ALLORI, Cristofano
(b. 1577, Firenze, d. 1621, Firenze)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes

Oil on canvas, 120,4 x 100,3 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor

Judith with the Head of Holofernes has been described as the most celebrated of all Florentine seicento pictures. It exists in numerous versions, the best known being that in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, painted for Grand Duke Cosimo II. The primacy of the version in the Royal Collection, however, depends principally on the vividness of the characterisation, the freshness of colouring, and the numerous changes effected during the course of painting even after several preparatory drawings had been made. Many of these changes are visible to the naked eye and accord with early descriptions of Allori's working methods. By contrast, the version in the Palazzo Pitti is slicker and more self-assured as a result of following an established design.

The painting's reputation is derived from the autobiographical aspect of the treatment of the subject as recounted by Filippo Baldinucci (1625-96) in his Notizie de' professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua. Baldinucci records that Allori was essentially a libertine who was given to occasional bouts of piety. Regarding the subject of the present picture he states that the figure of Judith is a portrait of the painters lover, Maria di Giovanni Mazzafirri (died 1617), known as 'La Mazzafirra' that the features of the servant are those of La Mazzafirra's mother, and that the head of the decapitated Holofernes is a self-portrait of the artist. In essence, the composition commemorates an unhappy liaison and symbolises the suffering that Allori experienced at the hands of La Mazzafirra.

The story of the Jewish heroine Judith, who saves her townspeople the Bethulians by cutting off the head of the Assyrian general Holofernes, is recorded in the Book of Judith found in The Apocrypha. The subject was frequently represented, sometimes as a straightforward narrative, sometimes with an allegorical (usually political) significance. The double meaning in the painting by Allori is confirmed by a poem by Giovanbattista Marino (La Galena, 1619), written in Paris where he saw one of the versions. Marino writes that Holofernes is killed twice, firstly by Cupid's darts and secondly by the sword. It is a theme that continues in literature certainly up to John Keats's La Belle Dame sans Merci. The female artists Lavinia Fontana and Artemisia Gentileschi depicted themselves as Judith, and there is an autobiographical element in the Judith by Jacopo Ligozzi of 1602 (Florence, Palazzo Pitti). Similar opportunities arose in the treatment of the subjects of David and Salome. Caravaggio, for instance, in the David and Goliath dating from 1605-06 (Rome, Galleria Borghese), used his own features for the head of Goliath. This last is a composition that Allori knew.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 17 minutes):
Alessandro Scarlatti: La Giuditta, oratorio, Part I (excerpts)