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

Judith with the Head of Holofernes

Oil on canvas, 139 x 116 cm
Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence

Cristofano Allori trained in the school of his father and his grandfather, the leading Florentine Mannerist Agnolo Allori, known as Bronzino. Even if Cristofano may be regarded as an artist who broke with late Mannerist tendencies and went on to become an express proponent of early Baroque reform ideas, he nevertheless continues to borrow certain traits of "Mannerist physiognomy" in order to heighten the effect of a picture. In his most famous painting, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, the extreme contrast between the dark and bearded head of Holofernes and the angelic face of his murderess owes much to the Mannerist school in which he was trained.

Allori is said to have created a portrait of his mistress Mazzafirra in the figure of Judith and her mother in the figure of the elderly servant woman. The head of Holofernes may be a self-portrait. If this is true, the picture would certainly be a classic example of the so-called "portrait historié" in which real figures are presented as figures from history. Whether or not this is true, the significance of this painting lies predominantly in the enormous erotic tension that emanates not only from the faces of Judith and Holofernes, but also from the sensuality with which the Old Testament heroine is portrayed. This major theme of triumph over tyranny had never before been presented from this point of view.

This is the only painting from the long neglected Florentine school of the seventeenth century whose reputation has always remained at the highest level, and it therefore gained a sort of symbolic value. Moreover, its fame as a masterpiece of the Seicento spread beyond regional borders, thanks in part to its temporary confiscation and subsequent display in the Musée Napoléon in Paris between 1799 and 1815. The work is by far the best of the many existing versions, copies, and derivations. Although it is not the prime version of this much-painted composition, it is possibly the only fully autograph surviving example.

Allori, a Florentine, painted this canvas during Artemisia Gentileschi's stay in Florence, and surely knew her version.

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