preaching amidst ancient ruins, of which we can recognize the Pyramid of Cestius and the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli on the right. According to Ferdinando Arisi, this painting can be dated around the final years of Panini’s career when he had reached the peak of his fame and had been elected to the post of Principe of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome in 1754.
In the 1750s, in addition to Panini’s son, Francesco, his pupils included artists of the calibre of Hubert Robert and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, who had studied perspective with Giovanni Paolo at the Accademia di Francia in Rome. With regards Robert, Professor Arisi says: “In the paintings from this period, some contribution by his favorite student is very likely, also because the master was very busy with important commissions (…) even though it is practically impossible to identify these parts” (Cf. F. Arisi, Gian Paolo Panini e i fasti della Roma del ‘700, Roma 1986, pp. 170-73). In our painting, we may be able to distinguish the hands of Panini’s pupils in some of the details such as the marble relief and the statue on the right.
During this period Panini was occupied with the “Views of Ancient and Modern Rome” - a commission for the Comte de Stainville, future Duc de Choiseul, then the French ambassador to Rome. This series was the greatest project of the artist’s career, and indeed the count was one of Panini’s best clients between 1754 and 1757 and in fact, the young Hubert Robert came to Rome in 1754 as part of his retinue. In addition, Panini had to satisfy the huge demand for paintings from tourists passing through the Eternal City on the Grand Tour. These souvenir hunters wanted to take home paintings in which the most famous archeological monuments were easily recognizable. Panini’s imaginary landscapes with striking combinations of ancient ruins were particularly suited to their wants.
The exchange with French artists during this, the last phase of his career, gradually lightened and refined Panini’s palette. According to Arisi, some of Panini’s paintings from 1755-1760 “are of such typically French taste and sensitivity that they could even be attributed to Watteau” (Cf. F. Arisi, op. cit., p. 173). In his entry on the present painting, the scholar confines the dating starting from “very clear air in the composition” (Cf. F. Arisi, op. cit., p. 476), an element that is similar to the canvas in the Vitetti collection in Rome (Cf. F. Arisi, op. cit., n. 491, p. 474; fig. 1) depicting Ruins with the Borghese Vase and Small Figures dated 1758. From the stylistic standpoint, this picture is distinguished by the quick, wide and fluid brushstrokes that are typical of the last phase of Panini’s career. The two paintings share yet another feature: the female figure in the center of the scene in a yellow dress with fullwhite sleeves is almost identical to the one on the right in the Vitetti painting.